As once it was
In 1985 a visitor to Naca, a small group of huts in Southern Aceh could awake in the morning to the sounds of untold numbers of jungle fowl, pheasants, and Firebirds, whose calls echoed through the galleries of the neighboring forest. By day the trees would host apes such as orangutans, siamang, and gibbons, as well as numerous hornbills and flocks of colorful doves. Toward evening - especially during light rains, tigers could regularly be seen setting out on a hunt.
And at night bullfrogs would stir the night with their mating calls, and soft shelled turtles would come out of the submerged hiding places to hunt and scavenge in the numerous streams. The hamlet of Naca was situated on a narrow strip of dry land between the northern edge of the Singkil Swamp and the mountains to the north that formed the southern watershed of the Bengkung River basin. It was this intersection of these two very different habitats that probably gave the area its extraordinary biological richness. This phenomenon is sometimes referred to as an "edge effect" where biological richness is greater than either of the neighboring habitats. This ribbon of dry flat land running roughly east-west was also an ideal site for a road linking the settlements on the Alas River with those on the west coast of Aceh. In fact a rudimentary road had been completed by 1984.
Where as savannas, deserts, and even northern boreal forests can withstand some disruption, the building of roads can create insurmountable barriers for the species that live in tropical forests. Arboreal mammals simply cannot leap across the open area and for other creatures that live in the twilight world beneath the canopy, the blinding light that reaches the ground along a road way, to say nothing of the dangers of exposure to predation etc., mean that roads for them are dangerous, unfamiliar and hostile. The creatures that live in the lower reaches of the forest or on the ground, just avoid the roads altogether. The road built through Naca was a serious threat, but in addition it also encouraged the immigration of new settlers - lots of them. They came looking for cheap land to make a living. Some of them had moved from the lands whose fertility they had already exhausted by poor agricultural practices. A few settlers were just speculating on the land increasing in price. And a further two or three immigrants set up sawmills to take advantage of the access to the magnificent medium hardwood trees that grew in the area. With each passing year the forests receded further back from the road as the big trees were felled for timber and the remainder cleared and burned in preparation for rudimentary cultivation. By 1990 the calls of jungle fowl ceased, orangutans vanished and there was just too much open land for tigers to risk the crossing from the hills in the north to the swamp in the south to hunt for barking deer and wild boar in the dry season. The Singkil Swamp is an integral part of the Leuser Ecosystem and is extraordinarily rich in species. A description of the area is covered in detail in another story in this series - "Saving the Singkil Swamp". But the road that passed through Naca neatly isolated the Singkil Swamp, making it in effect a one hundred thousand hectare "island". The laws of ecology predict that a significant percentage of species in the swamp would eventually become extinct, including many that live almost nowhere else. Something had to be done - and done fast.
The Leuser International Foundation which had lobbied hard to convince both the Government of Indonesia and the European Commission to make the necessary investments to conserve the Leuser Ecosystem through the Leuser Development Program (LDP) now realized that the conditions were right to address this difficult problem. The plan was to rehabilitate a fifteen square kilometer stretch of land that would link the Singkil swamp with the mountains to the north. The corridor would be centered on Naca and would also include the village of Ie Jeurneh-also of recent origin.
Winning hearts and minds
One of the founding members of the Leuser International Foundation (LIF), Sayed Mudhahar, who had previously been a regent in Aceh Selatan, visited the area to discuss the corridor restoration with the local people. Pak Sayed opened up discussions and explained to the locals that for reasons that were important to nature conservation and for their own welfare (they had no title to the lands they squatted on) they might consider moving. The concept of moving did not bother the settlers very much. They had a history of constant migration and opportunistic settlement and were, in essence, pioneers. What they were most concerned about was being cheated. They knew that Pak Sayed had worked for Mobil Oil prior to becoming a Regent of Aceh Selatan. So, the real reason for their movement, they suspected, was that oil lay beneath the proposed corridor and that they would lose all chance of making fortunes if they moved. To give credence to this theory some settlers living on the edges of the swamp had seen marsh gas emanating from the swamp on dark nights. They had also noticed some offshore exploration drilling taking place off the coast of Singkil Swamp. Surely there was going to be a bonanza. Pak Sayed swore on the holy Koran that he had no such ideas - and in fact he did not know of any oil deposits under the corridor or the swamp. But Pak Sayed was a man of great charm and powers of persuasion. He held meeting after meeting - which cost him a lot of goats and buffalos that are required to be slaughtered for really important occasions and discussions. Little by little he began to convince the people this would be in their own interests. A series of tiger attacks on livestock helped tilt the balance. " The tigers had been displaced from their old trails. They had lost their prey and now they were feeding on goats and dogs owned by the settlers", explained Pak Sayed. If a natural wildlife corridor was re-established the tigers would go back to their old ways and stock losses would decline. Whatever this argument may have lacked in scientific rigor it found a place in the self-interested hearts of those who had had to put up with tiger attacks. The people in the Singkil Bengkung corridor were ready to talk terms. In negotiating with the local people and making settlements, the LIF and the Leuser Development Programme (LDP) insisted on certain key principles:
- No One was to be moved againts hir or her will.
