Friday, 18 April 2008

Elephants, humans fight for land in national park

As we can see, it is not only orangutans who suffer in the name of palm oil.

Elephants, humans fight for land in national park

Rizal Harahap , The Jakarta Post , Pekanbaru Fri, 04/18/2008 10:05 AM

Since 2007, at least 13 elephants and two people have been killed in the rising conflict between the protected species and forest squatters at the Tesso Nilo National Park in Pelalawan, Riau. More intensive forest squatting has expanded into the elephants' habitat inside the shrinking park. This has been a major environmental problem for the government, despite support from the WWF and forestry-based industries in the province.

Head of the Tesso Nilo Managing Agency, Hayani Supratman, reiterated recently that the park's ecosystem and the habitat of the protected species were under threat because of illegal logging and forest squatting.

Some 5,000 hectares of the 38,576-hectare national park have been occupied by 370 families for housing and farming. Before it was converted into farmland and palm oil plantations, forest squatters supplied logs to forestry industries, Hayani said.

"The way farmers were squatting in the park has encouraged illegal logging practices. The park is no longer a virgin forest, and not only elephants, but also other rare species like Sumatran tigers, are under threat," he said, adding that Tesso Nilo was declared a national park on July 15, 2004.

He said it was difficult to remove the squatters from the park since their occupied land had been certified by local authorities.

To address the conflict, the Forestry Ministry and the provincial government have agreed to expand the park to more than 100,000 hectares by taking over 70,000 hectares of surrounding former industrial forests, mainly to turn the park into a Sumatran elephant conservation center.
"But the expansion project has faced hurdles because the initial park, located in Pelalawan and Indragiri Hulu, has also been surrounded by 22 villages with some 1,000 residents and three forestry industries," Hayani said.

The park's authorities are still facing a lawsuit filed by a farmers' group in Pontian Mekar village, which claims more than 1,000 hectares of its land has been included in the park.
"We have to stop and settle the dispute immediately because we have spent too much energy in dealing with such disputes," Hayani said.

Riau Andalan Pulp and Paper (RAPP), one of the forestry industries in the province that has actively participated in the expansion project, called on the government to settle the land dispute with the squatters, who occupy more than 11,000 of 70,000 hectares of forest allocated to expand the park.

"Communal leaders in the regencies should be involved at the negotiating table to settle the dispute while the police are intensifying their operations to halt illegal logging and forest squatting," said Joko Pranoto, head of RAPP's environmental section.

Some 2,000 families are living on former industrial forests that have been partly converted into palm oil plantations, he said

WWF Riau spokesman Syamsidar hailed the expansion project, saying the elephant population had decreased to around 80.

RAPP president Rudi Fajar said his company would hand over some 18,000 hectares of forest area bordering the park to support the expansion project.

"We are prepared to actively participate in the project," he said, adding his company was planting trees and operating two patrol posts as a fence to prevent villagers looting the park and to avoid forest fires.

The park's authorities have also enhanced cooperation with the WWF and RAPP by setting up a flying squad in Ukui subdistrict, with a patrol team supported by four trained elephants to prevent wild elephants from attacking villagers and damaging their crops.

In the past three months, the flying squad dealt with eight attacks by elephants on villages and farmland, said team member Williamson.