I was born and raised in a small and tranquil village not far away from the Bukit Tiga Puluh National Park, in Jambi, Indonesia. My morning bathing rituals in the longest river in Sumatra, Batanghari, were accompanied by the wonderful calling of gibbons from treetops in the jungle on the other side of the river. In the evenings, hanging parrots livened up the front yard of my parents’ house, while a flock of magpies sang cheerfully from the langsat trees nearby. My weekends were adventurous as my father used to take me to the pristine rainforest of Bukit Tiga Puluh to collect rattans, resin, and dragon’s blood from the forest’s inhabitants, the jungle people of Jambi.
But those unforgettable moments have now become history, disappearing forever thanks to deforestation.
In the early 1970s, my village and many other villages in Sumatra and Kalimantan were included in Suharto’s national development project to become home bases for hundreds of logging companies. Social and environmental impacts were not among the authoritarian general’s considerations.
Hopes were high when Suharto was unseated by the students’ vengeful demonstration in 1998, but his downfall did not bring much change. In the so called reformation (reformasi) era not only did more logging companies pour into my village and other forest areas throughout Indonesia, but they were joined by mining companies and agricultural firms. The consequence was clear: more trees were cut down.
Under centralized Suharto the rate of deforestation was between 550,000 and 1.7 million hectares a year; under a decentralized system the rate is now 2.8 million hectares annually. The cause is that, unlike under the Suharto regime, regents now have more control in issuing permits to clear the forest. Village heads are also given more room from the central government to “manage” the forest in their regions.
This authority paves the way for local leaders to sell the forest to plantation and mining firms illegally. The motives are varied, from just enriching themselves to getting their political candidacies financed by the firms in exchange for forest clearance permits. The former regent of Palalawan in Riau Province, Tengku Azmun Jaafar, was arrested by the Indonesian Anti-Corruption Body (KPK) for cashing in on forest licenses given to 15 companies in 2001. In Central Kalimantan, as stated by Governor Sugianto Sabran, a former regent in control of up to 15 mining permits sold them to Indian and Chinese businesses. In South Sulawesi, a village head of Tompo Bolu was detained for unlawfully converting protected forest for his personal use. The suspended regent of Kutai Kartanegara in East Kalimantan allegedly bartered a concession permit for cash to fund her political ambitions.
In 2013, I was involved in a collaborative research project on the Failures and Interventions on Agricultural Markets, which took place in five regencies within the province of Jambi. We traveled to hundreds of villages, including to the forest area I had walked with my father 20 years ago, Bukit Tiga Puluh. I could not believe what my eyes witnessed: the gigantic trees, the noisy sounds of the forest inhabitants, and the jungle people were all gone and replaced by mining sites, rubber trees, and palm fruit industries.
While forests have proven successful in enriching a few corporations and political leaders, this does not contribute significantly to the welfare of the people living around it. The Indonesian Central Bureau of Statistics (BPS) reported that in 2016 there were more than 6.2 million people living in poverty near and within forest areas of Sumatra. In Jambi, the number was over 174.000, which of course includes my fellow villagers. Our research trips confirmed the data; the residents in the villages we visited lived a starkly contrasting life to the village heads, who mostly owned fancy houses, luxury cars, and lots of assets.
The Indonesian Anti-Corruption Body (KPK) states that this failure results from, in addition to the corrupted practices by local officials, the uneven proportion of forest utilization between companies and local people. Whereas the former have a control of 41.69 million hectares of Indonesian forest, the latter only have 1 percent. In Jambi, 70 percent of its vast forest area has been granted to corporations. This unequal share has raised tension in many resource-rich areas in Indonesia, making the country number one in land conflicts in the world.
Poverty provokes anger and when both elements are incorporated disaster awaits. It is both poverty and fury that motivated people to cut trees illegally soon after Suharto was removed. They had been sick and tired of seeing guests taking over their wealth; thus, they concluded, securing the remaining trees from those outsiders was the best option. As a result, in the first 10 years after Suharto regime illegal logging became the number one factor behind forest destruction in Indonesia.
Not only that, poverty is also responsible for shaping people’s perception about wild animals’ economic value. In the village, people consider beautiful birds or any other animal obtained from the forest as a source of money as they usually command high prices on the black market. The sense of commodification, however, does not originate from the village but from outside. I still remember how a school teacher from the regency nearby told us that he could buy the untouched magpies in the village at a premium price. Not long afterwards, villagers would rush to hunt the beautiful birds and now magpies are completely extinct from my village. Protected animals such as pangolins, freshwater turtles, or white-rumped Shamas are also purchased by buyers from the city, making the forest area in my village a contributor to Indonesia’s status as the champion of the wildlife trade in Southeast Asia.
I tried my best to deal with the despair of losing the beautiful rainforest and wild animals from my village until one day I did an internship at the Sydney Taronga Zoo. I was shocked to learn that the tiger at the zoo was a Sumatran tiger taken from the forest area of the Bukit Tiga Puluh National Park. All of a sudden, memories about my childhood popped back into my head: the gibbon’s morning calls, the birds, the forest. They all seemed so close to me but yet so far.
Søren Kierkegaard was right when he said that “life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.”
Muhammad Beni Saputra is an Indonesian writer and lecturer at the State Islamic University Sulthan Thaha Saifudin Jambi, Indonesia.