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If only there were a thousand Pasaribu

Tempo - January 2, 2024

Rifqy Faiza Rahman – In a sweltering remote village surrounded by oil palm plantations, a conservation forest farmer shares ideas and hopes. A loud voice despite the threats against the land mafia.

The Arah Singgah TelusuRI expedition team's boots met the dusty ground of Kuta Buluh Simalem (25/09/2023). Nestled at the far end of PIR ADB Village in Besitang District, this tiny settlement stood as the gateway to the vast gardens of Hatuaon Pasaribu (58), the resource person representing the Conservation Forest Farmers Group under the oversight of the Gunung Leuser National Park (TNGL).

Sixty-nine kilometers from Stabat, Langkat Regency's administrative center, and seventeen kilometers beyond the Medan-Banda Aceh Highway, Kuta Buluh Simalem felt almost off the map. Only with a magnified screen could one hope to locate this village, home to some fifty families. Its sole access road, a macadam strip, promised muddy challenges in the coming rain.

At the village's heart, a familiar face beamed: Pasaribu, affectionately known as Pak Hatuaon. A firm handshake solidified their connection. Though years had etched lines on his face, his blue shirt and trousers framed a surprisingly sturdy frame. Yet, beneath the sun-bronzed skin, bloodshot eyes hinted at sleepless nights, whispers of past struggles and present resilience.

Since the 1980s, there has been massive encroachment in Besitang. Traces of this encroachment are still clearly visible today. Forest areas are replaced by monoculture plantations. The majority are planted with rambung (rubber) and oil palm.

Standing on a hot, open ridge, Pasaribu stopped. His hands pointed in all directions. He was right, the scene of devastation lay bare before us.

"This forest used to be very dense. When we came here recently, we could still see signs of the once dense forest. There is still a lot of wood, but now there's mostly rambung and palm. Some rambung and oil palm trees have been planted, some are newly cultivated, and others are still being planted," he explained.

"Approximately the damaged area is more than 16,000 hectares. Looking this way, you can see more clear cut areas," Pasaribu, pointing his index finger in the direction we started walking, "See, there are oil palm plantations and fire scars as well."

The degradation of 16,000 hectares of lowland tropical rainforest in the Besitang region was also mentioned by Wiratno, Head of the TNGL Center for the period 2005-2007, in his book From Wild Forest Loggers to Leuser Conservation: Tangkahan and Development of Leuser Ecotourism (2013). This represents nearly 8% of the 205,355.12 hectares managed by BPTN Region III in North Sumatra.

Despite this, Illegal logging and forest encroachment for rubber and oil palm plantations are the biggest culprits. Illegal companies, officials, and even government officials have their fingers in the pie when it comes to these wetlands. The peak occurred in June 2011, when TNGL's crackdown efforts backfired with the destruction and burning of the Sekoci Resort office by a group of land encroachers. Traces of the charred offices of the old resort still remain today.

The Ministry of Environment and Forestry then took a more inclusive approach. When Wiratno was appointed Director General of Natural Resources and Ecosystem Conservation (KSDAE) in 2017, he launched the Conservation Forest Farmers Group (KTHK) program as a middle way. This program aims to empower the community so that they can still gain economic benefits while contributing to conservation efforts. However, despite 16 KTHKs covering 996 hectares in Besitang, less than 25% of members remain active.

Pasaribu is a member of KTHK Sejahtera, a group of 39 farmers (one representative per family). He currently leads the group. Each member has a maximum of two hectares of cultivated land; which means the two hectares support one farming family.

His journey to KTHK did not happen overnight. Pasaribu's dream has always been to be a farmer. When he was longing for a change of being a middle school and high school teacher, a desire arose to develop a larger area of land.

One day, a friend took him to the interior of the Besitang forest. In the past, the friend said that within the forest land there was the land of the datuk (Kedatukan Besitang) or customary land. In Pasaribu's unfamiliarity with land law, land with customary land status can be owned. He was attracted and bought a plot of land to farm.

In 2016, amidst the surging land conversion and TNGL's intensified outreach, Pasaribu realized his field wasn't customary land but belonged to TNGL.

