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Fight the company for sago and forest

Residents of Sungai Tohor Village cut sago palms in the village forest area. Photo: Soleh Saputra

Sago plants thrive around Sungai Tohor Village. This is because the environmental conditions in the area are still well preserved. This plant, scientifically named metroxylon sago rottb, also grows side by side with forest plants.

RUMBIA. Once the people of Sungai Tohor Village mention the sago tree. These plants need a lot of water to grow perfectly to produce abundant sago starch. That is also why, from generation to generation, the people of Sungai Tohor have believed that the maintained forest can become the capital for sago trees to thrive. Like mushrooms that grow in the rainy season. Once sago is planted, new shoots will continue to grow. Will not run out until the children and grandchildren.

No matter how difficult the economy is, the people of Sungai Tohor will never disturb the forest plants that grow in the forest around the village. So in peat forest areas, residents only use sago trees. Not only that, the community did not open canals to move sago stalks from the forest to the village. The community is aware that opening canals can dry out peatlands, which in turn triggers water reserves to shrink. Meanwhile, if the peat dries up, the risk of forest fires is high.

However, all the stories of the local wisdom of the Sungai Tohor people are almost a story. This is because around 2007, a company engaged in Industrial Plantation Forestry (HTI) plans to clear community forests. Replace it with acacia plants after holding a permit from the government.

Knowing the company's plans, the community did not remain silent. Through one of Abdul Manan's leaders, the community united against the company. The Sungai Tohor people do not want the natural forest to be damaged if the company operates in their area. Meanwhile, if the forest is damaged, the sago plants that are the support of the community will also be destroyed.

"People started to worry when they learned that there was a Forestry Ministry decree that issued a permit to open HTI in the forest area of Sungai Tohor Village in 2007," said Abdul Manan, who also wrote Joko Widodo's Blusukan Smoke petition.

As told by Manan, in August 2008, the company began to open a 30 km long canal. Knowing this, several village heads in Tebing Tinggi Subdistrict also tried to form a village head forum to prepare for strength against the company. But at that time, the efforts failed.

"Then in 2009, the people of Tebing Tinggi Timur joined WALHI Riau together against the existence of the company. Since that year, more and more people have joined, "he said.

Although at that time the community continued to struggle, the results achieved were far from satisfactory. Only in 2014, the public made a petition for the President, Blusukan Smoke Jokowi to Riau. This was because at that time there was an extraordinary forest fire in Tebing Tinggi Timur District with an area of nearly 2 thousand ha at the location of the company that was being worked on to become a HTI. Including the community's sago plantation. Even then, the fire that burned the peatlands and the residents' houses was only three meters deep. With this condition, apart from having to work hard to save homes, residents were also affected by the smoke for about a week due to the fire. Only on 29 October 2014, the petition reached the ears of the president.

"We deliberately made a petition for Jokowi's Smoke Blusukan to Riau, because in 2014 there was an extraordinary forest fire that occurred in Tebing Tinggi Timur Subdistrict with an area of nearly 2 thousand ha at the location of the company that is being worked on to become HTI," he said.

A month after the petition was made, President Joko Widodo responded to the petition and finally came directly to Sungai Tohor Village. During his visit, the President said that people's rights will still be given to the community. Hearing this, the community was increasingly excited to continue to fight against the company.

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A year later, in December 2015, the Minister of Environment and Forestry, Siti Nurbaya issued a ministerial decree on the revocation of company permits for an area of 10,390 ha. The Minister of Environment and Forestry's Decree on Village Forests for seven villages in Tebing Tinggi Timur District covering an area of 10,700 ha was issued in November 2017.

After the village forest scheme was given, explained Manan, the community's economy was getting better. Likewise, the behavior of residents to protect the forest. This is because the community can calmly manage land legally under the village forest scheme.

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"From an economic point of view, it also automatically increases. In the past, there were only two sago refineries, now there are 14 sago refineries. Of course the production has also increased. One of the factors for the large number of sago refineries is due to the abundance of raw materials and also the high demand for wet sago, "he said.

Sago tual processing at a refinery owned by the community of Sungai Tohor Village, Meranti Islands Regency. Photo: Soleh Saputra

The Head of the Village Forest Management Institute (LPHD) Sungai Tohor Village, Zamhur said, through the village forest scheme that has been given by the government, the community will manage it again by planting ex-location forest plants that have been processed by the company. Apart from forest plants, the community will naturally plant sago palms between them.

"At this time we have also started planting, the forest plant seeds we planted are assistance from outside parties. Meanwhile, there is no assistance from the government itself, "he said.

As a first step in village forest management, for every sago harvesting, the community will deposit the village development tax to the Village Community Resilience Institution (LKMD).

"One tual of harvested sago will be subject to a tax of Rp. 500 for village development," he explained.

Now, after the company's land tenure problem is resolved, the people of Sungai Tohor face a new problem, namely, the massive production of wet sago. So far, the community has not been able to produce wet sago into sago starch and other derivative products because of the lack of facilities and infrastructure. In fact, if the sago is already sold in the form of flour or other derivative products, the selling price of the product will also increase. This is because the selling price of dry sago is more expensive than wet sago.

Head of the Regional Development Planning Agency (Bappeda) of the Meranti Islands Regency, Makmun Murod, said that to help farmers overcome problems in sago processing, his party plans to initiate an integrated sago processing industrial center. In the construction of the sago processing center, the district government cooperates with the central and provincial governments with a total fund of Rp. 80 billion.

"This is in order to increase farmers' income. So far, the processing of sago into finished material has been carried out by other parties. With this pattern it is also expected to increase employment as well. The point is to improve people's welfare, "he said.

Meanwhile, Izal, a resident of Sungai Tohor, is optimistic that the development of the sago processing industry can boost the people's economy. Izal has this belief because some residents have built a small-scale sago processing industry with promising results.

"There is one resident who has a tool for processing wet sago into sago noodles by involving several neighbors. The results are quite promising, half a kilogram of sago noodles can be sold for IDR 8 thousand. However, the production is still limited because it is only limited to the home industry, ”he said.

However, Izal also regretted that the government's attention, especially the Meranti Islands Regency to the Tohor River, only intensified after the President arrived. Previously, the government only collected taxes from the sale of wet sago from the community without making any other contributions that could be felt by the community.

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