Swamps have, for a long time, held a mysterious allure in the popular imagination. Some consider them to be the abode of spirits while most perceive them as dangerous and unfit for human habitation. The swamps in the tropics are even more greatly feared, and with some justification, as they can breed diseases such as malaria and elephantiasis which can be deadly to man, and are often filled with dangerous animals such as great cats, crocodiles and giant snakes that can coil around and squeeze the life out of the unwary.
The Estuarine crocodile still exist in the singkil swamps
The peat swamps of Indonesia represent 70% of the world's total for this specialized habitat. But these swamps are rapidly vanishing as they are logged, drained and, where the peat is not too deep, converted to agriculture. The drainage process creates the conditions for uncontrolled fires. In the great fires that swept through Kalimantan in the 1990s, and which spread as far as Singapore and Malaysia, some 80% of the smoke generated was attributed to the burning of peat swamps.
The situation in the 1980's
But there is another side to this story. Peat swamps are some of the biologically richest habitats on earth, supporting a wide range of fascinating species of flora and fauna. They also provide a wide range of ecological services such as flood mitigation, and support to local fisheries.
But because relatively little was known about the peat swamps of Indonesia, with a few exceptions, little was done to conserve them. A series of expeditions carried out during the mid 1980s by Alamsyah and M. Griffiths, revealed that the Singkil Swamp was unexpectedly rich in fauna, with very healthy populations of orangutans throughout most of the swamp and good densities of tiger in the northern parts. There were also crocodiles, pythons and abundant evidence of sunbear. Also it was noted that there were very high densities of fish in the swamp. The most comprehensive survey of Singkil was carried out in 1991 by the The Asian Wetland Bureau and PHPA (the conservation division of the Department of Forestry) and this revealed that in addition to the findings mentioned above there were significant populations of several very rare birds including the storm stork, the white-winged wood duck, gray-headed fish eagle and the masked finfoot. The survey also confirmed the existence of tiger, sunbear, orangutan, crocodile and python.
As Well as pythons several other snakes such as this mangrove snake find a home in the singkil swamps
Threats begin to mount
In the mid 1980's two major logging concessions were issued in the Singkil Swamp. These occupied some 50% of the swamp's total area and threatened to decimate the richest areas for wildlife. One of the concessions, Lembah Bakti, started work on the eastern edge of the swamp but, fortunately, the other was never able to begin operations. At the about the same time several plantation permits were issued and, closely aligned with these plans, four transmigration settlements were opened in the northern periphery of the swamp. As had happened frequently before, establishing transmigration settlements would provide a pool of diligent and obedient laborers from Indonesia's most populous island of Java for the anticipated plantation development. In an effort to make the land livable for these transmigrants, large drainage canals were dug to drain the northern part of the swamp. And as the land became drained, access for illegal logging interests grew. Despite the best efforts of the drainage engineers the transmigrants still suffered from annual floods that rose to the windows of their houses (see photo) and in the dry season there was insufficient water to grow rice. At best the transmigrants could barely eke out a living in the poor soils, so they turned to the only economically viable industry in the area - illegal logging. They became the labourers for those with the capital to finance the illegal logging operations - from the felling of trees, to the transport of logs to the saw mills and ultimately the transport of sawn timber to markets on the east coast, or for direct transshipment through the port of Singkil at the mouth of the Alas river.
The Leuser International Foundation (LIF) recognized the plight of the transmigrants early on, and pleaded with the Department of Transmigration to give them a better chance elsewhere. The trouble was that considerable money and planning had been invested in the transmigration projects (despite advice from experts not to proceed), and the Dept of Transmigration was averse to the thought of recanting on its plans. The solution, the Department of Transmigration said, was to build more infrastructure to save the struggling settlers. So in addition to drainage schemes which could never work, and the "normalization" or straightening of the beautiful meandering Trumon river, the Dept put in power lines to the transmigration sites where something like 50% of the settlers were leaving anyway. So a visitor to the field could witness brand new concrete power poles arranged in long rows marching ever deeper into the swamp to sites that were indundated with water. The mostly empty houses showed mud marks up to the windows and the only crops that grew were a few pawpaw trees and lemon trees they were planted on artificially created mounds above the water level. In the surrounding forest the noise of chainsaws could be heard as the giant trees that had stood there for centuries were brought to the ground in a matter of hours. The scene was one of devastation and hopelessness.
In one vigorous debate between the LIF and officials from the Department of Transmigration the visionary conservationist Sayed Mudahar who was a founding member of the LIF, asked a simple question that called into question the logic of pouring huge amounts of money to help people who were forced to live in the swamp. "When a man falls into a river and is in danger of drowning, do we drain the river or do we simply pull him out?"The divergence of viewpoints on the Transmigration in the Singkil Swamp had to wait for a decision from the President himself who decreed that while the existing transmigrants could remain in place, no further transmigration development could take place in the Singkil Swamp.
