Although the tropical night air was bitterly cold, we continued on our night journey towards Hutanagodang, a village tucked into Sumatra’s Bukit Barisan mountain range along the west coast. That night, representatives from 11 villages in the Ulu Pungkut district of Mandailing Natal —also known as Madina— had plans to congregate in this one township located approximately 12 hours by bus from North Sumatra’s capital city of Medan, Indonesia.
The meeting’s organiser, a Hutanagodang NGO known as Batang Pungkut Green Conservation, had chosen the second day of Eid for this important pan-village gathering. Its reasoning was simple: most Madina residents belong to Sumatra’s Muslim ethnic majority, the Mandailing, and thus customarily return to their hometown for Eid. There seemed no better time for collectively sharing opinions and ideas than during a season where the broader community has come together from far and wide. Since families would be busy with Eid festivities during the day, everyone agreed that there was room in our plans to congregate at night.
After days of communicating across distances through an extensive network of messengers, participants were eager to meet and discuss our core agenda: the presence of the gold mining company PT Sorikmas Mining in Madina.
PT Sorikmas Mining has demonstrated the depth of its clearly defined interest in this north-western region of Sumatra. The company, which is a joint venture between the Australian-based Sihayo Gold Limited and the Indonesian state-owned PT Aneka Tambang (each with shares of 75% and 25% respectively), has already begun explorations and environmental impact analyses in two regional blocks: a North Block in Naga Juang and a South Block in Ulu Pungkut. Our villages are located in the latter.
Over the last 5 years, a rising tide of protest has brought PT Sorikmas Mining into the public eye. Sorikmas Mining originally secured its Contract of Work (CoW) for exploration projects in 1998, but the land allocated in its permit included part of the Batang Gadis tropical forest, now a protected National Park. Once the forest’s protected status was made official in 1999, its preservation should have immediately taken precedence over all other interests. After all, the Batang Gadis National Park is home to a startling array of flora and fauna including 247 species of birds, 47 of which are recognized as rare in Indonesia, and 42 species of mammals such as Sumatran Tigers, Sumatran Serows, Asian Tapirs, Sun Bears, Sambars, and Muntjaks. However, due to an emergency regulation signed in 2004 by the Indonesian president, Sorikmas Mining has been allowed to continue its projects within the Batang Gadis forest. The regulation, in fact, also extended permission to 12 other CoWs throughout the Indonesian archipelago for open-cut mining operations in protected forest areas.
In May of 2006, 55 representatives from 11 villages in the Ulu Pungkut district issued a formal statement voicing their opposition to Sorikmas Mining’s operations. While signatories included village heads, youth leaders, traditional scholars, customary chiefs, and other respected local authorities, the Indonesian government and the gold mining company still chose to turn a blind eye to their objections. With its government-issued permit in hand, Sorikmas Mining’s operations were not stalled—much less halted.
The people of Ulu Pungkut fear that PT Sorikmas Mining’s activities pose a direct and extensive threat to the region’s ecological sustainability. In particular, much of their trepidation stems from plans for a prospective drilling site at Mount Kulabu catchment area, which provides water to dozens of kampong via the Batang Pungkut and Batang Gadis Rivers flowing on either side of the mountain.
In Ulu Pungkut, rivers are the essence of life. This can be seen in how villages tenderly take root along the curve of the water’s flow. The waters of the Batang Pungkut feed villages such as Huta Pungkut, Sipalupuk, Tolang, Simangambat, Muarasaladi, Muarasiabut, Alahankae, Hutanagodang, Habincaran, Hutapadang, and Simpang Duhu, while the Batang Gadis brings nourishment to Pakantan, Muarasipongi, Tobang, Botung, Usor Tolang, Tamiang, and Hutadangka, among others.
People use rivers for drinking water, agriculture, fisheries, and a myriad of other purposes. According to a 2004 survey conducted by the Madina district government, the Batang Gadis River Basin irrigates a total of 34,500 hectares of rice fields, 43,000 hectares of coffee and rubber plantations, and delivers water to roughly 360,000 people.
For these reasons and more, protection of the natural environment is an active priority for local villages, as demonstrated by the traditional practice of lubuk larangan, or river fisheries conservation, undertaken by communities along both the Batang Pungkut and Batang Gadis Rivers.
Under the framework of lubuk larangan, communities jointly manage river fish stocks by prohibiting the harvesting of fish except for at the time of carefully selected ‘open seasons’. In this way, villages have successfully ensured the sustainability of fish stocks for generations by enabling fish to spawn and replenish their numbers for most of the year. River management is usually entrusted to the young women and men of each village through Naposo Nauli Bulung youth groups.
Typically, ‘open season’ is held on one or two harvest dates per year, with Eid being a uniquely popular choice due to the celebratory mood of Mandailing families and village communities reuniting for the holiday.
Visitors from outside the community may also join in the harvest for the cost of a ticket. The number of such participants runs anywhere from 500 to 2,000 persons per village, and ticket prices generally averaged 40,000 IDR this year.
Revenue brought into the villages through lubuk larangan goes to the construction of facilities and infrastructure such as mosques, schools, and village roads. These funds are just another way in which the people who live along the waters of the Batang Pungkut and Batang Gadis Rivers see their livelihoods as intricately intertwined with the well-being of the environment.
Deep concern for the future of lubuk larangan was just one reason among many others that inspired people from 11 villages to come together in Hutanagodang on that foggy night. Our community harvestings —as well as the overall practice of lubuk larangan— would effectively be brought to an end if PT Sorikmas Mining ultimately succeeded in building its gold mine and dredging the catchment area. The threat to our livelihoods is even graver if that mine should dispose tailings into the river, contaminating its waters and poisoning our fishes.
But apparently, the Madina district goverment pays little attention to our local traditions of conservation —already passed down for generations. Rather than harness the power of such community-based measures, our government is more tempted by the allure of “fast money”made through short-term extractive industries like gold mining. If this wasn’t so, then why would they permit PT Sorikmas Mining to explore and potentially exploit terrain that not only hosts invaluable ecosystems but also peacefully rests on protected land?
“We must campaign and work to secure as much public sympathy as possible; there is no other way to push the Goverment to review PT Sorikmas Mining’s operating permit and thereby avert the destruction of our way of life,” said Ucok Godang, a village representative in attendance at our meeting that night.
Bosman Batubara is a master student in Water Resources Engineering, Intrauniversitary Programme, Katholieke Universiteit Leuven and Vrije Universiteit Brussel. He would like to thank Rayna Rusenko for her assistance with this article.