Indonesia launches bid to restore national park that’s home to tigers, elephants

  • Tesso Nilo National Park in Sumatra is home to critically endangered tigers and elephants, but has been heavily deforested by illegal oil palm plantations and human settlements.
  • The government has introduced a program to gradually relocate the people living within the park’s borders, by encouraging them to shift away from oil palm farming to alternative and sustainable forms of livelihood.
  • If successful, the program could serve as a model for restoring other national parks across Indonesia, which face similar problems of human encroachment.

JAKARTA — The Indonesian government has unveiled an ambitious plan to restore a heavily degraded national park that is one of the last remaining habitats on Earth for the critically endangered Sumatran tiger.

The restoration of Teso Nilo National Park in Riau province, on the island of Sumatra, has been two years in the planning, and is expected to serve as a model for other national parks across the country if successful.

A key focus of the plan will be engaging with the communities that have moved into the ostensibly protected area and over the years cleared the land to establish settlements and plantations.

Hariadi Kartodihardjo, a member of a task force of government officials, conservationists and field workers set up in 2016 to survey the various issues on the ground, said the team went from village to village to study how the land was being occupied.

What they discovered was that a long history of mismanagement had allowed tens of thousands of hectares of the park and two adjacent logging concessions — which together make up the Tesso Nilo forest complex — to be overrun with oil palm plantations and dozens of villages.

The task force also faced hostility from the villager, who, despite occupying a national park and not having any title to the land, insist on remaining there.

“During the first meeting [with villagers] at the park, I was kicked out by the locals,” Hariadi, a senior adviser to the minister of environment and forestry, said at an event in Jakarta. “They have this perception that the government is toying with them. So it wasn’t easy.”

Illegal logging in Tesso Nilo. Photo by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay.

History of oversight

Tesso Nilo was once thick lowland forest rich in biodiversity. In addition to its iconic Sumatran tigers (Panthera tigris sondaica), it is also home to a conservation center for critically endangered Sumatran elephants (Elephas maximus sumatranus).

However, large-scale deforestation for illegal oil palm plantations has changed the face of Tesso Nilo, leaving only 25 percent of the park with any remaining intact forest, a revelation that came to global attention after a visit to the area in 2013 by the U.S. actor Harrison Ford for a documentary series.

As their habitat shrinks, Tesso Nilo’s elephants are increasingly crossing paths with humans — and being killed as they are perceived as crop-destroying pests. At least 55 elephants have been killed there since 2012, reducing the estimated elephant population in Tesso Nilo to between 150 and 200, according to the government.

Ford’s visit culminated in a heated argument between the actor and Indonesia’s minister of forestry at that time, Zulkifli Hasan, over who was responsible for the large-scale destruction of the park.

The answer isn’t all that clear-cut.

Much of the problems in Tesso Nilo today can be traced back to the long delay by the government in establishing the area as a national park. It wasn’t until 2004 that it received this designation, with the attendant protections it was supposed to afford. But by then, thousands of people, mostly from nearby North Sumatra province, had already settled into the area in search of land.

That mass migration was encouraged by local officials during a period when the status of the land was still unclear. Prominent local businesspeople provided financial and logistical support to the settlers, allowing them to fell and burn trees to set up oil palm plantations. Subsequent investigations have found that palm oil originating from these plantations is finding its way into the international market.

There are 150 oil palm plantations inside the national park, according to government figures, along with 64 plantations in the adjacent logging concession formerly held by PT Hutani Sola Lestari and 36 in another concession previously held by PT Siak Raya Timber.

“How do you solve problems like these when the oil palm trees have matured and some of [the plantations] are even owned by former military personnel?” asked Hariadi.

In addition to the sea of plantations, there are also 23 villages in the park, which have a combined 4,000 households. While the families here work on and manage the illegal plantations, most of them don’t own the plantations.

According to a 2013 report by WWF, which has been helping the government manage the park since 2004, the average plantation size per individual in the park was 50 hectares (124 acres), far bigger than the typical size for a smallholder, and thus suggesting the presence of significant capital behind the industrial-sized estates.

Fifty-eight palm oil companies operating on the outskirts of the park are known to buy up the palm fruit harvested inside, despite being aware of their illegal provenance, Hariadi said.

