For over two decades, Belanti Village, Ogan Komering Ilir Regency, South Sumatra was one of the biggest rice suppliers in South Sumatera, before the village, which boasted a rich peat ecosystem, was submerged and could no longer be cultivated following the canalization system built by an oil palm plantation.
By Ibrahim Arsyad
Long before roosters begin to wake up people with their predawn crows, 63-year-old Syarifudin and his wife of 40 years were already busy packaging salted fish into styrofoam boxes for sale at the traditional weekly market in their village, Lebak Belanti, in South Sumatra. On that Sunday (19/09/2020) their offspring and grandchildren were still fast asleep under the mosquito net that protected them from insects as well as from the morning chills.
Syarif, as the man is better known, always eagerly awaits Sunday mornings where he and his wife will go to the village’s weekly market to sell the fish they caught during the previous week. Whatever they make would immediately be spent on the same day to buy daily needs such as salt, flavor enhancers, sugar, coffee, cooking oil, and 3kg-gas canister and other goods.
Lebak Belanti, in the South Sumatran district of Ogan Komering Ilir (OKI) is administratively composed of two neighborhood units, both located in a marshy area. About 60 families live in this village, where canoes are the only mean of transportation in their daily life.
“In the past, this place where we live was a dry land. To take our harvest from home after they had been dried, to the rice mill, we used a pickup truck. But for more than 10 years, this region has been submerged, especially in the rainy seasons,” recalled Syarif while he was preparing his three-man canoe to tranport his salted fish to the weekly market.
Syarif said he never imagined that Lebak Belanti, the village he had chosen to live in after getting married in 1983, has turned into a swamp lake.
They used to live harmoniously as rain-fed farmers with abundant yields. They could harvest up to 10 tons of un-dried husks in a single harvest. But that was before PT Waringin Agro jaya, an oil palm plantation company, began to operate north of the village in 2007.
The canals built by PT WAJ, blocked the flow of a natural river in Ulak Pati in the neighboring sub-district of Pampangan and this led to the water submerging the area that included Lebak Belanti, submerging the existing rice fields there.
“I can say this because after I got married in the early 1980s, I already lived here and farmed fice as well as catch fish for a living and to feed my family. But it was not yet like it is now where everything is submerged,” he said rather emotionally. “ There are two neighborhoods here, RT7 and RT8, and there used to be 100 families here. But now there is only 60 left while the others moved away because their land have turned int swamps and home no longer fit to live in,” he added.
R. Dini, a 60-year old village figure in Lebak Belanti echoed Syarif. He said that Lebak Belanti had a surface of some 3,000 hectares but from that only 20 percent could be used to grow rice by constructing embankments to keep the rice fields dry.
“It is true that since the arrival of the company, everything changed. Rice field became a lake. This is impact from the damming (of the river) in Ulak Pati, Pampangan, so that the water could not flow out,” he said.
Dini explained that before the arrival of the oil palm plantation, Lebak Belanti was one of the largest rice producing region in the province from the 1980s up until the early 2000s. “In the past, I used to trade rice to Palembang and when farmers in Belanti were harvesting, the price of rice would immediately drop because our harvest would flood the market,” he reminisced.
All of that, however, now remained a distant memory, he said. Farmers who remained in Belanti would on average own rice field of less than one hectare.
There is no paddy to plant
Syarif and his family would normally look forward to September, when they would harvest. But this year, the two attempts at sowing seeds at his inundated rice fields have failed.
“This year we sowed seeds twice, but they failed to grow,” he said.
He said that even if the seed had grown, it would also be too late. He explained that that under the rice growing system that is dependent on rising and receding waters, sowing seeds or planting rice after September was not recommended as the seed would only become food for pests.
“If the water recede, one can plant if we want, but once they grow and start to carry fruits, they would all be eaten out by pests such as rats,” Syarif said.
Under such situation, Syarif could only rely on his rice reserve from last year when he was able to harvest 10 tons of rice. His attempts to plant rice was encouraged by his harvest last year, but nature was not in his favor.
“This is not a natural disaster. But nature was made into a disaster, was destroyed,” he said.
The uncertainty of his economic condition has forced his two grandchildren, Kamanjaka (14) and Karnila (17) to drop out after completing primary school. Syarif said that on average, villagers of Lebak Belanti and its surrounding villages were school drop outs, mostly having only completed primary school.
“It is a pity, but what can one do, there is no fund,” he said bitterly.
Rabani (53) who hails from the neighboring village of Suka Menang, but often grow rice in Lebak Belanti, shared a very similar experience. He made three attempts to plant his field that has, during the time of this reporting, remained under water.
He then decided to plant rice in a land plot he rented in Jejawi sub-district, about an hour away by motorcycle from his home. He opted to plant a black rice variety in that plot of land that is located in the home village of former State Secretary Hatta Rajasa.
“Thank God, our black rice can already be harvested. This year, I only planted rice on half a hectare of land. That is enough for our daily needs.”
Khairul Sobri, the director of the South Sumatra chapter of the Indonesian Forum for Environment (WALHI) said that based on data their data, there were at least 2,708 hectares of rice fields that have been under water since 10 years ago in Lebak Belanti following the operation of the oil palm plantation owned by PT WAJ.
