Indonesia’s well-conserved Aru Islands may soon be taken over by cattle ranching stretching across almost 62,000 hectares, including 16 villages home to the area’s Indigenous people.
Bushes and weeds in the savanna stretch out like a landscape painting, stretching across Trangan Island, part of the Aru Archipelago. They wind left and right, as forest trees as high as 15-20 meters such as acacia, eucalyptus and many more are suddenly visible. But large-scale cattle operations may soon lay waste to all this.
The Aru Archipelago is made up of hundreds of islands dominated by forests, savannas and karst ecosystems. Mangrove forests are also here and protect against the islands’ high tides.
The NGO Forest Watch Indonesia (FWI) notes mangrove ecosystems exist on all islands in the Aru Archipelago and are home to various bird species, as well as deer, wild boar. Tree kangaroos live on the savanna.
Aru is also home to many Indigenous people who, with their local knowledge, have depended on the land, forests and marine resources for generation.
Recently, however, a cattle breeding permit covering an area of 61,567 hectares was issued by the Trangan Island regency to four private companies.
Mufti “Ode” Barri, executive director of FWI, says that large-scale cattle ranching will beckon new infrastructure on the island, such as roads, ports, offices and workers’ homes, among others.
“They will definitely use the [island’s] bay as access. Including the west coast, building ports and other things. If that happens, of course, mangrove forests will be sacrificed,” said Ode, the name he goes by normally.
Ode also said that there would be saltwater intrusion on the island as a result of cattle ranching because the surrounding environment could no longer hold back the sea. Right now, he said, there are already village wells subject to saltwater intrusion.
“There has been no conversion or logging of forests here. Moreover, if the mangroves are destroyed, or the savanna and forest become livestock fields, what then?” he asked.
Trangan Island is more than 1,300 square kilometers in size and has a population of 7,497 people spread across 16 villages.
Indigenous people here have a rich history, as well as a customary land tenure system that has been around for as long as anyone can remember (ulayat). Each community in the villages Mongabay visited is surrounded by savanna with dense forest cover and has its own rules on tenure, which also extend to water resources.
The announcement of a large-scale cattle ranching plan has made Indigenous people on the island anxious. In addition to direct protests, many have sent protest letters to various institutions, such as the Presidential Staff Office and the Ministry of Environment and Forestry.
Yosias Siarukin, a resident of Popjetur Village who is also the Head of the Siarukin clan, has said his people “fully reject” the introduction of cattle here. He said the planned cattle ranch was at the site of tordauk, the annual ritual performed by Aruan Indigenous people, which involves hunting for animals by smoking them out by burning reeds between September and November.
Otniel Apalem, a resident of Popjetur village, also rejected the prospect of cattle ranching, saying that it would destroy the surrounding environment, including forests.
“I fight for this land because it is customary land. The customary rights of the Apalem clan [are under threat]. My hope for this struggle is to fight so that the livestock company will not come. Customary land is the right of Indigenous peoples,” Otniel said.
Cattle farming also threatens the island’s sago forests. Many Indigenous people are worried that when livestock are introduced, birds of paradise and deer will not be protected.
Rebekah, Obadiah’s notes her concerns: “If the company enters, surely all these forests will be plotted.”
Before cattle, there was sugarcane. In 2014, the regent of Aru Islands, Tedi Tengko, issued a permit for sugarcane plantations covering an area of 480,000 hectares for use by 28 companies, all of which were under the banner of the PT Menara Group.
FWI’s investigation of the 2009-2028 Aru Spatial Plan (RTRW) found that 76% of the land concessions made to these 28 companies included intact forest. Eventually, Indigenous people and civil society groups were able to quash this effort. But then came the cattle companies.
Four companies have applied for permits. PT Daya Alam Gemilang has one for 16,408 hectares, including two villages; PT Bintang Kurnia Raya has a permit for 13,916 hectares, overlapping seven; PT Cakra Bumi Lestari, has a permit area for 14,980 hectares, covering three; and PT Ternak Indah Sejahtera, has a permit for 16,263 hectares, overlapping four more.
The cattle husbandry permits for these four companies were traced by FWI to the Jhonlin Group, a company owned by Andi Syamsuddin Arsyad, better known as “Haji Isam.”
Isam, who acquire much of his fortune in coal mines on South Kalimantan, became interested in Aru after a visit in 2017.
Haikal Baadilah, the head of the Maluku Forestry Service, said that as a technical implementer at the ministry, he is only waiting for a permit for the release of forest areas for ranching from the Indonesian Ministry of Environment and Forestry.
Currently, Mongabay is trying to confirm the licensing process for the four cattle-ranching companies on the Aru Islands with high-ranking officials at the Ministry of Environment and Forestry.
The collaboration team contacted several officials via telephone or messages via messaging applications or message channels on social media. Messages were also sent to ministers and the director general of Forestry Planning and Environmental Management.
The team also sent phone calls and messages to Bambang Hendroyono, secretary general of the Ministry of Environment and Forestry. Some of these sources only read the messages, but no one has responded as of this writing.
Mongabay is also trying to confirm details with the cattle companies themselves.
To read the rest of this story (in Bahasa Indonesia), please visit Mongabay Indonesia.
This story is the first installment of Mongabay Indonesia’s series on cattle ranching in Aru. The second story can be found here.
Reporters: Christ Belseran, Della Syahni and Indra Nugraha
Editor: Sapariah Saturi
Photo editor: Ridzki R. Sigit
An abbreviated version of this story was produced with the support of the Earth Journalism Network and was originally published Mongabay Indonesia on October 10, 2022. It has been edited for length and clarity.
The reporting was performed collaboratively by Mongabay Indonesia, Metro Maluku, Titastory.id and Forest Watch Indonesia and part of the Earth Journalism Network’s special collaborative project on One Health and meat in the Asia Pacific entitled “More Than Meats the Eye.” It brings together eight media outlets from different countries and more than a dozen reporters to cover the impact of meat on animal, human and environmental health in the Asia-Pacific region.