“These firms don’t accept [consignments of palm fruit from illegal plantations] during the day, but they do accept them during the night. The farmers have admitted this,” he said.

Burned forest in Tesso Nilo National Park, Riau, Sumatra. Photo by Rhett A. Butler

Engagement and enforcement

With thousands of livelihoods at stake, the task force set up in 2016 had to first distinguish the genuine smallholders from the big plantation owners, known locally as cukong, who hire the small farmers to manage their estates.

The next step is to engage the small farmers in the restoration plan by involving them in the government’s social forestry scheme, through which it provides alternative livelihoods within the national park that don’t involve farming oil palms.

The task force has already kicked off this scheme with some villages in the park.

“They have cultivated honey and eventually they’ll be able to plant crops that have economic value,” said Chalid Muhammad, a senior adviser to the minister of environment and forestry.

The social forestry scheme is the gateway through which the government hopes to gain the trust of the locals. The ultimate goal is to eventually relocate them out of the park and into the neighboring logging concessions. (The companies that held those leases had their permits revoked by the Ministry of Environment and Forestry in 2015 due to fires in the concessions.)

Until that happens, the locals will be allowed to remain in the national park, where they are expected to commit to the social forestry scheme while gradually giving up oil palm farming. This transition period is expected to last 12 years, after which all work on the illegal plantations will be prohibited.

Hariadi said the government cannot relocate the people right away because their livelihoods still depend greatly on the oil palms. In addition, some of the villages were established a long time ago, and their inhabitants have formed strong community bonds, which is why the government cannot separate them.

“Just because we have vacant land available doesn’t mean we can just move people there,” Hariadi said. “These people want to stick to their groups, and each group can consist of 500 households. So we’re talking about a mass migration, because community relationships can’t be broken.”

At the end of the transition period, the villagers will be given title deeds to the land in the logging concessions, as part of the government’s agrarian reform program. The land inside the national park will go back to its original inhabitants.

“There’s no way we will disturb the habitat of the elephants and the tigers [in the park],” Hariadi said.

None of this means the cukong behind the illegal plantations, who have been identified by the task force, are off the hook. Bambang Hendroyono, the secretary general of the Ministry of Environment and Forestry, said the government would crack down on them in tandem with the resettlement process for the others.

“We’re trying to solve the problems with the social forestry scheme, while not forgetting to enforce the law on illegal parties in forest areas,” he said.

The government has already seized 12 excavators from inside the park, Chalid said. These machines are typically used to raze trees to clear land for planting oil palms. A parallel investigation into the ultimate owners of the illegal plantations has also begun, he said.

As for the 58 oil palm firms that buy from the illegal plantations, some will be acquired by the government and run by state-owned palm oil firm PT Perkebunan Nusantara 13 (PTPN 13), while the rest will have their permits revoked, Hariadi said.

The population of Sumatran tiger (Panthera tigris sumatrae) has been pushed out of their forest habitats by rampant deforestation and hunting. Photo by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay.

Political uncertainty

While the government has vowed to proceed with the program, and President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo is scheduled to visit Tesso Nilo in the near future, Hariadi said a change in the administration after the 2019 elections could derail the entire plan.

Jokowi’s first term ends next year, and while he remains a favorite to win re-election, he faces a resurgent opposition emboldened by its victory over a close Jokowi ally in the 2017 Jakarta gubernatorial election — a proxy for the race for the nation’s highest office. And should he win a second term as president, the vagaries of Indonesian politics could see him restock his cabinet with loyalists not necessarily aligned with the current administration’s views on conservation.

“The [election] will have an implication,” Hariadi said. “If the leadership doesn’t commit to the people after 2019, then [the restoration plan] won’t work. Indeed, we can’t guarantee it will work if there’s a change in our politics.”

But Hariadi said he was hopeful that with the fundamentals in place, particularly the hard work done by the task force to engage the villagers, and continued commitment from the government, the plan would go through.

If it does, and it succeeds, the government will be able to use the same twin-pronged approach of social forestry and law enforcement to restore other national parks across the country, many of which face the same underlying problems.

“This will become the model for solving [similar problems] all around Indonesia,” the environment ministry’s Bambang said.


Banner image: Forest loss in Sumatra is putting species like the Sumatran elephant at greater risk. Photo by Rhett A. Butler for Mongabay.

This story first appeared on Mongabay

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