The Transmigration site establishedin the swamp were-semi submerged for long periods. the settlers have since moved else where
The pace of destruction ebbs
In the mid 1990s Prof Carel van Schaik, revealed that the Singkil Swamp (along with the smaller Kluet swamp to the north) sustained not only the densest populations of orangutans on earth but the reason why this was possible. The orangutans in these swamps had developed technological innovations that allowed them to access foods which would not normally have been available.
Using levers to open Nesia fruits, pushing sticks into holes in trees to extract termites from deep within the trunks etc. these orangutans were able to get at much more food than say the orangutans living in the swamps of Borneo, and were thus able to sustain higher population densities. Moreover the technology was passed from one generation to the next through learning by example. In other words the orangutans had developed a primitive culture - something no previous researcher had recorded in the wild. But the very trees that that provided some 80% of the orangutans diet were the same few species sought out by the logging interests. Even with the best logging practices in the world, the canny swamp orangutans- and their culture - would more than likely die out forever. Around the same time the Minister of Forestry, Pak Djamaludin, visited the Leuser Ecosystem. Part of his visit included an aerial survey over the Singkil Swamp.
With an expert eye that comes of hundreds of hours of surveying forests both from the air and the ground Pak Djamaludin could see at once the devastation that was taking place in the northern half of the Singkil Swamp and also the excesses that the logging company, Lembah Bakti was taking Even before Minister Djamaludin had returned to Jakarta he had made the decision to foreclose all applications for plantation development and to eventually close down the two logging concessions. Later in the year only days before his term as Minister was completed, Pak Djamaludin passed a decree designating the Singkil Swamp as a wildlife reserve.The decree included a clever risk-free way of dealing with the logging concessions - ordering that when their concession time had expired the areas would automatically take on the status of wildlife reserves
These were landmark decisions and set the stage for a real change in attitudes and gave hope for the first time the Singkil Swamp could be saved. But there were still new threats. Efforts were being made by local Government to build a road right along the coast on the western side of the Singkil Swamp. While there had been a sandy road/path for several years the bridges had fallen down and access was no longer possible. Upgrading this road and asphalting it would not only create a major barrier for much of the swamps wildlife that needed unimpeded access to the coast, but it would rapidly open up access to virgin forests that still existing in most of the swamp. Again the LIF working closely with the LDP lobbied hard with the Bupatis involved and finally a decision was made to shelve the project. The remains of the sandy path might yet make a very attractive trekking trail for serious nature-tourists. A canal crossing the southern part of the swamp was also be promoted. This would have opened up access to some pristine areas in the swamp and would have accelerated the drainage in that area. Peat swamps can be totally drained by just a few canals and in fact that is what has happened in extensive parts of Kalimantan, in Borneo. The risk was too high and again the LIF and the LDP intervened to fight the proposal. As an alternative, the government of the Singkil regency decided to focus its development on the eastern side of the Alas River where the development potentials are much greater. The end of Djamaludin's term as Minister coincided with the twilight of the Soeharto era. By May of 1998 the President stepped down and the controls that strengthened much of the country began to ease. The Aceh separatist movement saw a chance and backed up by armed men in the field, pressed hard for Aceh to secede from Indonesia and the national Government moved in to stop what it considered to be an armed rebellion. The civil war quickly spread to Aceh Selatan where a sort of independence euphoria had begun to take hold. In the confusion of the conflict many
Javanese transmigrants were victimised. Another result of the war in Aceh Selatan was that those who had previously financed illegal logging could no longer operate. The local Acehnese had long objected to the destruction of their forests, and anyway, the security situation made transporting the timber almost impossible. Thus deprived of their only source of income, and fearful of their own safety in their remote settlements, the transmigrants fled. Those still remaining were allowed to move to alternative areas that were considered to be safer and, more significantly, offered better prospects for development. The transmigration sites in the Singkil Swamp have been essentially empty ever since.
The healing begins
With new status of the Singkil Swamp as a wildlife reserve, with the logging concessions stopped, all but one plantation cancelled, drainage and canal schemes terminated and, by a cruel twist of fate, the transmigration areas emptied, the swamp could slowly begin to rehabilitate itself. The evidence is clear in the north. Those areas previously settled by transmigrants are already 30% covered by pioneering tree species and the logged over forests are gradually developing a contiguous canopy. When members of the Leuser International Foundation first recommended the conservation of the Singkil Swamp, they were advised by many decision makers to forget the idea. At that time most swamps were being converted to other uses, and the same process was beginning in Singkil. It would be better to be realistic, they advised, rather than trying to turn back the tide of "progress." But through the determination and perseverance of the Foundation and the support of the many other parties it won over during the course of a decade, there is now real hope that the incomparable Singkil Swamp will be protected for ever.
|A Flock of Treron Pigeonsresting on nibung palm. thios tree is specific to lowland swampand it's rapidly vanishing outside protected areas||A View down the relatively unspoilt west coast of the singkil swamp. In the future this area could have great potential for nature tourism|