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Expansion of Oil Palm Expansion Poses Threat to the Environment and Traditions

A middle-aged woman, resident of Menangraya Village, Pedamaran District, Ogan Komering Ilir Regency (OKI), South Sumatra, transports purun (mat material). The activity of taking purun is carried out by women and men, to support the family economy. Credit: Ibrahim Arsyad

December 13, 2019

This article was first published on Suara.com.

By Ibrahim Arsyad

The expansion of oil palm plantations into the peat marshes of a South Sumatran district, as well as the massive forest and ground fires of the dry seasons there, are not only posing a threat to the environment but also to the continuing existence of old traditions and sources of livelihood.

In the marshy area of Ogan Komering Ilir’s Pedamaran and  Pampangan sub-districts, villagers rely heavily on the peat bogs. The womenfolks of the Pandesak tribe, for example, have for generations been weaving mats made from the dried leaves of Purun (eleocharis dulcis), a plant that thrives in wet environment of peat marshes.

“You can be certain that women from Pedamaran can weave (purun leaves). If they can’t, then usually they are outsiders or those who grew up outside of Pedamaran. Berembak (mat weaving) is a tradition that has been handed down from generation to generation,” said 50-year-old Rusmi while busy finishing a mat she was weaving on the front porch of her home in Menang Raya village Thursday (09/05/2019) 

Suparedi, the headman of Menang Raya said that weaving mats remains a strong tradition among women in this region and an important contributor to the local economy even though the government had yet to be serious in assuring the continuity of supply of its main raw material.

“Purun has become one of the pillars of people’s economy in Menang Raya,  worked on by women. This craft has been there for a long time, passed from generation to generation, up to present day,” Suparedi said.

The arrival of oil palm plantations in the area has had a strong effect on the growth of purun. The conditions of the marshes are now different, in a worst condition than before because of the water shortages that often arise due to the companies’ canalization system. Only about 200 hectares of the some 1,000 hectares of purun area in the Lebak Purun (Arang Tetambun) area now remain accessible to local residents.

“Since the arrival of oil palm plantations, residents have no longer been able to harvest purun near the location of plantations because of the prohibition from the companies,”  he said.

Data from the South Sumatra chapter of the Network of Peat Societies (JMG Sumsel) showed that the Pedamaran sub-district is now beginning to be encircled by oil palm plantations, including those owned by PT Rambang Agro Jaya, PT Gading Cempaka, and PT Sampoerna Agro. The regional government has opened doors for investment, resulting in the shrinking of peat land areas, the natural habitat for purun, to about 1,200 hectares from the initial 3,000 hectares. 

“But most of 1,000 hectares have now become part of the concession of a company and the only peat land left that can exploited by the local population cover some 200 hectares,” said JMG Sumsel Chairman Sudarto Marelo.


Dependent on peat marshes

For women farmers in Pedamaran sub-district, weaving mats from purun leaves is a skill that cannot be separated from their life. A total of 120,000 hectares of the 150,000 hectares of peat marshes in Ogan Komering Ilir, where purun grows in nature,  is in their area.

As with agrarian communities in general, the main source of livelihood for the people of Pedamaran is rice farming, that depends on rain water and thus, can only be harvested once a year. Farmers supplement their earnings with mat weaving.

“Every day we (housewives) weave mats. This (skill) we obtained from our elders,”  Depi, 34, said while her fingers were busy intertwining the dry purun leaves. “The skill of weaving is well spread here, every woman can do it,” the mother of four said.

The weaving is usually done after the women are finished with their routine domestic duties. On average, women there can finish up to four mats per day. But their earnings from this mat weaving are meagre. Despite of the complexity of the work, a mat of some two meters by one meter sells only for Rp 10,000 at the collection point. From that amount, they only make Rp 3,000 per mat as the other Rp 7,000 is used to cover the cost of the raw material.

An educator from the District Office for Small Scale Enterprises and Industry, Didi Iswardi said that the local administration did not even have any data on the production of these purun mats or other side products. “Up to now, we do not have any record on purun production and the reach of its sales,” Didi said on Friday (10/05/2019).

But he said that the district administration will continue to try to optimize the potentials of purun weaving as an important sector in the local economy. The administration is providing guidance, so that the weavers can produce more than just mats but also other objects such as purses, hats, sandals and other goods.

In Pampangan, women farmers and housewives, especially in the villages of Kuro and Bangsal, also supplement their family income by processing the milk of the local marsh buffallos (Bubalus bubalis.)

The milk is processed into sugar, snacks, and used in the production sticky rice cakes, sweet jams as well as to produce what is locally known as Puan Oil. “These (milk) processed good comes from our ancestors. In the past, these food were only prepared for customary events,” said 54-year-old Sukenah from Kuro on Saturday(11/05/2019).

