Monday, 14 September 2009

The Fight Over the Natural Wealth of Kalimantan's Kutai National Park

September 14, 2009

Kafil Yamin, The Jakarta Globe

Conservationists have said a plan to redraw Kutai Park’s boundaries to allow for squatters is by merely a ploy to open the coal-rich area for exploitation

The Fight Over the Natural Wealth of Kalimantan's Kutai National Park

There are 50 national parks in the country, but not a single one is safe from trespassing, poaching and especially illegal logging. While stricter law enforcement during the last five years may have reduced the scale of timber theft, illegal occupation and illegal use of forest lands, environmental activists say it hasn’t ground to a halt.

Some national parks are in critical condition from years of such assaults and face a continuous threat due to poor law enforcement, corruption and lack of coordination among the central and local governments. Among them is Kutai National Park in East Kalimantan, a conservation area for endangered and vulnerable animals and rare fauna that, environmental activists say, is in danger of being split apart for its natural resources including vast deposits of coal.

Unable to stop the increasing number of illegal squatters living inside Kutai, the Ministry of Forestry in Jakarta wants to resort to a pragmatic, albeit controversial, solution — redraw the boundaries and remove 23,712 hectares of illegally occupied land from the 200,000-hectare park.

Data from the Forestry Ministry show that the enclave is occupied by 24,339 people, many of them families.

“It’s no use defending Kutai as a national park,” said Wahyudin Munawir, a member of the House of Representatives, who serves on Commission VII overseeing energy and mining.

He even suggested converting the park for other uses — among them are mining concessions — a move that would require approval from the House of Representatives. Sources at the Forestry Ministry said there was growing lawmaker support for the idea.

Minister of Forestry Malam Sambat Kaban recently said he wanted to remove the illegally occupied enclave as part of Kutai as a “once and for all solution.” His policy comes despite suggestions from various quarters, including the head of Kutai National Park, Tandya Tjahjana, that the best solution is to declare the occupied 23,712 hectares a special zone with rules protecting its dwellers and the rest of the park.

Conservationists accuse Kaban of having another agenda.

“That is a covert attempt to hand the land, rich with high-quality coal, to coal miners that have long been eyeing it,” said Pam E Minnigh, a member of the Kutai Alliance.

Wiratno, the head of conservation area mapping and development at the Ministry of Forestry, acknowledges as much. “The coal is so visible, as it lies on the land surface. People can just fetch it by shovel or hoe,” he said.

In June, a joint research team discovered coal deposits of 12 million tons under the illegal settlements. The team included geological and biological experts from the Indonesian Institute of Sciences (LIPI), Gajah Mada University in Yogyakarta, the Ministry of Energy, Minerals and Human Resources, and the Forestry Ministry.

The team also found the area rich in biodiversity: 903 species of flora, 79 mammals including 11 of 13 primates known to Kalimantan and 252 species of birds.

Minnigh said no one would benefit from carving out the illegally occupied enclave except for, not surprisingly, land speculators. Large tracts of land are now in the hands of groups who are ready to sell to coal miners at higher prices.

“The [local] people would get nothing,” she said.

One of the major questions is how the owners could get land certificates for land that’s part of a national park. Subdistrict and village administrations in the area issued letters of approval for land ownership even though they had no authority to do so.

Local politics has aggravated the situation. In 1995, Awak Farouk, then a candidate for chief of East Kutai district, pledged he would win approval for the areas as legal village administrations if he was elected.

Not surprisingly, the squatters voted for Farouk, who fulfilled his campaign promise. He approved the settlements as two subdistricts: Sangata and Teluk Pandan, comprising seven villages.

The new local administrations then started issuing land ownership certificates and built infrastructure and other public facilities. As a result, Kutai is the country’s only national park to have villages, public roads, a bus terminal, gasoline stations and markets within its borders.

The illegal occupation inside the park was never challenged by the police or Armed Forces after the first generation of squatters arrived and set up camps. Many soon followed, as migration to the region was sparked by the construction of Bontang City in 1990, some 50 miles south of the national park, which needed large numbers of laborers.

Oil companies, plywood manufacturers and plantations have also become magnets for job seekers from outside.

The long presence of PT Pertamina, the state oil and gas producer, brought its own issues. The company had a 100-hectare oil drilling concession within Kutai since 1957 and has now cleared 8,000 hectares of forest for 800 oil wells, according to a recent report by the joint research team.

Its operation has not been without incidents. In August, an oil spill from a storage tank damaged nearby farmland and, according to a local environmental investigator, also flowed into the nearby Sangata River.

Even though the farmers are illegally squatting, Pertamina is negotiating to compensate them for their losses.

The combination of poor law enforcement, local politics and corruption have made the illegal settlements inside Kutai more permanent, so removing people from the national park and resettling them elsewhere would be very costly and difficult.

Slicing out the enclave from the rest of Kutai could be environmentally disastrous for the province, as well as globally.

“Kutai is the only low-land tropical rainforest that exists in Indonesia. It has a very rich biodiversity and is a home to some orangutan, [among the] most endangered species,” said Moira Moeliono, a senior researcher at the Bogor-based Center for International Forestry Research.

Moira said any decision to remove the enclave from the park is a triumph for coal miners and a loss for local residents.

“The people would be kicked out, after they get a small amount of consolation compensation,” she said. “Is there any mining operation that benefits people? Much less conservation?”

Agus Budiono, the former head of the national park, claims that the “once and for all” solution to remove the enclave from Kutai is related to future coal mining operations.

“Once I saw a proposal for a coal concession of 93,749 hectares within the park,” he said. “This would mean that 47 percent of [Kutai] will be for coal mining.”

Moira said, “Why doesn’t [Kaban] dissolve it all the way? So then we don’t have to have a national park.”

The Kutai Alliance is lobbying the minister to declare the enclave a special zone, which they regard as a safer, fairer and more feasible solution. A recent poll shows that the majority of illegal squatters in the enclave support the special zone plan.

Under the plan, the squatters could stay and would be recognized, but must abide by regulations that aim to protect the park. Each family would be issued a hectare to cultivate while accepting that the land belongs to the park. They would be barred from transferring control of the land without the approval of the park’s administration.

The plan has won the support of conservation groups and academics, but when it was presented to Kaban last August, the minister was noncommittal.

Minnigh from Kutai Alliance said converting the occupied enclave to coal mining or other commercial uses “would be suicide” for the region because Kutai is the only water source for that part of East Kalimantan.

“Bontang will suffer severe water shortages,” she said. “Of course, East Kalimantan and maybe the world will lose its high value biodiversity wealth.”