High hopes surrounded the Social Forestry program in the Batang Anai region, West Sumatera. Ecotourism activities that started in 2013 stopped operating soon after, while supporting facilities crumbled.
The clear water of the Sungai Buluh flowed through the silent forest, forming small rapids as it hits the black, glistening andesite. On one side of the river were rubber and durian trees while on the other, a thick natural jungle bordering its bank.
“If it is not raining like today, we can see the bottom of the river and the garing fishes, fishes that can only be harvested once every three years, endemic to the region and are highly valued,” said Ali Azwar Datuk Rajo Batuah, who heads the Sungai Buluh Nagari Forest Management Agency (LPHN), on July 6, 2021.
A Nagari is a semi-autonomous regional administrative unit almost similar to a village that is specific to the Minangkabau people in West Sumatra.
The forest in Sungai Buluh Nagari, in the Batang Anai region of Padang Pariaman district in West Sumatra is a tropical haven, providing food, especially fruits for local communities. It has durian, stinky beans, rambutan, and mangosteen trees. There are also areas planted with robusta coffee and rubber trees.
At the start of every durian season, around early July, many seasonal traders come to the forest carrying large baskets on their motorcycles to gather durians and later sell them. The heavy thuds of falling ripe durians are often heard in the forest.
The 1,336 hectare-forest of the Nagari Sungai Buluh, was recognized as a social forestry by the Minister of Forestry Affairs on December 2, 2013.
Nagari Sungai Buluh had once been touted as a model for the management of ecotourism in the social forestry scheme in West Sumatra. Its main tourism attraction is a hill with a scenic view that includes the Minangkabau International Airport, some five kilometers away.
Several trainings were held between 2013 and 2017 to help the LPHN manage their forest. Facilities to support the ecotourism program were developed including roads, electricity network, and a meeting hall on the rim of the forest.
There are other unique sites in the forest including large glistening boulders in the the river that runs through the forest, and can also be found among trees deeper into the forest. There is also the Sarasah Kuau waterfall and the Lubuak Kandik natural pool, both of which are only reachable on foot.
To support the ecotourism a one kilometer concrete footpath, that can be used by motorcycles too, had been built along the river. Another path was also cleared to allow visitors to track upriver of the Sarasah Kuau waterfall.
At the top of the hill, a viewing platform had been built on a tree to allow visitors a clear view towards the city of Padang.
Under its plan, the Sungai Buluh LPHN built farmer’s huts in the forests, including near the waterfall, to accommodate overnight visitors. When the viewing platform was opened to the public in 2017, many came to visit. Ecotourism guides were also prepped.
“Nugie Nugraha, the singer who is also an environmental lover, once also came to visit and spent the night at a farmer’s hut in the waterfall area with his friend. They said they wanted to enjoy nature,” said Ali Azwar.
LPHN had also planned to build a natural pool by the river to complement the existing ecotourism facilities. Permits had been obtained from the owner of the land and all is left is to find an investor to finance its construction. This plan never got off the ground.
Most of what the LPHN had planned failed to materialize. The loaction which had been visited twice by the minister of forestry affairs and was once a model social forestry for West Sumatra slowly withered.
Today, not many activities can be seen. Only a bee farm next to the meeting hall that also functions as the secretariat of the Sungai Buluh LPHN, remained operational. Some 30 beehives sprawled across the flower garden, surrounded by rubber and durian trees.
He and his friends who had formed a team to manage ecotourism activities, are not longer active.
The footpath into the forest was now heavily damaged and the nagari administration had done nothing to repair it. This dampens the spirit of members of the LPHN as the path into the forest where they often take visitors, is no longer accessible.
“The mushroom farm also did not last because the women who managed expects fast return, like working to stem paddy stalks in rice fields, they get the job done in the morning and collect their earning in the same day,” he said.
Ali Azwar blamed the failure of the social forestry activities on the expansion of the Sungai Buluh Nagari in 2018, creating a total of five nagaris with four new areas; East Sungai Buluh, West Singai Buluh, North Sungai Buluh, and South Sungai Buluh.
As a result Nagari Sungai Buluh saw its social forestry areas reduced to just the Jorong Kuliek and Salisikan areas. The new and smaller Sungai Buluh Nagari also changed guardianship, elected by the people. But the new guardian, in Ali’s observation, has shown very little support to the social forestry scheme..
“There has never been any budget or support for social forestry activities,” he explained.
He said the LPHN had requested funds for the repair of the footpaths in the ecotourism area but fell on def ears. This discouraged many of the young members of the management.
However, Ali Azwar said that despite all these challenges, the Sungai Buluh forest remained ecologically intact. After its recognition by the government under the social forestry scheme in 2013, there is no longer illegal logging activities inside the the social forestry area, or its nearby protected forests.
