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Urgent action needed on Siberut plantation plan

Down to Earth Campaign - March 20, 1997

Indonesian Ministers are due to take a decision approving plans for a 70,000 hectare oil palm plantation and transmigration project in the buffer zone of Siberut NationalPark in early 1997. With advice from Indonesian environmental NGOs, Down to Earth has sent the following letter to the Indonesian authorities urging them to withhold permission. IT IS IMPORTANT TO TAKE ACTION NOW AS THE INDONESIAN AUTHORITIES WILL SOON BE TOO BUSY WITH THE MAY ELECTIONS. IF YOU WANT TO EXPRESS YOUR CONCERN, WRITE IMMEDIATELY TO THE DECISION-MAKERS LISTED BELOW (with a copy to Down to Earth)


There is more information about this oil palm plantation scheme in Down to Earth's newsletter issues No29/30 and 31. Issue 32 also includes a shorter version of this letter.

1. Minister of Manpower Affairs, Drs Abdul Latief, (an major investor in one of the companies), Jl. Gatot Subroto Kav. 51, Jakarta 12950, Indonesia

2. Minister of Forestry, Djamaludin Soerjohadikoesoemo, Gedung Manggala Wanabakti Blok I Lt. IV, Jl. Gatot Subroto, Senayan, Jakarta Pusat, Indonesia

3. Governor of West Sumatra, Dr Hasan Basri Durin Jl. Jend. Sudirman No. 51, Padang 25113, Sumatera Barat, Indonesia


As an international organisation focusing on environment and development issues in Indonesia, Down to Earth recognises the steps already taken by the Indonesian government towards protecting the unique lifestyles of the indigeous people and the ecosystems of the island of Siberut. However, we are very concerned that the Governor of West Sumatra has agreed in principle to the establishment of an oil palm plantation and associated transmigration scheme covering 70,000ha in the buffer zone of the National Park (letters 525.26/2032 and 525.26/2033, August 25th 1995).

These plans are not compatible with the National Park Integrated Conservation and Development Programme or the Park's status as a World Biodiversity Reserve. If this plantation and transmigration programme goes ahead it will damage the fragile ecology of the whole island; create social tension between communities on Siberut; marginalise the indigenous people; fail to fulfil transmigrants' hopes for a better life and prove an expensive disappointment for investors and the Indonesian government. We therefore ask you to refuse to endorse Hasan Basri Duri's recommendation and to excert all your influence to stop this and similar schemes on Siberut for the following reasons:

1. Environmental impacts

a) The National Park which occupies nearly half the island was created to conserve Siberut's rich flora and fauna. Any large-scale extractive development in the buffer zone will seriously affect its vital role in protecting the Park bearing in mind the relatively small size of the island. An oil palm plantation will replace the high biodiversity of the existing forest with one introduced species.

b) The large-scale clearance of forest from Siberut's watershed will have a detrimental effect on the hydrology of the island. The microhabitats of endemic species will be reduced and communities downstream will be treatened by water shortages and flooding.

c) The construction and use of the infrastructure required to support the plantation and transmigration schemes, including roads, drainage, housing and offices will damage the natural ecology of the island directly and indirectly.

d) Soil erosion resulting from forest clearance and construction will result in sediment being deposited along the coast, killing coral reefs in an area designated to become a Marine Reserve.

e) The liming of the soil necessary to establish the oil palm plantation and the pesticides and fertilisers required to maintain this monoculture will pollute waters flowing to the National Park and the Marine Reserve, including the land used for traditional agricultural practices.

f) The transmigration site will introduce new, alien species for agriculture and as domestic animals and unintentionally as pests. These will threaten endemic species and endanger local environments. The delicate ecology of the island cannot withstand the sudden introduction of several thousand transmigrants and the demands for water, firewood and waste disposal.

2. Social impacts

a) As the culture of the indigenous people is intimately connected to the forests of Siberut, large-scale forest clearance will destroy their whole way of life.

b) The type of education and economy of the Mentawai people has not prepared them for the sudden dramatic changes asociated with the introduction of a large commercial plantation. Few indigenous people will be able to gain employment there. c) The plantation and transmigration sites will be established on land traditionally used by the indigenous people. Conflicts over whether or not to give up land rights and the levels of compensation are fragmenting the Mentawai community.

d) Once the indigenous people have lost their land rights they will be marginalised in their homeland. This could lead to social tensions such as those in Sanggau Ledo recently.

e) As it will take at least five years between land clearence and palm oil production, transmigrants will have no source of income or support when the standard support package ends after the first two years.

f) If transmigrants cannot make a living from the plantation or cultivate the acid, waterlogged soils, they will either return home or encroach on the traditional lands of Mentawai communities, including the National Park, to meet their needs.

3. Economic factors

a) The high transportation costs between Siberut and mainland Sumatra will make the cost of establishing and maintaining the plantation and transmigration site infrastructure very high.b) This part of Siberut is swampy. The costs of draining the land and liming to raise the very low soil pH will be considerable.

c) The high costs of importing food and other basic commodities to support transmigrants for the first two years will add to the project's costs.

d) This is a high cost, high risk investment as the productivity of oil palms on Siberut is unproven.

Before considering any further development plans for Siberut, we ask you to insist that:

1. The potential environmental and social impacts on the National Park are thoroughly studied and the results made public.

2. Participative mapping of the whole of Siberut is carried out to determine the extent of indigenous people's land rights.

3. Feasibility studies and research are carried out on the potential for small-scale cultivation of crops based on the rich biodiversity of the indigenous flora of Siberut.

4. Mechanisms are established to enable genuine consultation with all Siberut people. Finally, we must emphasise that Down to Earth is not anti-development. We share the vision of those within the Indonesian government and the broader community who seek development which is environmentally sustainable and socially equitable. The proposed transmigration and plantation scheme for Siberut is neither.

Yours sincerely