May 30, 2024 Last Updated 8:34 AM, May 27, 2024

Reformasi and Riau's forests

Published: Jul 30, 2007

Lesley Potter and Simon Badcock

A new timber boom is underway in Riau province, but much of it is illegal. The once extensive forests in this central Sumatran province have been logged, then partly converted to plantations of pulpwood and oil palm. Two huge pulp and paper plants, Indah Kiat Pulp and Paper (IKPP) and Riau Andalan Pulp and Paper (RAPP), use 4.4 tons of wood for each ton of pulp they manufacture. Though both have pulp plantations, it is cheaper for them to obtain wood from natural forests while stocks last. Official statistics suggest that all the woodworking industries in Riau, including plywood factories and legal sawmills, need almost 16 million cubic metres of wood per year. Production from all legalsources is only 5.5 million. There is thus an extensive illegal trade in timber, increased further by demand from neighbouring provinces, and from Malaysia and Singapore.

Owners of legal sawmills, plus a multitude of illegal ones, compete for raw materials with the large pulp companies. It was recently estimated that 96% of Riau's roads have been ruined by the hundreds of heavy logging trucks which choke them day and night. Communities still in possession of traditional forests are increasingly being persuaded to cut and sell them.

The reformasi following the fall of the Suharto government coincided with the continuing impact of Indonesia's economic crisis. Feelings of greater freedom among local people, coupled with economic need, resulted in the forest laws being increasingly challenged. Conservation areas are at risk, their natural products seen as treasures for the taking, their protection half-hearted at best. Not only local citizens are involved in the profitable timber business but civil servants, the police, the army and local elites as well.

How will recent moves to decentralise authority away from Jakarta to the districts affect the forests? The answer is not yet clear. On the one hand, district leaders see them as potential sources of income. On the other, they are more aware of the value of preserving local resources and traditions. In some cases, it is already too late. In others, there may still be some action which conservation-minded local officials and non-government organisations can take to at least slow the process of destruction. We use as an example of the first situation, the Bukit Batabuh 'protected forest', and of the second, the Bukit Tigapuluh (Thirty Hills) National Park. Both are in southern Riau.

Bukit Batabuh

This 25,000 hectare 'protected forest' was established in 1984 to protect the watershed in part of the hilly border region between Riau and West Sumatra provinces. It now presents a stark image, with scarcely a tree to be seen. Instead, small patches of cassava or rubber are visible on the rapidly eroding and largely bare slopes. The burnt out shell of a forest warden's post is a reminder of recent conflict.

On our first visit in April 2000, roadside signs still proclaimed the protected forest and warned of heavy fines for trespass - Rp100 million or ten years jail for cutting, burning or settling in the area. When we returned in July, most signs had disappeared. The story involves a series of actors, the first being illegal loggers from West Sumatra. The forest on that side of the border is classified 'production forest', a category now appearing to invite invasion, unless a logging company remains active and vigilant. The invaders crossed the border, unaware of its existence, and began removing the trees from the protected area to sell in Padang.

People in Lubuk Jambi, the nearest village on the Riau side, immediately became irate. According to their cultural (adat) head, Bukit Batabuh was their traditional forest, which had been taken by the Suharto government in 1984, signed over by village elders without popular consent. As there was no forestry department action to stop the thieves from West Sumatra, the Lubuk Jambi people began gradually occupying the area themselves. They cut and burned patches of forest and marked out farms, but did not remove timber to sell, claiming they were too poor to organise such logging activities. The occupation was carried out step by step, one family at a time. People argued that they needed the land in order to eat. Previously, they had been afraid of government sanctions. With reformasi, they were no longer afraid. Eventually, forest guards accompanied by soldiers arrived from the provincial capital Pekanbaru and confiscated six of the people's chainsaws. This led to an angry confrontation and the burning of the forest post.

Much negotiation followed between the village and the government, which the adat chief complained took too long, allowing access to others who removed 80% of the remaining timber, which was sold to sawmills, plywood and pulp companies. As a result of the negotiation, 652 households will be allowed to settle on the 'protected forest' land. Each is to be allocated two hectares in a rubber cooperative. Another 250 hectares will be turned over to the people to replant and manage as a social forest (hutan kemasyarakatan).

The forestry department head with jurisdiction over the area denied that the forest belonged to Lubuk Jambi. He told us that on his first visit in 1977, he remembered Bukit Batabuh as real primary forest, empty of human presence. He argued that it was only reformasi that made the people fearless of defying forestry regulations. The local district head (bupati) agreed, describing their activities as resulting from 'the euphoria of reformasi'. They did acknowledge that the people needed access to some land, and this has been granted. The people's claims have thus largely succeeded, but the valuable timber has brought them no reward and the 'protected forest' has virtually disappeared.

