The destruction of nature in S. Sumatra has given rise to a criminal generation (commentary)

  • Reports of criminal activity have increasingly trickled out of Indonesia’s South Sumatra province.
  • Could these incidents of violence, lawbreaking and general lack of respect for order be related to diminishing natural resources and destruction of the landscape? This article explores this idea.
  • This post is a commentary. The views expressed are those of the author alone.

While many have been surprised to read recent media reports of ATM break-ins and other criminal activity by villagers from Tulungselapan in Ogan Komiring Ilir district, South Sumatra province, it is not just theft and vandalism that is a problem. The area is also becoming known for its distribution of illegal drugs, and the production of firearms — and not just guns used locally for hunting.

I have witnessed the problems firsthand while in Cengal subdistrict; problems exemplified by the child I saw — no more than 11 years old — walking around with a gun tucked into his belt.

The police have been actively combating the issue, and in April 2017 they confiscated 66 handmade firearms including 23 short-barreled rifles and 43 long guns. They later arrested several drug dealers in Palembang, the provincial capital, who originally came from Tulungselapan. They traced these drugs, and others found in the east coastal regions of Ogan Komering Ilir, or OKI, back to their source. Last December, police apprehend a distributor in Tulungselapan.

Could these incidents of violence, lawbreaking and general lack of respect for order be related to diminishing natural resources and destruction of the landscape? This article explores this idea.

Ramin trees amid a deforested peatland in Sumatra. Image by Rhett A Butler for Mongabay.

In recent decades, many people in OKI have worked in the exploitation and extraction of natural resources. During the heyday of selective logging concessions, known as HPH, citizens of OKI worked in local forests and traveled to other parts of Indonesia, including Kalimantan (the Indonesian part of Borneo), Riau and Jambi provinces in Sumatra, and Papua in the far east of the country. When the number of HPH concessions declined, laborers returned closer to home to work the illegal tin mines on Bangka Island just to east of South Sumatra.

However, even before this, historical evidence shows that the east coast of South Sumatra has long been known as a cornucopia of raw materials. Since the time of the the Palembang Sultanate through the period of colonial European rule, this area has been a reliable source of wood, fish, livestock and rubber. This legacy still echoes today in areas like Mesuji, Sirah Pulau Padang, Kuro (Pampangan), Tulungselapan and Cengal.

However, a major difference between then and now is that previously the indigenous community still had strong ties to the their traditional customs — including rules of land management. The customary law established which land could be used for settlement or agriculture, and purposefully set aside chunks of sacred forest — typically found on peat domes — to be left untouched.

During the 33-year rule of President Suharto, exploitation focused increasingly on timber, rubber, oil palm, fisheries and shrimp farming. At the same time, the arrival of transmigrants brought other changes. They were settled in the area with the intent that they would develop rice and other food crops, but many quickly turned to working for industrial logging or oil palm companies.

During this period, the customary laws of the indigenous peoples began to be dismantled and replaced with modern village governments. With this transition, many customary forests were also dismantled. Initially they were opened for exploitation under the scheme of “land-based investment” and locals were allowed to utilize timber products from the sacred forests. Once the forests open up, they are rapidly converted into agricultural plantations, industrial timber concessions (HTI), or settlements that house factories, all of which require the increase development of roads.

Alarmingly, with this spreading development many historical sites from the Sriwijaya Kingdom are also being disturbed. Artifacts previously hidden deep in the protected sacred peat forests are being discovered by treasure hunters who arrive fast on the heels of the clearing and burning. They seek objects of value like gold and pottery, and destroy artifacts they don’t have use for like ancient boats and building foundations.

Tang dynasty urns recovered from a Sriwijaya Kingdom excavation site. Image by Taufik Wijaya for Mongabay.

In addition to the loss of forests, peat and important protected areas, this destruction of nature creates an increasing number of problems for society, which I identify below:

First: The loss of customary land results in the loss of indigenous peoples’ identity.

Second: The loss of customary land creates conflict both vertically and horizontally in society by breaking the ties of communication and straining the bonds of love between community members. This results in violent behavior and crime. Life in the village is no longer comfortable as more people turn to dealing drugs or making firearms, or they leave to work as pirates in the Malacca Strait or to clear forests in South Sumatra, Jambi, Riau and Kalimantan — particularly on protected government land.

(Read: Inside Indonesia’s highest profile land conflict

Third: The damaged environment is causing the loss of access to locally sourced foods. Traditional dishes like fish pindang and pempek — which are excellent for the development of the body and brain, contain antioxidants and fight cancer — are consumed less and less by society as it becomes harder to find the raw ingredients.

Fourth: The production of local fruit, such as durian and duku, has also decreased with the destruction of the landscape. These were once a major source of food and income for the local economy.

Fifth: The loss of historical treasures, such as the Sriwijaya artifacts once guarded by the forest, robs the area of one potential for creative economic development. These can never be replaced.

All of these issues raise an important question: Did the the ancestors of the people of the OKI region truly wish their descendants to live in this world become criminals? I don’t believe so.

There is no human in Indonesia who can fall onto this dark path as long as they are connected with the spiritual and religious foundations of their community. The people of OKI once lived prosperously and peacefully by managing their natural surroundings. Today, the loss of our cultural identity is making it more difficult to protect this noble heritage.

The emergence of a “restless generation” — with its increasing trends of criminality — will only exacerbate these societal losses. You can draw a red line connecting the loss of a community’s natural wealth and resources to the emergence of this life of chaos and negative behavior.

The loss of our natural resources not only creates poverty, reduces education and decreases health, but it also gives birth to a criminal generation precisely because they have no identity left to protect.

Banner: A drained peat swamp burns on the island of Sumatra during the fire and haze crisis of 2015. Image by Rhett A. Butler for Mongabay. 

This article was first published on May 11, 2018, by our Indonesian sister site, Mongabay-Indonesia.

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