“In the old days, there were many people taking timber, cutting down large trees and as a result, floods often inundated people’s homes. Nowadays this does not happen anymore, and people have been forbidden to take timber from the forest, except from trees that they had planted themselves,” he said
Sungai Buluh Nagari isn’t the only one struggling with keeping their social forestry alive. The Simancuang Nagari is facing similar fate. The first social forestry scheme in West Sumatera to be recognized by the government in 2011, has also seen better days.
The Nagari Simancuang forest, covering 650 hectares is located in Bukit Panjang, in the Simancuang hamlet that is located in the Pauh Duo sub-district of West Sumatra’s South Solok District.
The Simancuang community’s move to seek official recognition of their rights to manage their forest was fueled by the their intent to preserve the forest in Bukit Panjang using local knowledge and wisdom.
But after an early rush of activities, their social forestry program quickly flatlined, Edison, the head of the Simancuang LPHN said in July 2021.
“We are still managing organic rice farming which we have been doing since last year, as demand is quite high. But the demand has to continue and this is something we are yet incapable of meeting because of financial constraints,” he said.
Edison said members of the LPHN stopped their activities not long after assistance from Warsi Indonesian Conservation Community (KKI Warsi) ended its assistance in April 2021.
“Without such assistance, this group will not be active. Changing the mindset of the people is our biggest homework here,”Edison, Head, Simancuang Nagari Forest Management Agency (LPHN)
Edison said that people in Simancuang still needed assistance. “If it is halted, it would become difficult. Just like preachers at the mosques, whose sermons people tend to listen to, people here would always need assiatance,” he added.
During its heyday, there were a several social forestry activities taking place in Simancuang. Participants of the Global Partner Meeting that was organised by KKI Warsi at the provincial capital, Padang, in March 2014, visited the forest to observe a community-based management of the environment. These participants came from 13 countries including the United States, Brazil, Norway and the Philippines.
Focus on patrols
The Nagari Sirukam social forestry is one of the rare forestry schemes that has continued to work well despite the lack of financial support from the local government.
Nagari Sirukam is in Payung Sakaki sub-district of Solok District. Its forest covers an area of 3,398 hectares and was declared as a social forestry by the Ministry of Forestry in 2014. The forest is managed by the Sirukam LPHN.
The forest, and the protected forest next to it had been threatened by illegal logging for dozens of years before its status as a social forest brought a halt to this illegal practice.
“Up until now, we continue to safeguard it through patrols, because it is our responsibility in LPHN to assure its conservation as it is important as a source of water for the people,” said Jasmir Jumadi, a member of the Nagari Sirukam Forest patrol sometime in July 2021.
The patrol team of five people reports any sighting or knowledge of illegal logging activities to the West Sumatra Forestry Office for follow up actions.
Jasmir, a member of the patrol team said he faced a lot of challenges and danger. “Our own safety is at stake, if we are attacked by perpetrators of illegal logging, but we continue to go ahead,” Jasmir added.
Jasmir added that the Nagari Sirukam have not shown much support. Not only was there no regulation issued by the administration regarding the work area of the patrol team, but there was also no funding for its activities.
“Patrolling the forest is effective when done by the people but if there is no funding, not everyone would be willing to guard the forest without pay. We hope the Nagari administration helps in financing the patrol team, so far we have only received a little help from KKI Warsi,” he said.
To Jasmir and his team who are still active, the patrolling continue out of awareness of how important the forest is for them.
“For us, the forest is where we shelter from the rain, or from the heat, whether or not there is funding, we will continue to guard it as long as we are able to do it. Our sacred saying is ‘do not leave a legacy of tears for your children but leave them with a water source’,” he said.
Half a million hectrares
The Head of the West Sumatra Forestry Office, Yozarwardi, said that social forestry covers 227,000 hectares in 2021 and managed by 221 groups. The province, he added, has earmarked 500,000 hectares of forests to be managed by communities under the social forestry scheme.
The social forestry scheme in West Sumatra is composed of Nagari forests, Community forests, People’s Plantation Forests and Partnership forests, he said.
Yozarwadi admits there are some success in social forestry in West Sumatra, but there are many that were not successful and showed slow growth.
“Some are really depend on the government, some are too dependent on NGOs, and there are some (which were not successful) because there were changes in leadership at the local administration level,” he said.
He cited the case in Sungai Buluh where social forestry activities went stagnant after a change in the nagari’s leadership and the new leader was not keen to support the its LPHN.
“The Sungai Bulu social forestry used to be a model, its management was good, the place itself was good and strategically located for ecotourism, but the change in the local leadership had an impact, and I also see that the local group was not solid enough,” Yozarwardi said.