This case demonstrates the complete breakdown of the forest regulations which had previously restrained the people's understandable desire to claim back their lands. The credibility of the claim was acknowledged during the protracted negotiations, but it was unfortunate that at that time the forest appeared unprotected and was therefore quickly destroyed by unscrupulous outsiders.

Bukit Tigapuluh

This park came into being in 1995, its 128,000 hectares of former protected forest and logging concession being divided 70%-30% between Riau and Jambi provinces. It contains one of the few intact blocks of Sumatran lowland rain forest, with high biodiversity, including 660 plant species and populations of several endangered mammals, among them the Sumatran tiger.

Within the park is a small resident population of minority Talang Mamak and Kubu people, still leading relatively traditional lives. Outside the park boundaries, in the buffer zone, is a much larger and more heterogeneous community of Talang Mamak and Melayu, Javanese transmigrants, and new arrivals from North Sumatra and Aceh.

The main threats to the continuing viability of the park arise from the buffer zone. Coal mining and oil palm plantations extend right up to its boundaries. But an even larger problem comes from irresponsible commercial logging. PT STUD, a plywood factory in Jambi, is organising local communities to sell their traditional forests to its factory through a logging company subsidiary. The company provides heavy equipment to help locals conduct large-scale clearing. In fact the locals are being used simply as labourers, their returns on the timber being minimal. A study by the Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF), a NGO concerned with protecting the park and its people, described the logging company officials as 'civet cats', and the illiterate, unsophisticated Talang Mamak villagers as mere 'chickens', easily devoured by the fierce civet cats.

One reason for this rush by local people to clear their traditional forest (held under hak ulayat tenure, now more recognised as conferring communal ownership), is the extremely low prices which have prevailed for rubber, the staple commodity. People believe that oil palm will solve their economic problems, so they band together in co-operative farmer groups to clear sections of village forest for conversion to that crop. They need money for this activity and are seduced by the availability of 'cash money' from the logging companies who encourage them in further forest work. While existing access roads through the park have been closed in an attempt by the authorities to inhibit trespass, villagers seeking timber supplies cut new roads with borrowed bulldozers, sometimes penetrating far inside the park.

The strategy of the park authorities is to cancel all logging and oil palm licences in the buffer zone. The area would become a social forestry project, in which local communities have more control. The bupati has agreed to this plan, but there is no guarantee the Talang Mamak will like it. They may talk about the cultural importance of the forest, but they are still keen to sell timber. Several traditional leaders are heavily involved in logging. According to WWF, reformasi has legitimated the removal of timber from the park and its buffer zone using local people. The implementation of existing regulations is too weak to prevent such activities and people believe themselves free to dispose of the forests.

These two examples contrast the ways in which reformasihas impacted on local communities, in a context of extreme timber demand. In Bukit Batabu the flouting of the rules as the protected forest was opened for logging encouraged locals wanting back their land. As they struggled to reclaim it, others removed the forest. Around Bukit Tigapuluh, timber has become a quick cash commodity, even though this cash is far below the true value of the resource. The poverty of the people and the extreme difficulty of controlling the timber trade make a mockery of official and NGO attempts at protecting the park. Until the pulp and logging companies begin to act in a more responsible manner, the future of the Riau forests and protected areas looks bleak indeed. There is a faint hope that decentralisation will enable more control to be exercised over the activities of rogue companies, but the involvement of so many people in the quest for fibre, from the poorest villagers to high-placed officials, provides few grounds for optimism.

Lesley Potter ( teaches at the University of Adelaide. Simon Badcock ( is Lesley's research officer with much field experience in Indonesia.

Inside Indonesia 65: Jan - Mar 2001

Latest Articles

Labouring in vain?

May 03, 2024 - HASNA A. FADHILAH

The Labour Party (Partai Buruh) was revived in the wake of opposition to the Omnibus Law on Job Creation, but failure in the 2024 election shows they failed to connect...

Book review: Uncovering Suharto's Cold War


Film review: Inheriting collective memories through 'Eksil'


A documentary embraced by TikTokers is changing how young people understand Indonesia’s past

Indonesians call for climate action through music


Self-education and lived experience of the impacts of climate change, are driving a grassroots environmental movement

Book review: Clive of Indonesia

Apr 05, 2024 - DUNCAN GRAHAM

Subscribe to Inside Indonesia

Receive Inside Indonesia's latest articles and quarterly editions in your inbox.

Bacaan Bumi: Pemikiran Ekologis – sebuah suplemen Inside Indonesia

Lontar Modern Indonesia



A selection of stories from the Indonesian classics and modern writers, periodically published free for Inside Indonesia readers, courtesy of Lontar.