“If companies are stealing the timber, why should I be a bystander?” Notes from a visit to Ulu Masen, Aceh
Dusun Guhanaga is a village in Aceh in an area called Gunung Hujan (Rain Mountain). The road to the village is an ex-logging road built by PT Aceh Inti Timber. When the company was awarded the HPH (Hak Pengusahaan Hutan) Forest Concession, it immediately started logging the forest outside the concession area.
In 2002, PT Aceh Inti Timber had concessions covering an area of 125,000 hectares, according to the Association of Indonesian Concession Holders. Having seen logging companies ransacking the forests outside concession areas, villagers also logged the forests. One Dusun Guhanaga villager asked, “If companies are stealing the timber, why should I be a bystander?”
We travelled to the village in December 2012 with Suhelmi, the vice-chairman of the House of Representatives in Calang, the capital of Aceh Jaya Regency. Previously, Suhelmi was a mukim, the leader of several villages, and part of Aceh’s customary legal system.
We sat in a shop in the village with Suhelmi and drank coffee. Eight men sat around smoking. There were two women in head-scarves, one of whom was singing quietly and putting a baby to sleep. A radio blasted Indonesian pop music from the shop next door. Cats and chickens wandered in and out of the shop.
The villager told us that PT Naga Emas, the first company to explore for gold in the area, arrived in the 1980s. During the conflict in Aceh, many companies, including PT Naga Emas stopped work. After the tsunami in December 2004 and the end of the conflict, another company called PT Haji Nero arrived in the area. They came with people from Thailand and started removing what they called samples. “The company found that the samples contained considerable amounts of gold,” Suhelmi said. But villagers said the amounts being removed were too large to be samples, and Suhelmi reported the company to the police.
Suhelmi told us that he was at first reluctant to support the logging moratorium when Irwandi Yusuf, then-governor of Aceh, introduced it in 2007. “I had to close two sawmills,” he said.
“What would the government do with the communities who depend on the forest for their jobs? The government should provide an alternative. There has been some support but the support is general and not specifically for forest workers.”
The villagers said that Fauna and Flora International and Walhi supported the logging moratorium and organised meetings with the mukim in Banda Aceh. Then came the Ulu Masen project and more meetings about carbon trading. “Ulu Masen has disappeared from the news in recent years,” Suhelmi said. “It’s left us not clear. There are no clear boundaries. There are no clear regulations. I regret that there is no information from the government about Ulu Masen and REDD.”
“I’m quite bitter,” one of the villagers said, “because no compensation has arrived. I’ve heard rumours about carbon money, but in the village we’ve never got anything.”
The logging moratorium coincided with the arrival of PT Haji Nero in the area. “The community kicked out the company and took over the mining operations,” Suhelmi said. At first, there were accidents and land slides. “Villagers had to learn how to mine,” Suhelmi said. “Now there are no more serious injuries.”
While we were talking, a motorbike loaded down with timber poles drove past. Just across the road, a small-scale gold mill was running. As our discussion ended, a jeep arrived with sacks of soil.
We drove towards the artisanal gold mine where the sacks were coming from. As we drove, we could hear the buzz of chainsaws in the distance. We drove past patches of recently cleared forest, some planted with rubber trees, fruit trees and rice. Wooden huts stood in some of the clearings. A bulldozer was parked on a track off the road, with logs just behind it. A bit further along half-a-dozen workers were loading logs onto a truck.
Villagers use mercury to extract the gold from the soil. People from Bogor with experience of artisanal mining have moved into the area to work, and they were clearing areas of forest to plant crops to feed themselves.
Suhelmi told us that he doesn’t see mining as sustainable in the long run and that he is looking for alternatives. “I am not favour of large-scale oil palm plantations,” he said. “It’s most important to get the community forest back, an area of 3,000 hectares, to support communities in the long term.” His plan is to establish a buffer zone around a conservation zone, so that villagers’ livelihoods will be protected as well as the forest.
“I aim to support the communities to strengthen their bargaining position, for example by growing forest gardens to sell products and live in the buffer zone. Then there is less temptation to touch the forest.”
I travelled to Aceh Jaya with Down to Earth and Jaringan Komunitas Masyarakat Adat Aceh (Network of Indigenous Communities in Aceh – JKMA). I would like to thank Zulfikar Arma for arranging the trip and Adrian Sri Adhiati for translating. Any mistakes are, of course, my responsibility.