Forest dwellers of Sumatra are losing their home

Posted: 11 August 2008

The Orang Rimba people have inhabited the jungles of Sumatra for centuries. But, as Sumatra's forests disappear under the onslaught of chainsaws and bulldozers, keeping to their traditional, self-sustaining, way of life is becoming impossible. Michael Stuewe and Desmarita Murni report.

Travelling in tight-knit family groups in the Indonesian forests, hunting, fishing and collecting non-timber forest products on their traditional lands, the members of this indigenous tribe have occasionally traded goods with villages on the edge of the forest, but prefer to keep to themselves. But now experts who have studied the culture of the Orang Rimba, which literally means 'forest people', estimate that fewer than 3,000 individuals still survive.

Orang Rimba family, Sumatra
Orang Rimba family, Sumatra
Orang Rimba family, Sumatra. Photo © Tiger Patrol unit / WWF Indonesia
They are one of two indigenous tribes that live exclusively in Jambi Province in central Sumatra. The Orang Rimba are nomadic and dependent on forest resources. And like much of the wildlife that inhabit the same forests, the Orang Rimba's survival is endangered by logging that is clearing Sumatra on a scale unseen almost anywhere else in the world.

WWF researchers have long encountered Orang Rimba people while in the forest. And occasionally, WWF camera traps set up to to record the comings and goings of wildlife have snapped candid photos of families as they move through the forest.

Recently, a team from WWF and Jambi-based NGO WARSI met with a group of four families trying to survive on land that is being logged under legally questionable circumstances by companies affiliated with Asia Pulp & Paper (APP). The head of the group, Bujang Rancak, recalled that they used to be very prosperous, when the forest still provided them enough food and other resources to sell or trade.

Pulp mill

Bujang Rancak, head of a group of families of the Orang Rimba
Bujang Rancak, head of a group of families of the Orang Rimba
Bujang Rancak, head of a group of families of the Orang Rimba. Photo © Michael Stuewe / WWF Indonesia
"Now, a greedy PT (company) has taken away our forests. We can no longer live in our own forest because the PT forbids us to use or plant it. Anything we do is wrong to them," said Rancak.

Until 2006, the Bukit Tigapuluh forest block where they live, which is divided between Bukit Tigapuluh National Park, protected forest and many logging concessions, was relatively free from large-scale commercial forest conversion. But APP is rumoured to have dramatically increased the capacity of its Jambi pulp mill, and requires more wood than ever.

To make matters worse for the Orang Rimba, a police investigation into illegal logging in adjacent Riau Province forced a de facto moratorium on all logging of natural forest there, prompting logging companies like APP to move to Jambi Province instead. The results have been disastrous for the forests and forest-dwelling people.

A team of investigators from NGOs working in the area found that the Bukit Tigapuluh forest block where the Orang Rimba live will soon be split into two by a massive logging highway that wiil connect forest concessions associated with APP to APP's pulp mills in Riau and Jambi provinces.

"Orang Rimba families have become marginalized wherever their forest was opened, easily infected by new diseases and extraordinarily poor without forests to hunt and gather," says Diki Kurniawan of WARSI, who has studied the tribe for the last decade.

"Bukit Tigapuluh has become the last retreat for many families who have migrated here trying to avoid the wave of forest conversion. But with the arrival of forest conversion giant APP here at the very edge of Bukit Tigapuluh National Park, there is nowhere else to run. The Orang Rimba's way of life will go with their forests."

Rich biodiversity

The Orang Rimba's disappearing forests are of high conservation value and five NGOs have called on the government to include the remaining unprotected forests into an expansion area of the Bukit Tigapuluh National Park. They have also called on the companies associated with APP to stop construction of the logging highway and clearance of more forests with high conservation values.

"APP is stealing natural forests away from the indigenous tribes who depend on this forest area for their existence," an investigative report by WWF and four other organizations working in the area concluded earlier this year.

Also under threat are the Talang Mamak, a sedentary tribe who live only in the Bukit Tigapuluh forest block. These are people whose whole existence depends on these forests.

The Bukit Tigapuluh Forest Landscape contains some of the richest biodiversity on Earth. It is one of the two last remaining ideal habitats for endangered Sumatran elephants, with an estimated population of more than 50 individuals. It has also been identified as one of 20 "Global Priority Tiger Conservation Landscapes" by some of the world's leading tiger scientists. And Sumatra, the largest island in Indonesia, is the only place in the world where endangered elephants, rhinos, orangutans and tigers co-exist.

Land rights

The government of Indonesia does not account for the traditional land rights of indigenous peoples when it leases logging concessions to industry. Some Orang Rimba are now forced to live part of the year on palm oil or pulpwood plantations because there isn't enough natural forest left.

The Orang Rimba have long practised a system of forest resources management that protects their resources and has allowed them to survive on forest produce for generations. But as their forests disappear, according to Rancak, the government's solution has been to provide them with pre-fabricated houses to live in, without shade and without water. It hasn't worked. What they want is their forests.

Slash and burn

Orang Rimba
Orang Rimba
Orang Rimba forced to burn their forests. Photo © Michael Stuewe / WWF Indonesia)
After the companies logged the Bukit Tigapuluh forest and destroyed the resources they used, the Orang Rimba turned to slashing and burning in the destroyed forest to plant food such as corn, paddy, cassava, or harvest rubber to sell in the market. They said they now have no choice other than farming. The remaining forest surrounding them no longer provides enough resources to support them, no more animals to hunt, no more rattan and resin to collect and sell, and fewer and fewer fish.

"Perhaps we should just cut down all our forests before the PT take them all away from us," Rancak said.

Michael Stuewe is a scientist currently working with WWF in the United States. Desmarita Murni is the campaign coordinator for WWF Indonesia.