Rimpak, Indonesia

26 Dec

Now that I am back from Indonesia for several months already and have time to reflect, I think what is of particular interest in the SPI – the national union of peasants – is its work among forest peasants. In fact, the state-run forestry company, Perhum Perhutani is now one of its main targets when it comes to fighting for the rights of, and access to land for, peasants.

This may alarm people who picture peasants going into forest and cutting it down to plant crops, as happens in many other developing nations, such as Brazil.

But I am talking about peasants who have always lived in and around forests, particularly what are called productive forests in Indonesia, and plant crops beneath and among the trees.

Last July, I met a forest peasant named Kito Haryanto, in the village of Rimpak, Wonosobo district, on the island of Java. Married and the father of two small children, Kito goes into the jungle near his house just about every day to search for something he needs: firewood, animal forage he gives to his parents who own two cows, herbs and wild mushrooms, and most importantly for him, bamboo. Kito, 35, and his wife Wariyanti, make about half of their income from baskets and rice colanders they weave from thin, pliant strips of young bamboo which grows thickly throughout the jungle. 

Kito also plants a very large variety of food on the half acre of land he also owns, including corn, which when ground and cooked is called ‘corn-rice’ by the locals, who much prefer the real thing. In fact, rice is about the only thing he cannot grow. Kito’s farm plots are also in the forest set within its hilly terrain and laid out in neat rows surrounded by, or even dotted, with pines and albizia trees. Even the village of Rimpak is itself steeply pitched, two rows of simple brick houses, each pair terraced above those below, with a narrow cement walk rising between them. Like the city of Wonosobo itself, this place made quite a contrast, in fact, with the hot and smoggy city of Jakarta, where the temperature reached over 30C every day and I don’t think it rained once the entire month I was there. Chilly, damp and temperate, it is located near the famous Dieng Plateau, famous for its volcanic craters, mineral lakes and Hindu temple ruins. Travelling along the steep rocky roads around Rimpak, we passed through beautiful forest landscapes, lush with tall trees and groves of feathery bamboo. But behind that there exist thousands of people who live knife-edge-close to poverty, and are only beginning to recognize that they can fight together to improve their lives.

My interpreter Adi and I went to Rimpak with two people from the SPI’s Wonosobo branch, including Somairi, who practically lives in the office there and is a provincial level SPI president. He and several local people in Rimpak had just set up a new sub-group called the Forest Peasants Group. They did this in large part because the SPI has had so many problems with Perhutani over the years and believed that this new group would have better bargaining power. Now the villagers of Rimpak had yet another; Perhutani had suddenly forbidden them from going into the areas of productive forest for which they owned concessions. They have total  concessions for almost 19,000 hectares of forest in the district. And while the company asserts its natural resins, oils, lumber and other raw materials are the products of sustainable harvesting that doesn’t harm the ecological balance of the forest, it lost its international certification a few years ago because of the various social conflicts in which it has involved itself.

Kito wasn’t sure why Perhutani has prohibited him from going into the forest, or was accusing the forest peasants of destroying the forest. “Yes, the forest land belongs to the government,” he said, “but since the time of our ancestors, we have been doing what we do, gathering foods and bamboo, to make our living. We have been doing that to survive.” Nine years earlier, right after the fall of the authoritarian Suharto regime, renegade loggers had a hay day illegally cutting down mature trees in forests throughout the country. Perhutani’s standing stock alone was reduced by four per cent in just one year. Some estimates put the theft as high as three times the level of legal harvesting and, similar to those concerning the destruction of the Amazon rain forest in Brazil, gave rise to widespread fears about the future of Indonesia’s forests. Kito thought that Perhutani may be blaming the local peasants for the logging in spite of the fact, he said, that forest peasants don’t want to cut timber, only to keep harvesting the jungle for useful things, and cropping beneath the tree cover.

“We’re pretty sure there is no more illegal logging nowadays,” he said, “because the peasants also inhabit the forest. If it were going on, we would know. We would see it right away, and we would be very angry. And we would go there collectively, and that’s why the illegal loggers are afraid of the peasants. And that’s why we think it would be much safer, and even more profitable, if the peasants manage the forest, because we don’t destroy it and we also have this sort of supervising system, which couldn’t be done by Perhutani. Even now, in several places where we are not allowed to get in, we don’t know for sure whether there are any activities of illegal logging or not. Because Perhutani doesn’t pay much attention, while we go there every day and we look after the trees. If there was even a slight difference or damage, we would know that something was wrong.”

Nonetheless, Perhutani was threatening the local forest peasants with stiff fine and jail terms, and bringing around a document for them to sign, promising never to enter the forest again.

So far, local authorities (in a country where there has been a big move toward de-centralizing power to regions and districts since the end of the Suharto regime) tended to be on the side of the peasants. In Rimpak, for example, we met at the home of the former headman, Suyoto. He had a large house with rather unattractive plate glass, smoked windows and a lot of furniture, including a huge cabinet with glass doors, plastered with photographs and containing a machine that loudly played a tape of prayers at particular hours of the day.

We also went to the house of a fellow named Ismail, headman in the village of Tanjuang–Anon, and a devout Muslim. We sat on mats in a large room with pictures of Mecca and of the symbol of Allah on the walls. Ismail was a member of New Awakening, a pro-religious political party, but one that has been more forthcoming in defending the rights of the peasants and the poor in Indonesia than many others. When I asked his opinion of what was happening in Rimpak for example, he answered: “The peasants have created a kind of mutual relationship with nature. It is very difficult for them to survive without the forest – and very difficult for the forest to survive without them.”

Who should protect Indonesia’s estimated 190 million hectares of forest? The state or the people who live in and need them? With about two million hectares of it lost annually, the question is a crucial one. Government politicians and corporate exploiters of forest products such as Perhutani have inherited a system from the nation’s former Dutch colonizers that sees forest dwellers as encroachers or worse: as aiders and abettors of criminal gangs that plunder precious resources and cause environmental havoc. But, based on a centuries-long history of forest agriculture and shared, sustainable use, they consider the forest and its resources a legacy, one that gives them life today and will be passed on to their children tomorrow. And to that end, they continually survey and protect the forest because they have a clear vested interest in doing so.

In the past, said Kito, “there have been several struggles in this area, but they were not well co-ordinated, each village struggling in its own way. After SPI came, we organized the struggles and united the people, and also educated the people about what is really going on.” Kito also said that he believed there were many such advantages to being part of the SPI, “learning about law, agrarian law, better farming methods and so forth. Of course, we basically want a better economy and more development, but we cannot get these without being given the right to manage the forest products.”



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