By Budi Kurniawan
from Pantau Gambut

The Bararawa peat swamp, on which villagers’ livelihoods depend, has been dormant for four years. Clear legislation is required to protect this community and their livelihoods. The local government must take decisive action.

At 70 years old, Haji Karani has done it all. With hundreds of villagers, he submitted an objection letter addressed to Hulu Sungai Utara (HSU) Regent H. Abdul Wahid. He also demonstrated in front of the regent's office to show his rejection of the presence of oil palm plantation PT Hasnur Jayanti Lestari (HJL) in Bararawa Village.

However, his efforts did not yield results. Regent Letter No. 414/2013, which granted an oil palm plantation permit covering 10,079 hectares, spanning the sub-districts of Paminggir, Panggang Lake, and Babirik, had already been issued to PT HJL.

This entire permit area is a peat swamp, on which local people depend for their livelihoods. It provides fish, agriculture, and a habitat for swamp buffalo. Everyday, the survival of hundreds of swamp buffalo depends on this land. Every dawn, they come out of their barn, graze in the swamp, and then return to their barn in the evening.

The community’s rejection of PT HJL’s permit is supported by 18 out of 30 members of the HSU local parliament. The community was informed of this support in a 21 August 2014 hearing at the HSU Parliament Building in Amuntai, which was attended by the HSU regent and the local community.

During this hearing, 18 members of the HSU local parliament made a statement rejecting the issuance of Regent Letter No. 414/2013 on the Issuance of an Oil Palm Plantation Permit Location to PT HJL. Several parties jointly signed the statement. The Kebangkitan Bangsa party (PKB) members who signed were H Hormansyah, Mawardi, Junaidi, and Lisdawati. From Persatuan Pembangunan party (PPP), the statement was signed by Fathurrahim, M Arsyad, Isbandi, Yaser Arafat, Zainab, Sutoyo Sandhi, and Hj Hasnah. The Democratic party members who signed were Zulfinizar and H Norsyamsiar. The Bulan Bintang party (PBB) signatories were Salman Farisi and Akhmad Junaidi. Arminansyah was the only signatory from the Bintang Reformasi party (PBR). Of the other 12 members of the HSU local parliament, five from the Golkar party chose to abstain or from signing the statement against PT HJL’s permit allocation.

Although their position is politically straightforward, Haj Karani is still worried. According to him, the permit has already been issued, so the oil palm plantation company could arrive in the village anyday. The statement of rejection signed by 600 residents and 18 members of the HSU local parliament could just be paperwork, without any power to prevent PT HJL from setting up operations in their village.

Given these concerns, Karani and other local residents sent another letter, this time to then-Governor of South Kalimantan H. Rudy Ariffin. Karani and his colleagues explained that they would sue the HSU regent, Abdul Wahid, to the State Administrative Court. "We are indeed planning to sue. This is our last resort to defend our rights," Karani says.

Masran, a resident of Palukahan Village, Lake Panggang, was in strong favor of this legal effort. However, according to him, the lawsuit will not be necessary if the regent takes action and speaks to the affected communities about whose territory will be covered in the PT HJL concession, before determining the permit location.

However, according to Masran, with the absence of communication and the regent’s profit-driven insistence on allocating the permit, it is likely that someday this problem will cause a social conflict. "There have been frequent land conflicts around Panggang Lake," he notes.

The conflict will increase, Masran explains, if local people don’t know the location of the 10,079 hectares that have been permitted for PT HJL’s oil palm plantation. If the permit area encroaches on community land, including the peat swamp where people fish and farm, further conflict is inevitable.

The HSU local parliament and regency government held a meeting to discuss Karani and his neighbors’ objections to the permit. They demanded an explanation for Regent Letter No. 414/2013 and asked for clarification on the exact location of the permit issued to PT HJL.

In addition to demanding an explanation, Chairman of HSU Local Parliament Commission I Hormansyah also requested that the permit be reviewed with due consideration for potential negative impacts. However, if after the review, the regent still insists on supporting the oil palm plantation and the company begins operations on the permitted land, the problem would be left to the community.

Hormansyah added that the parliament members maintained their rejection of the permit allocation. Therefore, they would assess and look for gaps in the permit, because it was allegedly granted illegally, in violation of Law No. 41/1999 on Forestry, Law No. 32/2009 on Environmental Protection and Management, and Regional Regulation No. 12/2012 on HSU Provincial Spatial Planning for 2012–2032.

If that is proven to be true, said PBB-affiliated HSU Local Parliament Member Akhmad Junaidi, the HSU local parliament will form a special committee and use the right of interpellation to request clarification from the government. "The results from the special committee regarding the delay or revocation of PT HJL’s permit will be submitted to the regency government," he stated.

Four years have passed.

The threat to the peat swamp in the village where H. Karani lives is still hanging in the air. The problem is even getting worse.

The HSU regency government issued a new permit for a large-scale oil palm plantation near the permit area previously issued to PT HJL. The new permit issued to PT Sinar Surya Borneo on 26 October 2017 covers an area of ​​8,000 hectares.

This permit was subsequently protested by many parties, including the Indonesian Forum for the Environment (WALHI) in South Kalimantan. The permit was approved four months prior to the regional election in South Kalimantan in 2017, issued by Sungai Hulu Utara Regent H. Abdul Wahid. "The location is a 2–4 meter-deep peat area, so approval of an oil palm plantation permit in this area is illegal," explains Rizqi Hidayat, Campaign, Data, and Program Manager of WALHI in South Kalimantan.

Strangely, the new permit directly contradicts the moratorium issued in Jakarta. "In addition to defying the laws established by the president, this permit ignores the people’s interests and prioritizes corporate interests,” Rizqi says; “With this permit, palm oil plantations now cover 44% of peatlands in South Kalimantan, up from 42% previously.”

After four years, the permits issued to PT HJL and PT Sinar Surya Borneo remain uncertain. The HSU regent himself has not issued any legislation or statement regarding the future of these permits. As a result, Karani and his friends are still waiting with trepidation, their fates hanging in the balance.

About the author: Budi Kurniawan is a journalist and contributor to Pantau Gambut in South Kalimantan.

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