February 09, 2010
Fidelis E Satriastanti & Budi Otmansyah The Jakarta Globe
Ministry to Probe Illegal Forest Cutting As Riau Tribe Spurns Green Award
Stung by a respected tribal leader’s attempt to return a prestigious environmental award, the State Ministry for the Environment on Tuesday promised to launch an investigation into allegations that palm oil companies had illegally converted 8,000 hectares of protected forest where his tribe lives.
Patih Laman, head of the Talang Mamak tribe, an ethnic group from Indragiri Hulu district in Riau, was presented with the Kalpataru Award in 2003, by then-President Megawati Sukarnoputri, for efforts to conserve the forest in which the tribe lived. He made headlines again last year for complaining that since 2008 alone, 1,800 hectares of tribal forest had been illegally felled.
Fed up by the lack of response from the government, the 90-year-old Patih last week made a 300-kilometer journey to the provincial capital, Pekanbaru, but his attempts to meet with Riau Governor Rusli Zaenal to return the award have so far been rebuffed.
Henry Bastaman, deputy for communication and people’s empowerment at the state ministry, said they had informally been told last year about the tribe’s intention to return the award because they could not defend the forest.
“They had tried to hang on to the forest, but were helpless to stop it dwindling from 11,000 hectares to 3,000 hectares,” Henry said. “To reach a win-win solution, we will persuade them not to return the Kalpataru Award, and promise in return that they can keep the remaining forest.”
He acknowledged that the ministry had no specific knowledge about what was happening to the forest in the area.
“We still need to send an investigation team down there, because we need to asses how many hectares have been cut down illegally,” Henry said. “We have received reports that they used to have 11,000 hectares and are now left with just 3,000, but we’re not really sure yet.”
Henry said that although indigenous groups had played an important role in protecting forests, individual groups could not be legally recognized as guardians of the forest.
“I think a local regulation would be an alternative to protect and give legal status to tribal forests,” Henry said, adding that the 2009 Environmental Protection and Management Law could also guarantee the rights of tribes.
Officials from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs have not responded to a UN report critical of Jakarta’s handling of the rights of indigenous peoples, saying they were under no obligation to do so.
The ministry has also argued that there is no such thing as an indigenous person, as every Indonesian citizen is equal under the Constitution.
In a letter to Indonesia’s Permanent Mission in Geneva last year, the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, said it was “concerned” about the Indonesian government’s failure to respect the rights of indigenous peoples in their own forests and the increasing conflict between local peoples and palm oil plantations.