- All the negotiations with settlers would be led by the local Goverment and would be monitored for fairnes by the LIF and the LDP staff
- More than 95% of the settlers would have to agree to relocation or the project would not go ahead
- The costs for the rehabilitation of the corridor including the settlement of any land claims would be borne by the Goverment of indonesian as part of its contribution to the LDP.
The local Goverment of south aceh could now take the lead and the soon became deeply involved with the project. The land measurement agency surveyed the entire corridor area and measured all land holdings, and in addition counted all assets including fruit trees, rice fields etc. Claims to "ownership" were verified and a long list was drawn up of exactly who ownedwhat.
According to the enlightened Indonesian law, compensation for land must be done on a negotiated basis. In essence the Government and the people would have to agree to each others demands or at least reach a compromise price. In this way the freeing up of land for the Singkil/Bengkung corridor was very similar to a person selling his house or land and then deciding what to do with the money. The settlers were thus treated as rational thinkers instead of subjects of a patronizing attitude in which local settlers were considered incapable of making logical decisions. And unlike many involuntary resettlement schemes, the settlers of Naca and Ie Jeurneh were free to choose their own future - rather than all being moved to a new area in which many might not be happy. When the negotiations were completed the payments had to be made. This was not as easy as it might sound. For instance, the political situation in South Aceh was tense and security was uncertain. So it was agreed that the payments should be made in the Medan office of the LDP and monitored by members of the LIF and LDP. A further challenge was that the settlers would be getting substantial sums of money. If this was in the form of cash and the buses on which they traveled to their homes in Aceh were not safe, then they could lose everything. After considerable discussion it was agreed by all concerned that the settlers would be assisted in setting up bank accounts, something most had never done in their lives. In this way the money (or at least most of it) could be transferred to the appropriate bank accounts in Aceh and withdrawn as necessary
Making A Compensation payment to one of the settlers from Naca. Many of these compensated are leading much more productive live in their new homes
As the day assigned for the payments approached there were further problems. There were delays in the mobilization of funds, and the settlers who had already rented accommodation in Medan for several days, were getting restless. Some officials wanted additional payments, but the LDP had given its word that the payments would be transparent and all money owing would be paid in full to the settlers. The settlers, not having much to do with officials, blamed the LDP for the delays. They were armed with machetes and threatened to hold demonstrations or even attack the LDP project office. The trust and confidence built up so diligently was beginning to erode. The anxiousness of the settlers was not surprising - many had already made deposits on new farmlands and were committed to paying the remainder in a limited time. The leaders even threatened to create havoc at the Forestry headquarters in Medan - but fortunately the money appeared at the last minute and the payments could finally be made. The Regent of Aceh Selatan was there to lead the proceedings and in his introductory speech said how valuable the support of the settlers had been for the overall goals of conservation. He also repeated how fair the compensation was and urged them all to spend it wisely. Forestry officials were present as were members of the LDP who monitored the proceedings. The process went well and the settlers publicly expressed their gratitude as well as their optimism about the future.
The settlers returned for a last time to their old homes and in many cases dismantled their old houses to salvage materials to build new ones. Some moved to new lands nearby, while others opened up small businesses, and others used part of their money to go on the pilgrimage to Mecca. Using local contractors the vacated lands were planted in local native species. The healing had begun and in the years that followed animals that for so long had not been seen, started to come back. Now, orangutans can be observed in the trees not far from the road, tiger tracks can be seen crossing the corridor, barking deer have reestablished their old migration patterns and the loud calls of bullfrogs can be heard on rainy nights. And in the early mornings, the sounds of jungle fowl can be heard crowing through the still dawn air. Although this story can be summarized into just a few pages, the work of achieving this achievement took almost ten years. It required extraordinary dedication from all those concerned, as well as tact, patience and political skills. Sadly the man that started it all, Sayed Mudhahar, did not live to see its completion, but he had set a precedent that may have consequences far beyond the limited confines of Naca. Encouraged by the success of this project, the Department of Forestry has become increasingly enthusiastic about supporting the restoration of wildlife corridors both in the Leuser Ecosystem and elsewhere. If these are realized they would collectively make a fitting legacy for one of Indonesia's most ardent conservationists.