One kilogram of Puan Sugar, the sugar candy from the milk, can fetch around Rp 80,000 while the snack version, known as Sagon Puan, they can sell for up to Rp 150,000 per kilograms. Ten liter of buffalo milk can produce about four kilograms of Puan Sugar or Sagon.

The Head  of the seedling and production section of the district Office for Plantation and Animal Husbandry, Zulkarnain pointed out however, that the buffalo population in the marshes of Pampangan was on the decline. “From observations, the population of the marsh buffalo in the region (the Ogan Komering Ilir district) continues to decline. In a year, this decline can reach in the hundreds (of animals),” he said.

The marsh buffalo population in Pampangan according to him was at around 3,400 animals. Another 1,500 were in Pangkalan Lampan in the sub-district of Jawi and also in the sub-district of Pedamaran, he added.


Using local wisdom to restore peat marshes 

Long before the arrival of oil palm plantations in the Pedamaran region, people used the land in a wise manner and the region did not have fires like they have experienced almost annually in the past frew years. Shallow peat layers bordering with rivers were used for planting rice and the purun plants also grow there. Deep peat areas were for fishing or fish farming.

But since the doors to investment were widely opened to oil palm plantations or industrial timber estate, this peat land has been plagued by annual fires, including in 2015 when the fires were extensive. The activities of the plantation industry also continued to encroach into areas that were formerly production land for local communities, as well as where purun plants grew. The activities also damaged the quality of the peat land.

 “This is because of the canalization built (by the industry) and also the characteristics of oil palm which demands much water so that in dry seasons, the peat land dries quickly and thus are prone to catching fire,” Sudarto from JMG Sumsel said.

He cited data from the directorate general for plantation of the Forestry ministry, companies operating in the region include PT Tania Selatan (PIR Trans) with a consession of 4,205.68 hectares; PT Sampoerna Agro tbk with  3,243.46 hectares; PT Telaga Hikmah I with 1,000 hectares; PT Telaga Himah II with 5,500 hectares, PT Gading Cempaka Graha with 10,000 hectares; and PT Cahandra Agro Teluk Gelam dan Pedamaran  with 7,500 hectares.

To safeguard the ecosystem of the peat marshes where the purun can grow, JMG Sumsel is urging the district government to develop a policy to conserve the peat marsh landscape in the district, by no longer issuing concession to plantation companies.

“The government must also declare peat areas with purun plants as areas for traditional use by the Pedamaran people, so that the area does not get disturbed by anyone,” said Sudarto who is a native of the area.

Suparedi, the headman in Menang Raya, said that the impact of land conversion in the sub-district was accutely felt by his people who are mostly purun mat weavers. He said that the areas where his people usually harvest the purun leaves, are now mostly under the control of companies and they can no longer have access to them. 

He said that as part of their efforts to safeguard the peat ecosystem were the purun grows, villlagers from Menang Raya and a number of other villages in the sub-district held a protest rally in 2018 to demand that the head of the district and their respresentatives at the district legislative council, issue a regulation on the Protection of the Purun Peat Ecosystem, so that the land there does not get converted for other purposes.

“They (women farmers’ group from Pedamaran) are always hoping that the purun growing area do not get converted into oil palm plantations,” he said.

Meanwhile the head of Bangsal Village, M Hasan SH, said that the marshes that are usually being used for herding the marsh buffallos were also increasingly getting converted into oil palm plantations. He took the example of Mangris village in Pampangan sub-district which used to be all marshes for herding the buffalo, but now had become an oil palm plantation of PT PT Waringin Agro Jaya (WAJ).

“Of course, this has become a threat for the buffalos which people rely on to support their economy. This is because the land (for herding) continue to dwindle,” Hasan said.

A researcher from the University of Sriwijaya who studied the buffalo population in the marshes of Pampangan, Arfan Abrar said in his report on the results of his research that the marsh buffalo could be found in the districts of Ogan Komering Ilir and Banyuasin. The buffallos were estimated to number 15,000 in 2010 but by 2019, the population had come down to just some 10,000. He said that the factor behind the shrinking buffalo population was the demand of the industry for land and people have not been giving the matter enough attention.

“If only the people make use of these marsh buffalos, they would no longer have to think of burning the peat marshes. This type of  buffalo really depends on the marsh and this can support the people’s economy,” he said. “This is also a good moment to set up a buffalo center, to improve its genetics. We no longer have to be talking small and medium entreprises but, this should be at the industry level,” he added.

DD Sinemba, an official of the Peat Restoration Agency (BRG) for South Sumatra, said that one of the ways to deal with the problems in the restoration of peat land, is through the Peat Caring Village (Desa Peduli Gambut /DPG) program. This program involves the district administration and partners, that includes environmental NGOs and CSOs, in encouraging local communities to manage their peat land sustainably so that the peat ecosystem is not damaged. Peat, from its outer to deepest layers are good at absorbing carbon gas and could help maintain climate stability, especially also to prevent global warming.