The plantation company had begun operation in 2007 with a license issued by the Ogan Komering Ilir District Chief in 2008. It operates on a some 26,000 hectares of land that has been designated as Area for Other Purposes (APL) in the Sirah Pulau Padang, Pampangan and Pangkalan Lampam sub-districts of Ogan Komering Ilir.
“In 2008, the entire land in Lebak Belanti, around 2,708 hectares was inundated. There is now way out for the water to flow. Up until now, this area has been under water for 10 years already and is covered by 1.5 meter high Setedok , or wild mimosa,” said Khairul who is often known as Eep.
WALHI Sumsel said that the canals built by PT WAJ have caused the destruction of the landscape, including community agricultural land that that has impacted villagers not just in Belanti, but also seven other surrounding villages.
Water management in the plantation
The head of the OKI district office for Food Crops and Food Resilience, Sahrul Sodri did not deny that the operation of the oil palm plantation company was impacting farmers in the area. The most serious impact, he said, could be seen in Kayuagung, Sirah Pulau Padang, Jejawi, and Pampangan.
“That is because when we (farmers) need water they close the water gates and when there is a flood, they would open them. To anticipate this, so that it could work for everyone, is that the management of these water gates should be a collaboration. We also continue to push the company to pay attention to the water channels for the farmers,” he said.
Although he knew about the conditions that had befallen the agricultural land due to the palm oil plantation activity, Sodri argued that he had yet to receive any report on the matter from the local villagers concerned.
“There is certainly an impact from these canals. As in SP Padang, where the water is not drying up because of these canals. What need to seek a solution to fix the problem, and we should all sit together,” he said.
Amidst the swamped agricultural lands, Sodri said that the agricultural targets of the OKI district remain achievable. The district is targeting to produce 874,869 tons of dry un-husked rice, or 557,729 tons of rice this year. “Every year it continues to increase by about five percent. We have not yet completed this year’s figure because the harvest season is still ongoing. In previous years, it had continued to rise,” he said.
He said that to maintain agricultural production in OKI, the administration has channeled assistance in the form of production facilities, such as seeds, and fertilizers, agricultural equipment such as for plowing and rice harvesting, and assistance to drill wells.
To meet food production targets, especially for rice, Sodri said that farmers should also independently search locations where they can plant rice. “There is also a program to create new rice field. This is normally proposed by farmer groups and we can realize it,” he said.
The Head of the OKI District environmental office, Alamsyah, said that in their activities, oil palm plantations companies in general build two types of canals. One is to irrigate the plantation and another is to prevent forest and ground fires, or fire buffer, if the plantation is situated on peat land.
“For forest and ground fires, there is generally a buffer zone. In the dry season the water gates are closed so that the water level in the peat stays stable at between 30 or 40 cm and when it is the rainy season, they would be opened. On average they are implementing this because that is in their interest and they are also scared that their land catches fire,” he said.
Alamsyah said that the operation of a plantation would certainly have an environmental impact because the initial land function of the region changed. “As simple as for example, the river near this office, when compared between then and not. It is now more often dry. Everything must have an impact, but wheter it is significant or not, that would need to be studied. Companies have the Amdal (Environmental Impact Analysis) and that means their activities are not deemed to have significant impact,” he said.
Alamsyah said that there were many things that caused the water cycle to change, and it was not only because of the activity of oil palm plantation but could also be the impact of infrastructure development, such as the building of the Kayuagung road for example or of a toll road.
“What they did was build a bridge, but the access road they used was not dismantled. That includes the Kayuagung-Palembang toll road. We possibly can’t eliminate these impacts but we can minimize them so that the flood will not be too severe. But to restore it to its initial condition would be impossible,” he said.
Alamsyah said that all oil palm plantations have to build a canal system and a water management in the area around their plantations and these would be monitored by the plantation office or the local police.
“That is governed by a regulation of the minister of agriculture, there is a standard. They also have to build fire monitoring towers, reservoirs. The reservoirs are built according to the need and usually sprawling plantations have such a reservoir,” he continued.
Regarding sanctions taken against companies, he said that on average companies in OKI district, including PT WAJ, have received administrative sanctions. The sanctions, related to forest and ground fires, were issued by the local environmental office.
“We also conduct monitoring, some per semester, some per year. As I have said earlier, there is certainly an impact but how many percent, that remains to be studied. Not only the impact on rice fields but also the on the ecosystem,” he said.
Meanwhile, the ead of the law enforcement of region III of the Sumatra of the Ministry of environmental office, M. Haryanto, said that there are currently at least 14 plantation companies that are being legally processed, administratively, for a civil or criminal case, in relations to forest and ground fires and PT WAJ included.
But he pointed out that the sanction were directly handled by the local administration, in this case the OKI district environmental office. While his office, could only monitor whether the sanction was meted and implemented.
“For us, it is clear, our recommendation to the district is that the sanction should be heavier,” he said.
In accordance with the presidential instruction concerning Postponement and Evaluation of Oil Palm Plantation Licensing and Increasing Productivity of Oil Palm Plantations, the community demanded an evaluation of permits on PT. Waringin Agro Jaya (WAJ) be carried out.
The community also hopes that much heavier sanction be imposed on PT. WAJ because in addition to causing serious landscape changes, its activities have resulted in huge losses to the state.