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Indigenous community fights to save its lands on Indonesia's historic tin island

Mongabay - April 25, 2024

Moh. Tamimi, Belitung Island, Indonesia – Nasidi paddled gently past a row of the eponymous rasau trees that line the riverbanks here in Tebet Rasau village, where a decade ago people would wade into the Lenggang River to catch silverfish. But life along the river here in the hills of Belitung Island, he said, is not as it once was.

"In the past, if it rained upstream, after three days the water would get to our village," Nasidi told Mongabay Indonesia as he continued along the Lenggang. "Now, as soon as it rains, the water rushes down quickly and causes flooding."

Tebet Rasau is named for the rasau, or pandan, trees (Pandanus amaryllifolius) that grow in the upland of the Lenggang River here on Belitung, an island located around 350 kilometers (217 miles) north of Jakarta between the Java and Natuna seas.

In 2013, much of the landscape around Nasidi's village was altered by the introduction of a monoculture of oil palm trees. This land use change, combined with rampant illegal mining on an island that was once the world's largest producer of tin, has led to an array of challenges for the community.

In August 2016, residents of Lintang village encountered heavy machinery clear-cutting 30 hectares (74 acres) of forest they considered to be their customary land.

The following year, a flood caused substantial damage in the village, prompting the resident Lanun community to draw up their own grassroots plans for environmental protection.

In the years since, the Lanun have built skills in advocacy, organizing demonstrations and participating in mediation with companies and the local government.

Today, Lanun community rangers are still working to uphold 3,800 hectares (9,394 acres) of forest from externally imposed development plans.

"We raise our funding from fellow residents," explained Nasidi, who is a Lanun kepala adat, the community's customary leader. "That money is used to push back against the industrial forest plantation companies entering our territory."

Groups of community rangers take shifts traversing intact and damaged forest. The goal is deterrence, but anyone found defacing the Lenggang River ecosystem faces sanction.

"We won't hesitate to detain illegal loggers, illegal tin miners and any fishers using electricity or poison," Nasidi said.

Forest loss

From 2002-23, East Belitung district, which includes the Lanun's Tebet Rasau area, lost 17,000 hectares (42,000 acres), or around a third, of its old-growth forest, according to Global Forest Watch.

Hariyanto was the central figure forging protection of the Lanun rivers and forests here during the 1990s before Nasidi assumed the leadership role.

"Residents here want the woodland to have community forestry status," Hariyanto said, referring to the central government's scheme of devolving forest management to local communities. "Currently our neighboring villages have had their forests converted into oil palm plantations."

These days, Hariyanto works the land growing pepper. Belitung is a significant producer of white pepper, which is made from the dried berries of the pepper plant, but land use changes and warming temperatures threaten the viability of income from farming.

Lanun interviewees said incomes from fishing in the river had declined following this introduction of palm oil to Tebet Rasau. Previously, people here could feed families simply on the river with 2-by-3-meter (7-by-10-foot) traditional nets, known as siro.

"Using siro, the amount of fish could reach 3-4 tons every year," Hariyanto said.

Sandi, a resident of Lintang village and a former tin miner, said illegal miners often worked on the riverbanks and waste from the mining process would flow down the Lenggang. He suggested prices could be playing a role in drawing illegal mining to Tebet Rasau.

"The price of tin eight years ago was still 20,000 rupiah [$1.25] per kilo [2.2 pounds]," Sandi said. "Now, it's around 130,000 rupiah [$8.14] per kilo."

Indonesia's tin exports reached 70,000 tons in 2023, according to the Ministry of Trade. However, the sector is now under unprecedented scrutiny after the Attorney General's Office arrested several people on graft charges in March.

Budi Setiawan, the chair of the Tarsius Foundation, explained that Dutch colonial administrators intervened in the Lenggang River to ease the flow of tin to European markets. A series of dams, known as lembung, were constructed, but the compounding effects of economic and environmental change was now increasing pressure on fish stocks.

"The fish breeding grounds are disappearing," Budi said. "You can see that fishers who used the siro in the '90s and 2000s would easily catch up to a ton of fish – now they're lucky to find 100 kilograms [220 pounds]."

Separately, the use of pesticides in the oil palm plantations runs off into watercourses, disrupting the ecosystem and squeezing spawning sites.

The kariba weed (Salvinia molesta) has colonized the river, outcompeting other life and disrupting the flow of light into the Lenggang River.

"When the kariba carpets the river, sunlight doesn't penetrate the water," Budi said. "The overabundance of kariba can increase the acidity of river water and affect the fish population."

Tor de force

On April 21, UNESCO made Belitung and nearly 200 small islands surrounding it a UNESCO Global Geopark, an area of outstanding geological significance for its tor granite formations. The application process required collaboration among local government and communities like the Lanun.

"The area's unique tor granite landforms, remnants of meteorite impacts, mining heritage and diverse local culture make it a site of significant tourism potential," UNESCO said at the time. "But, at the same time, its complex ecology requires careful, integrated management to ensure long-term sustainability."Lanun elders have orchestrated an ecotourism initiative of their own to support the local economy and the community's environmental work.

But concerns remain that the combination of land use changes, illegal mining and a changing climate are making life along the Lenggang River increasingly challenging. "Nine of the tributaries have disappeared," Nasidi said.

Samian, Nasidi's father, told Mongabay Indonesia he supported the community drive because preventing deforestation was an existential question for the community. "If it isn't stopped," Samian said, "then our village is finished."

Source: https://news.mongabay.com/2024/04/indigenous-community-fights-to-save-its-lands-on-indonesias-historic-tin-island