One morning in early 2009, Pak Manan a resident of Sungai Tohor, a coastal village on one of Indonesia’s islands in Riau, Sumatra, took his regular walk to community land about four kilometres away from the village. When he arrived he was in for a shock. The fertile landscape was ravaged: trees uprooted, gaping holes gouged in the earth, trenches and access roads carved through the peat. This was no act of mindless vandalism – the excavators and the scale of the clearance made it plain that this was a vast industrial operation.
Pak Manan with his family at his home in Sungai Tohor.
For the Sungai Tohor community, whose economy relied on this peatland for sago cultivation, this was their land and livelihood that was destroyed. But as they learned, the land had been granted to a pulpwood supplier of a major Indonesian paper producer. They felt powerless. Not only did the community have no say over the allocation, they weren’t even told, despite its impact on their own lands. Not even the Head of Sungai Tohor village had been informed. In fact, as the villagers discovered, more than 10,000 hectares of their island was now in the hands of the company.
Villagers transport sago logs along a canal to a processing factory in Sungai Tohor, Riau. Sago is a starch extracted from the spongy centre, or pith, of various tropical palm stems. It is an important food and source of income for rural communities.
Fast-forward five years to 2014 and the drained peatland was now dry and volatile. In February the fires started. The thick haze choked the community. Residents tried to fight the peatland fires so they wouldn’t spread, but some 5,000 hectares of land were burnt, including community sago plantations.
Sunrise above the trees that were burned during forest fires in 2014 at Sungai Tohor village, Riau.
Sadly, the experience of Pak Mahan and the Sungai Tohor community is not unique. Reckless forest clearance for palm oil and pulpwood plantations has made a tinderbox out of peatlands and is a major cause of Indonesia’s forest fires. Community lands are largely unmapped and all too often community land rights fail to be respected.
Pak Manan was not going to let his community be destroyed. He started an online petition calling on Indonesian President Jokowi to witness for himself the terrible impact of fires on the community. In November 2014, the president visited the area and personally helped to dam a peatland drainage canal near Sungai Tohor. He then called for the concession licence to be revoked and all such licences on peatland to be reviewed.
Indonesian President Joko Widodo speaks to the media during his visit to the Sungai Tohor community in November 2014. After his visit he made a vow to protect peatlands.
That success is down to Pak Manan. A testament to how a local act of heroism can deliver a big impact.
The good news for Sungai Tohor is that there haven't been significant fires since. Sadly however, despite the President’s visit, the community’s underlying problems of uncertain land tenure & lack of information persist.
Degraded peatland forest in Sungai Tohor village, Riau province, Indonesia. Canals are dug by companies to drain the peatlands, making them vulnerable to fire.
Nothing to Hide
Lack of transparency about who controls Indonesia’s forests makes it hard to hold to account those responsible for destruction and fires. Harder still for communities to protect their traditional lands.
But a new mapping tool from Greenpeace aims to help ordinary people change this and support President Jokowi’s bold plans to protect and restore damaged peatlands so Indonesia can be free of the terrible fires and smoke haze that regularly blight the region.
Greenpeace’s "Kepo Hutan" (Curious About Forests) interactive map allows the public to see the most detailed-ever company concession information and how it relates to peatlands, fire hotspots and ‘near-real-time’ deforestation alerts. The map will shed much-needed light on the murky business of forest management in Indonesia.
Pak Manan holding his laptop, which has the digital maps of Sungai Tohor forest that was burned in 2014.
The 2015 forest fires were Indonesia’s in over a decade. The crisis cost the country an estimated US$16 billion and toxic haze from the fires impacted millions of people including in neighbouring Malaysia and Singapore. Over 500,000 people in Indonesia are reported to have suffered from acute respiratory illnesses as a result of the haze.
Transparency is a prerequisite for accountable government. Communities have the right to know where rights over forests have been handed out, and to whom. More fundamentally, they have the right to be consulted, before giving or withholding their consent. This map platform will go some way towards redressing this shortfall in transparency. We hope it will also bring other benefits, through facilitating public monitoring to ensure compliance with land management rules.
Most importantly, it will help communities like Sungai Tohor that rely on the health of their forest for their livelihoods and culture.
Teguh Surya is the Forest Campaigner at Greenpeace Indonesia.
Want companies to stop the destruction of forests and peatland for palm oil? Take action here.