Hope, Cut Off by a Road
The last lowland tropical in Sumatra is threatened by planned construction of a road meant for coal transport. The road will provide new access for forest encroachment, illegal logging, as well as hunting of endangered animals.
The sun had just begun to rise in the sky above Restorasi Ekosistem Indonesia’s patrol post, in the Meranti sector of Harapan (Hope) Forest, Batanghari Leko subdistrict, Musi Banyu Asin Regency, South Sumatra. Birds were singing and the agile gibbon were yelling, as if welcoming the sun that shyly peeked above the dense canopy of large and tall trees in the valley surrounding the post.
In front of the post, the patrol pathway was still wet, its red soil immediately stuck when one set foot on it. It was the best time to observe animal footprints. A couple belonging to a tiger and a boar were found near the post. The night before, the former seem to be hunting the latter. “The 14 camera traps we set in changing locations frequently capture images of crossing animals, such as tigers, elephants, pangolins, deers, boars, tapirs, bears, and birds,” said Erwanda Trio Bintan Sabri, Fauna Supervisor of Restorasi Ekosistem Indonesia, Friday, March 8.
The pathway is flanked on its sides by bamboo and acacia trees, which were used as plants for reforestation, back when Harapan Forest was still under concession for utilization, 11 years ago. Around 300 meters from the post lies the vast, thick tropical rainforest whose large trees were spared from the chainsaws of forest concession holders.
Along the path, one could hear songs from various birds. Some even made an appearance, as was the case with groups of babblers, emerald doves, tailorbids, and bulbuls (Pycnonotidae). Up above in the tallest treetops, were a pair of wreathed hornbills measuring around a meter from the beak to the tail. That whole day, Hornbills were frequently seen flying across one side of the path to the other, disappearing in the forest. There are eight kinds of hornbills here, out of a total of 12 kinds in Sumatra.
Situated in the valley of Meranti and Kapas Rivers, the Meranti sector of Harapan Forest is among the biodiversity centers of Sumatra lowland tropical rainforest. Harapan Forest itself is a former production forest concession area of Asia Log and Inhutani V, measuring 98,555 hectares. Its location is in Batang Hari Regency, Jambi. This area is the remaining lowland tropical rainforest in Sumatra.
Harapan Forest has been managed by Restorasi Ekosistem Indonesia since 2008. The government requested Restorasi to carry out restoration efforts toward the ecosystem, flora, and fauna of the former production forest. Some parts of the forest sustained damage from concession activities, but their biodiversity remain high.
This area is an important habitat for 26 rare and critically endangered species. Aside from the Sumatran tigers, there also Sumatran elephants, tapirs, agile gibbons, wild dogs, pangolins, various birds, and endemic vegetations. Harapan Forest contains some 600 kinds of trees, including meranti (Shorea spp.), medang (Litsea spp.), and balam (Palaquim spp.).
A number of surveys conducted since 2008 have shown that Hutan Harapan is home to 307 kinds of birds out of a total of 626 kinds in Sumatra, 66 of which are endangered. It also has 64 out of 194 kinds of mammals in Sumatra, 71 out of 240 reptiles, 55 out of 77 amphibians, and 123 out of 589 kinds of fish in Sumatra.
Erwanda said that more than 20 Sumatran tigers and eight Sumatran elephants roam Harapan Forest. Six female elephants were originally from the forest, while the two male elephants were translocated from Bungo Tebo, Jambi. The Natural Resources Conversation Center moved them due to conflicts with humans.
A male elephant, Lanang, had been observed in the Dangku Wildlife Reserve in Bayung Lencir, Musi Banyu Asin, not far from Harapan Forest. Lanang wears a collar with global positioning system so that he may be monitored at all times.
“Ideally, there should be a corridor leading to Dangku Wildlife Reserve to enable animals from the two places to meet,” said Erwanda. The absence of corridor is not something to worry too much about for the Harapan Forest management. What is more concerning is the planned construction of a 31.8 kilometer-long mining road which would tear through the Harapan Forest, including Meranti protection zone. “Animals here would be impeded by the road, obstructed from getting in and out. Not to mention the threat of hunting and illegal logging,” said Erwanda.
Construction plan for the road began from a proposal by Triaryani, which owns a coal mining concession area measuring 2,143 hectares in Musi Rawas, South Sumatra. This subsidiary of Rajawali Group intends to establish a coal transport route from the mine to Pulau Gading village along the banks of Bayung Lencir River, Musi Manyuasin. Of the 88 kilometers total length of the planned road, a third of it would cut through Harapan Forest area.
Restorasi Ekosistem Indonesia Director of Operations Adam Aziz said the plan was proposed in 2013 by Musi Mitra Jaya to the forestry ministry, but it was turned down. Then, in September 2017, Marga Bara Jaya continued the plan by submitting for a forest area utilization permit (IPPKH) to the environment and forestry ministry, armed with recommendation from two governors.
Recommendation from South Sumatra Governor was issued when Alex Noerdin was in office, while recommendation from Jambi Governor was issued by acting governor Fachrori Umar at the end of 2018. The recommendations further bolster the chances of the road’s construction. The ministry had also held the Environmental Impact Analysis Central Evaluation Commission Technical Team Meetings on November 16, 2018 and February 18 this year. Tempo was unable to get confirmation from Marga Bara Jaya for the planned construction of the road. Attempts to contact the company’s director of operations, Rojak, received no response. WhatsApp messages were sent and read, but not replied to.
Adam said that, according to analysis, the road would threaten the forest restoration efforts being carried out for the last 10 years. “We urge the environment ministry not to issue the forest area utilization permit for the road’s construction because it would present a major threat for the biodiversity in Harapan Forest,” he said.
Among others, the threat, Adam explained, would come in the form of forest fragmentation and deforestation. The wild animals’ habitat and biodiversity of Sumatera’s lowland tropical rainforest are also at stake. “The opening of a road cutting through Harapan Forest would provide new access for forest encroachment and illegal logging. Those are already high now, let alone when the road is open,” he said.
Adam explained that Restorasi Ekosistem Indonesia is carrying out forest restoration efforts by means of integration of area protection, enrichment, natural succession, and planting. As of now, around 72,000 hectares of the forest have been restored and are still undamaged. The rest is undergoing intensive restoration efforts by Restorasi through partnership with local residents both inside and around Harapan Forest.
As many as 15 non-governmental organizations from Jambi and South Sumatra joined in the Coalition Against Natural Forest Destruction are also opposing planned construction of the road. “Tearing through the forest, the road would threaten the livelihood of some 220 families from the Batin Sembilan society,” said Warsi Indonesian Conservation Community (KKI Warsi) Director Rudisyaf, representing the NGO coalition. He added that the corresponding company should be able to utilize existing roads instead, such as ConocoPhillip’s road or Bumi Persada Permai’s road
Meanwhile, the danger of illegal logging in Harapan Forest is very real. Most parts of the forest are surrounded by palm oil plantations and industrial forests. In a journey through the Meranti River using a motorboat, Tempo witnessed timber from illegal logging activities in Harapan Forest floating about. These logs, measuring more than 60 centimeters in diameter, were arranged in rows, like rafts, to be floated away downstream to the timber processing area. Some places along the river banks looked barren with trees cut down, a leftover from the logging activities. As for the planned location for the mining road, about 100 meters from the river, the trees were still pretty much dense and standing tall.