“If we look at it, local wisdom can be relied upon more in safeguarding the peat ecosystem. Take  the purun craft and the marsh buffallo culture in the Ogan Komering Ilir district. With their limited knowledge, they still care that much about their natural surrounding,” he said.

The forest and ground fire disaster in peat areas in 2015 razzed at least 650,000 hectares of South Sumatra’s some 1.2 million hectares peat landscape. Some 534,162 hectares are in concession areas while those in non-concession areas reached more than 120,000 hectares, both in conservation areas or in land belonging to local people.

“From that incident, there are a number of steps that we must take. Besides restoring and rehabilitating the peat land, no less important is to find how the local communities can get an added value, raise their economy in and around peat land,” said Regina Ariyanti from the South Sumatra Province Regional Planning and Development Agency (Bappeda Sumsel) on Wednesday (22/05/2019).

Regina who heads the agency’s infrastructure and regional development bureau, said that the provincial administration had taken concrete steps in protecting and conserving the peat ecosystem. It had issued Regional Regulation Number One of 2018 on the Management and Conservation of the Peat Ecosystem and a gubernatorial regulation to implement it, as well as a Regional Regulation on the burning of land.

“Permits for concessions in peat area are still being mapped in details. To see whether a plantation is withing a conservation area or not. This need to be detailes so that the spirit of restoration does not clash with the spirit of investment,” she said.


Implementing a moratorium on industrial permits

The Director of the South Sumatra chapter of the Indonesian Forum for the Environment (Wahana Lingkungan Hidup/WALHI) M. Chairul Sobri said that the forest and ground fires in 2015 should provide a lesson for the government, especially in the regions. They should implement a moratorium policy on permits, especially for land-greedy industries, conduct an audit on them and review plantation permits, especially those located in peat land.

“The most severe damage on peat land is inflicted by the fires in concession areas (industrial timber estates and oil palm plantation) taking place in more than 500,000 hectares,” he said.

He said that plantation activities in South Sumatra not only led to environmental damage but also led to mounting agrarian conflicts. In 2018, there were 20 such conflicts registered in South Sumatra, pitting people against companies.

“So far, the steps taken by the government in safeguarding the peat landscape did not touch the root of the problem. And we are not even talking about the weak law enforcement against the companies that damage the environment,” he said.

Based on the spatial analysis conducted by the South Sumatra chapter of WALHI in 2016, plantation business permits (IUP) covered 62.03 percent of the total peat surface in South Sumatra that reached 1,202,495 hectares.

For Sumarjono, Chairman of the Honorary Council of the South Sumatra chapter of the Indonesian Association of Palm Oil Producers (Gapki), palm oil plantations have made a great contribution in raising the welfare of people in that province.

The palm oil industry in South Sumatra contributed 10 percent of the national Crude Palm Oil (CPO) output of 47 million tons, he said, adding that the industry also provided a lot of employment. He cited 2015 data that showed about 335,000 people worked in the palm oil industry in South Sumatra. “The presence of palm oil plantations contributes to economic growth in South Sumatra,” he said.

He said that oil palm plantation companies accorded much attentions to peat land and companies were not ignoring their responsibility over whatever was taking place within their concessions. “But when talking about peat, this is such a wide subject. Many peat land are neglected or have no owners and these should come under the responsibility of all parties. In concession areas, it is the entrepreneurs who of course is responsible over his concession,” he said.

South Sumatra Governor Herman Deru said that oil palm plantations have yet to provide a significant impact on the growth of the economy of farmers in his territory. During his tenure, he will push the provincial administration to find breakthrough and great leaps in policies.

“It has not yet become a priority policy in terms of economy. We are not yet seeing the existence of radical policies that may lead to a great leap. The government needs to open itself, to work with entrepreneurs in formulating what type of economy is suitable so that the economy can grow and mobilising the people’s economy,” Herman said.

The breakthrough that is needed, according to the government, is one that can absorb the production of oil palm smallholders, for processing into alternative for diesel oil and premium gasoline, a move deemed will be helpful to the local community. “We have more than enough palm oil supply. One of the formula to offset the high palm oil production level in our region, needs the role of entrepreneurs,” he said.

Hasbi, a 50-year-old man  from Menang Raya village who gathers purun leaves for a living, aired his hope that the government would accord serious attention  to areas where purun grows and not issue concession permits in those areas where purun, a soure of livelihood for people in the area,  grows.

The arrival of the plantation industry gave rise to problems, including ariding from the fact that  local people were no longer able to harvest purun near and in plantation areas.

The canalization system of plantation companies were also turning the peat land increasingly dry and thus prone to catch fire, especially in the dry seasons, something that had never happened prior to the land coversion into the plantations.

“With the remaining land, we hope that there is no longer any land coversion taking place as this could threaten the traditions from our ancestors, and an economic resource for local people,” Hasbi said.


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