Deforestation disrupts and threatens cultivation of toek, a source of protein for natives in Mentawai Islands’ South Sipora.

Under the shade of a lush bamboo grove lining the bank of the calm Goiso Oinan river in South Sipora in the Mentawai Islands, dozens of log cuttings, each some 60 centimeter-long and tied with ropes, float in the water.  

These logs, mostly from the Tumung tree (Arthrophyloum diversifollium) or Bag-bag (Campnosperma auriculata) provides the habitat for Toek, a species of mollusc from the bivalvia class that resemble a worm and feeds on rotten wood. 

In South Sipora, toek are found in logs that have been floating in brackish water for months.

Toek (Bactronophorus sp) is an important source of protein for the people in Sipora, an island that has five rivers and a number of tributaries that flow into the eastern and western coast. 

Endah Saogo (40), is a housewife in Goiso Oinan who farms toek. When asked when the practice of farming toek started, Saogo was uncertain.

“It has been there since the time of our ancestors, we do not know where they learned it from but what is certain is that I have been eating toek since I was a child,” Saogo said.

She began to took rearing after she got married twenty years ago. Her mother taught her how to farm the molluscs.

“Mother said: let us go to the river to farm toek. If there is no fish we can get toek to feed your family,” Saogo quoted her mother. She also began to sell toek in 2011 as demand was high.

Goiso Oinan and the neighboring village of Saurenuk, both having rivers and tributaries and were near estuaries are ideal locations both for toek production and sales. 


Many women in Goiso Oinan, Saerenuk, and Matobek farm toek to make ends meet. Rows of floating logs line the banks of rivers in those villages.

Endah has dozens of logs floating on the Goiso Oinan river. Once they are filled up with toek — logs will be sufficiently submerged — she will cut the logs open and harvest the toek, then replace the opened logs with new ones.

Toek rearingis no trivial task. When we met Saogo on November 15, 2022, she was wading deep in the brownish water to harvest the worm-like molluscs just after the rain stopped.

With her black cap and red dress, she resembled a kingfisher hunting for its prey. She inspected each of the logs looking for bubbles coming from small holes in the smooth dark surface of the cuttings — a sign of grown toek population inside.

The sudden appearance of part of a whitish tail from one of those holes immediately brought a smile to Saogo’s face. That log was filled with toek and ready for harvest.

“There must already be many of them inside,” she said, hauling the log to the bank of the river.

With a single blow of an ax, she split the log open, exposing many whitish translucent worms.

The worms are some 30 centimeter-long and have a round, hard head equipped with two fangs that they use to drill the rotten wood that is their food. Two small shells cover the sharp tail end. Their long bodies are soft to the touch and contain some sort of whitish, and sometimes also brownish paste-like filling.

Some Rp1.5 million income a month

Toek can be consumed raw after discarding the head and tail. The brownish parts are usually not a favorite but still edible too. That particular day, Endah brought with her anyang, a sauce to compliment the toek composed of a mixture of onion, chilies and lime juice. 

The taste of  raw toek submerged in anyang is similar to the fresh taste of raw shellfish. Endah and several other women, all enjoyed eating the local delicacy while harvesting the molluscs.

“Eating toek while dipping our feet in the water of the river, makes it nicer,’ said Endah.

The harvested toek were collected in plastic bags that can contain 500 grams of the molluscs and sold for Rp15,000 apiece, rendering it as an alternative source of income.

Most women who farm toek in Goiso Oinan can take home between Rp1 million to Rp1.5 million. However for some, toek is an alternative source of food for the family.

“Farming toek is hard work, I first joined my elder sister into the river to arrange the logs but then I had a fever after having spent so much time in the cold water for so long,” said Lilis (35), Saogo’s little sister who joined toek harvesting that day.

She explained that almost the entire process of farming toek is a woman’s work, while men only helped in logging the trees and roll the trunks to the river banks.

The logs are cut into parts between 30 and 60 centimeter-long and then left to dry for two weeks before they are tied with ropes and then left to float in the river. The logs are left in the river for between six to twelve months.

The Tumung trees that used to be ubiquitous on the banks of rivers were now getting scarce because they were felled for toek farming. Women, who in Sipora are usually well used to farm toeks, were now starting to plant tumung seedlings to repopulate the area.

Affected by seasons

Toek can only live in estuaries where the sea and river meet, the water is brackish, and is subject to ebbs and tides.

Being dependent on water also makes toek farming affected by climate change. Endah really felt the effect of the extended dry season that had hit the island. In the past two years, her harvests have deteriorated and the meat turned brownish.

“Buyers do not want to eat toek when the color is brownish, they have an earthy taste,” she said.

The long dry season has lowered the rivers’ water level and as a result logs are not adequately submerged. Toek will take longer to grow and harvest time now will require somewhere between eight to 12 months.

After the extended dry season, the rainy season came and the end of the year saw heavy rains that made the river overflow, carrying soil sediments, and turning the water brown.

“It’s been flooding for a month because it’s the rainy season so I can only harvest today and the results are not very favorable, not all of them are white, many are brownish,” said Endah.

Sand mining and deforestation in the upper reaches of the Goiso Oinan River in the neighboring villages of Sido Makmur and Bukit Pamewa since early 2022 have also made toek farmers nervous. One day’s rain can now overflow the Goiso Oinan River.

