By Pantau Gambut

A number of residents in the Jambi region felt disturbed by the canal blocks built around their gardens. From their perspective, the canal blocks constructed as part of the national peatland restoration program were built without their involvement or consent as affected landowners.

Irritation was visible on Sabri's face as he recounted what happened to the pinang (areca palm) he planted three years ago. It's been more than a month since Sabri's areca plants started looking unhealthy, their leaves yellowing and collecting brown spots.

Sabri is a resident of Terap River Village in Jambi, where he owns an areca palm garden. A number of canal blocks were built in his village as part of the national peatland restoration program. Local areca plants began to turn yellow shortly after the canal blocks were built, blocking water in the ditch around the garden.

“Our gardening knowledge is only based on experience. From what we understand, the pinang turned yellow because too much water is in the ditch and it does not flow,” Sabri said.

Areca nuts are an important commodity in Jambi local economies, and are even exported to countries such as India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh.

To date, seven canal blocks have been built in the Terap River area, spread at 200 meter intervals. Unfortunately, these canal blocks were built during the rainy season, so they hold more water than originally estimated.

The construction of canal blocks is one method of rewetting peatlands. The purpose of a canal block is to retain water so that the peatland does not become dry and flammable. The government launched the national peatland restoration program covering 2 million hectares of peatland across seven provinces to prevent the recurrence of severe fires, such as those that occurred in 2015. The seven provinces included in the program are Jambi, Riau, South Sumatra, West Kalimantan, Central Kalimantan, South Kalimantan, and Papua.

Although it is a national program, peatland restoration activities currently involve local communities through a self-management scheme. In this scheme, Pokmas (community groups) can apply to undertake the construction of restoration infrastructure such as canal blocks and boreholes or carry out community economic revitalization programs. The canal blocks in Terap River were also built by Pokmas, albeit a group of villagers from outside the area.

“I was the first person to live in this village and dig a ditch, so that water flowed and we could plant areca palm on this land. But, now these canal blocks were built without my consent or the consent of other garden owners around the ditch,” explained Sabri, a village resident since 1964.

Rohmat Sobari, who is also a Terap River resident, said that the representatives of the Pokmas held a meeting with residents before the canal block was built. At that time, according to Rohmat, the Pokmas asked residents to sign a document approving restoration activities, but not specifically mentioning the construction of canal blocks in the village area.

Those signatures are now misinterpreted.

“Now when we question the canal blocks that disturb our gardens, they show us the residents' signatures,” Rohmat said.

The residents have submitted their complaints to the village head. The Peat Restoration Agency (BRG) has also visited and directly inspected the Terap River area.

The solution proposed is that the existing canal blocks will be replaced with canal blocks that can be manually opened and closed, so that residents can control the water level if it threatens to harm their plants. However, this solution won’t be implemented for at least a month.

“We don't know what to do. A month could be too long. If there is no immediate action, our areca palms will not survive,” Rohmat complained.


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