"I started to grow sweet potatoes first, then lemons and so on," he said. The farm owned by the man from Padang Sidempuan is located about one kilometer to the southwest of the village. "So in fact, I was fooled," he recalled, smiling wryly.

Knowing this fact, he chose not to back down. However, he continues to look after his farms and wants to be involved in forest conservation. "So we continue to plant trees. Starting from dog fruit, sugar palm, bitter bean, durian, and other native species that support the environment," he said.

"Actually, we're planting MPTS (Multi-Purpose Tree Species) for rehabilitation purposes," Pasaribu explained, pointing to bitter bean, dog fruit, and durian growing among them. These plants support forestry benefits." explained Pasaribu, referring to plants that were also planted in his own farms.

Besides the other valuable non-timber plants with high economic value planted by KTHK Sejahtera, Pasaribu considered sugar palms to have great prospects for being an untapped goldmine in need of serious exploration. For him, one palm tree's economic yield can easily surpass a hectare of oil palm.

Sugar palm, or 'enau', is Pasaribu's dream crop. The reason being every part of the sugar palm can be used and nothing is wasted. From an economic perspective and also its environmental functions. Its palm fiber roots not only prevent soil erosion but also retain water, making it a double win for the environment.

Pasaribu was right. Planting sugar palm is in line with the mission of improving community welfare and preserving the forests.

And he's not just daydreaming about the value-added products that could be produced from sugar palm. He envisions turning palm sugar into ant sugar, even generating biogas as an alternative energy source.

But Pasaribu's dreams aren't limited to sugar palm. He imagines KTHK's cultivated land as an ecotourism haven in five years, particularly for fruit agrotourism. Starting from rambutan, cempedak, dragon fruit, durian, orange, avocado, soursop, and many more.

The KTHK partnership scheme presents itself as a meeting point for economic and conservation needs. But, not all KTHK members are not prepared for the long-term commitment. Without dedication from all, KTHK's core vision risks failure, let alone addressing the issue of illegal farming outside the scheme.

"The real reason for the vision struggles? Because it is influenced by people who have interests. The interests are tampering with people's land so that buying and selling can be done. For example, my land was taken and then sold again and again. That needs to be regulated."

Palber Turnip, BPTN Region III Head, acknowledges the disparity within KTHK, noting some prioritize land control over conservation.

"Some farmers yearn for their existing land to be turned into an oil palm plantation, because it is a lucrative crop. It is easy to care for, it can produce up to 25 years, and can be harvested every two weeks. And this is a commodity that business people and mafias are interested in," explained Turnip.

Hasan Sitepu stands out among KTHK members for his involvement in illegal land dealings. "He is now actively buying and selling the land using the imas fee method – the work of cutting bushes and small trees on the ground. Some of them are sold for 15 million per two hectares, some for 10 million, some even for 40 million for 50 hectares."

The national park is gathering evidence to apprehend this repeat land mafia offender. Such decisive action by Turnip and TNGL officers, along with law enforcement efforts, are crucial for securing the future of law-abiding farmers like Pasaribu and others. Demonstrating their dedication to involving the community as key partners in conservation.

A lone voice in KTHK, Pasaribu, who speaks out loud and dares to challenge land grabbers and the mafia. Yet, he desperately needs more backing from regional and central authorities, including the Ministry of Environment and Forestry in Jakarta.

For Pasaribu, Jakarta symbolizes high-ranking officials, the custodians of hope for his people. He believes his voice is crucial, for not all farmers share his unwavering commitment. Absent unified support and resolve, the hope of a prosperous community and sustainable forests is like a mirage in the desert.

"I think it is really important, if necessary, to speak to the Director General at the Ministry (of Environment and Forestry), to look at this area together."

"We are deeply concerned to see a conservation forest area in this condition," Pasaribu said, "so, let's work together, the KTHK farmers are prepared to contribute."

Aware his ambitious vision might not materialize anytime soon, Pasaribu finds solace in having spoken out. He expressed his worries alongside slivers of hope.

Yearning for more Pasaribus, voices that burn with genuine commitment to conservation and long for the green forests forgotten to the echoes of the past.

Source: https://en.tempo.co/read/1816149/if-only-there-were-a-thousand-pasarib