Yozarwadi said that his office has acknowledged the issues faced by the Sungai Buluh LPHN and will work together in finding a solution. Ideally, assistance should be given to the social forestry activities but after the group becomes stronger, they must be empowered to become independent and no longer reliant on NGOs or the government.
“Social forestry in Simancuang is also stagnant, I just returned from there. They hoped for assistance and funding for their meetings so there is some dependence. It should have been an initiative of the local communities because they have a forest area that they can make use of, that they can protect and derive revenues from,” he said.
The social forestry in Simancuang, he said, currently relied on its tree adoption program and the production of organic rice.
“It has 27 adopted trees so if you multiply that by Rp 200,000 per year they only get Rp 5.4 million. What can you get with Rp 5.4 million? And the organic rice only covers 8.9 hectares,” he said.
Yozarwardi believed that Simancuang still has the potential for development as an ecotourism destination, but this has not been explored. It has a beautiful view of the Kerinci mountain which has the ecotourism potential that needed to be developed under the social forestry scheme.
‘This view of Mount Kerinci can bring a lot of money. It has the potential to be developed for ecotourism. There is no problem if investors come in, as what is important is the empowerment of the local community, the local economy must rise,” he said.
He also suggested that the LPHNs should consider hiring millennials to rejuvenate their institution.
“I have also assigned a facilitator from the Forestry Office to visit there twice a week. That is what we are doing to improve the Simancuang LPHN, we do not remain idle,” he said.
Support from Nagari administration
Yozarwardi said that the local Nagari or village administration should show support, for example in financing forest patrols in Sirukam. He said the village administration has issued a regulation that provided two budget allocations for the social forestry scheme, including for the empowerment of people in the social forestry scheme that among others covers forest patrols.
“The thing is these days, the problem depends on the understanding of the head of the village or the head of the Nagari, maybe they are too afraid in managing the budget. But for those heads of Nagari who already understand it, they will allocate budget from the village find, because many villagers can benefit from this program,” he said.
The Director General for Social Forestry and Environmental partnership at the Ministry of the Environment and Forestry conducted an evaluation of the management of social forestry in West Sumatra in 2020. It was conducted on eight LPHN and 12 farmer groups with permits to exploit social forestry (IUPHK) .
The evaluation showed that 37.5 percent of the LPHN were in the good category, 62.5 percent in the medium, and none were marked poor.
But despite holding legal decrees for over five years, the management of farmer groups and LPHNs remain unsatisfactory. There remain challenges in aligning their activities with their work plan, and they are yet to make significant contribution to the local economy.
KKI WARSI: Forest cover on the rise
KKI Warsi has been assisting social forestry activities in 43 nagaris in West Sumatra but since April 2021 it has paused its assistance.
“It is because we are currently conducting a five-year work evaluation and are restructuring our assistance strategy for the upcoming four years,” says Rainal Rais, KKI Warsi’s Knowledge Management Program Manager.
KKI Warsi, he explained, has limited resources for its community assistance program and at present, each of its facilitators is tasked to work with five nagaris. “Of course we can no longer provide intensive assistance the way we used to, when social forestry programs were still few,” he said.
Rainal also said that the challenges in managing social forestry have changed. It is no longer just a matter of processing permits but also about developing businesses and economic activities.
“Can we say that those which do not have business activities are not successful ? Or that those who have strong businesses are successful? Of course we cannot do so,” he said.
He said that in many cases people are trying hard, but have not been able to reap success. “They need to be assisted in overcoming the many challenges they face in the management of social forestry,” he added.
Rainal also pointed out that there are several success stories on how social forestry in West Sumatera has increased the people’s economy .
He quoted LPHN in Pakan Raba in South Solok District that had been successful in managing a cattle business, then the Simarasok Nagari in Agam District which had successfully developed a pine resin business that contributed to the increase of the nagari’s revenue.
The LPHN in the Indudur Nagari in Solok District, Rainal continues, has develop a candle nut business and a drinking water refilling station.
But the most heartening news, Rainal said, is that forest cover under the social forestry scheme had begun to incline, based on KKI Warsi’s observation on a number of nagari forests in West Sumatra that had gained social forestry status between early 2011 and 2013.
“There’s ecological improvement, the forest cover has increased and this guarantees water availability for the nagari,” he said.
He also cited a report of an evaluation conducted by the Ministry of Environment and Forestry in 2020 which said that in Indudur Nagari, the people had planted a barren land with candle nut, rubber and cocoa trees, leading to the appearance of new water sources.
“There are now 12 new water sources there so that they can sell the water for drinking water refills and channel them to homes for their daily needs,” he said.
This report was conducted with the support from the Society of Indonesian Environmental Journalists (SIEJ) through the Build Back Better fellowship that supports stories on effectiveness of social forestry schemes in saving forests, and was first published in Indonesian by Jurnalistravel.com on 19 July 2021.