“This is what we are afraid of, especially since toek is a source of income for women in Goiso Oinan,” she said.

Most residents of Goiusoi Oinan village, which consists of around 200 households, cultivate toek, both for their daily needs and for sale.

In Saurenuk village, which consists of 425 households, there are around 150 women who cultivate toek.

“Some farm toek seasonally, most of the people here make toek, I also help when my wife farms toek, she also actively sells it,” said Susel, the head of Kalio Hamlet, a hamlet in Goiso Oinan.

Santi Taikatubutoina (45), a woman who cultivates toek in the Saureinuk River, also felt that the yield of toek throughout 2022 was not very positive due to frequent flooding.

“The ones I harvested this month are skinny. Because of the flooding the contents are not good, brown and dirty, if there is no flooding the contents are fat and white,” said Santi, who was interviewed on November 16, 2022.

The threat of logging

Saurenuk village chief Tirjelius Taikatubutoinan said that since 2022, Sipora forests have faced massive logging. Some of the natural forests located in the Other Use Areas (APL) area began to be cut down by landowners.

The landowners received access rights from the forest production management office (region III) in Pekanbaru, which also oversees production forests in West Sumatra. With access rights, they can cut down the forest and sell the logs outside the Mentawai Islands.

One of those who received access rights is Aser Sababalat, a resident of Sidomakmur Village, North Sipora. Aser and his tribe own 243 hectares in the North Sipora forest.

Logging activities on Aser land have been conducted since January 2022. Now most of the forest has disappeared.

Logging also occurs in the forests of Bukit Pamewa Village and Sipora Jaya Village, where the Goiso Oinan and Saurenuk Rivers are located.

The access rights owner is Jasa Simangilailai, who represents his tribal land. The community with access rights cooperates with timber investors who log and sell logs outside Mentawai.

Ruslan Hamid, head of planning of the region III production forest management office said that his office has granted five access rights (SIPUHH) on Sipora Island.

Ruslan said the community’s forest area is not included in the state forest area. However, there are natural forests in the area.

He explained that the APL area is not the domain of his institution. However, because there are natural forests in the area, SIPUHH access rights are mandatory for landowners who manage the timber.

“In the forest, they have to pay the state each time they cut wood so that the state’s rights can be collected from there. In addition, because this timber is sold outside Mentawai, timber legalization is needed,” he said.

The logging of trees on hundreds of hectares of land has caused the river to flood frequently and become murky, affecting the community’s toek cultivation.

“The flooding and murky water caused many lokan to die and rot, despite the fact that toek and lokan are sources of income for men and women here,” Tirjelius said.

Lokan, which belongs to the mollusca family and lives at the bottom of river estuaries, is also a source of protein for local communities.

Tirjelius says the flood is different from previous rain floods. The river is murky due to upstream sediments.

“Our clean water supply is also disrupted,” he said.

He has tried to hold forest access rights owners responsible for logging in the upper Saureinuk River and Goiso Oinan River. One of them is Jasa Simangilai-ilai.

“But Jasa claimed there were no more logging operations on his land. The investor left because a lot of wood could not be released,” Tirjelius said.

The logs could not be transported from the land because the access road had to pass through someone else’s land. This person did not want their land passed and blocked the access road.

“Jasa is now looking for another investor,” Tirjelius said.

In  September 2022 a logging road was opened in the forest for the heavy machinery but some of the land owners did not agree and therefore the logging was halted. The road had now been planted with coconut trees by these land owners.

Tirjelius said that investors who wanted to log the forests were eying those forests owned by communities and were helping to assist in the process to obtain the Rights of Access for them. 

They also promised to buy each cubic meter of timber for between Rp 25,000 and Rp 70,000 from these land owners.

“Apart from environmental damage, logging will also cause tribal divisions after the timber company leaves,” Tirjelius said.

This had already happened in the 1990s when timber companies entered the island to log on HPH (Forest Concession Rights) concessions also in customary forest areas.

“When there is a timber fee, the land owner reaps fortunes and has more money. However, when the company leaves, the land owner returns to poverty, and the forest is depleted, social conflict occurs,” Tirjelius said.

Inter-family and inter-tribal conflicts also escalated, as some family members refused to surrender communal land for logging.

“People should realize that this pattern is happening again and not repeat that mistake,” Tirjelius said.

Tirjelius plans to create a village regulation (perdes) specifically for river protection. This is because the river is very critical for the community, as a place to cultivate toek, find lokan, and a source of clean water.

“That’s my homework, to make a village regulation about the river,” he said.

According to Indra Junaidi, a lecturer in Marine Biology at Andalas University, toek cultivation in the Saureinuk and Goiso Oinan Rivers depends on clean water to grow well.

“If logging occurs upstream of the river, the toek seeds might be unable to grow because of the murky waters,” Junaidi said.

This story is part of the “Story Grant on Environmental Damage and Loss of Food Sources” organized by The Society of Indonesian Environmental Journalists (SIEJ) and Ekuatorial and was first published in Bahasa Indonesia by Jurnalis Travel on January 27, 2023.
About the writer


Febrianti is a journalist who lives in Padang, West Sumatra. Currently, Febrianti is a contributor for Tempo in West Sumatra and the Editor-in-Chief of an online environmental and travel site, Jurnalistravel.Com....

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