Prior to its elevation to national park status, the Tesso Nilo forest was a Limited Production Forest (HPT), which covered an area of 83,064 hectares (Ha). In 2004 the forest was designated as Tesso Nilo National Park (TNNP). The first phase of the conversion consisted of 38,576 Ha and was based on Minister of Forestry Decree Number SK.255/Menhut-II/2004, dated 19 July, 2004. The next phase, consisting of over 44,492 Ha, was based on the Minister of Forestry Decree Number: SK 663/Menhut-II/2009, dated 15 October, 2009. Most of the TNNP is located in Pelalawan regency, while a small portion is situated in Indragiri Hulu, Riau.
Despite the conversion of the forest to protected national park status, the current forested area in TNNP only amounts to some 20,000 Ha. This sad state of affairs is due to unchecked illegal logging of wood for conversion into palm oil. The Chief of Police in Riau, Brigadier General Condro Kirono, has been involved in government efforts to reverse this trend and return the area’s function to that of a national park. Kirono has ordered teams of Brimob personnel to guide the TNNP management in Lubuk Kembang Bunga Village, Pelalawan regency in catching illegal loggers in the act. As part of the government plan to return the forest to its status as a national park, the police are now assisting in the eviction of thousands of families who have been living in the villages inside the park for years.
The eviction move is highly controversial, even inside the Indonesian Government. Ian Siagian, a member of House of Representatives Commission IV, was quoted on Republika Online, as asking the Ministry of Forestry to immediately set a limit to the boundaries of TNNP in order to provide certainty for residents who own palm oil plantations in the surrounding area. Siagian explained that the 1,000 Ha of land around the palm area, owned by 500 heads of households, might be destroyed. The palm oil land, however, has actually been enclosed with a certificate issued by the National Land Board since 1999. Since the regulation converting the forest into TNNP was issued in 2004, the residents assumed their palm lands were legally theirs. Unfortunately, the Minister of Forestry disagrees and considers the certificate to not be original. The impact of this decision is significant, as the residents are now fearful of going back into their palm plantations because they feel threatened by potential police action.
Fear is not the only emotion that the people are feeling in TNNP. A strong desire to defend their homesteads and livelihoods is the other overwhelming emotion pervading the area. After Harrison Ford recently visited Indonesia to film a documentary titled, “Years of Living Dangerously” in TNNP, the atmosphere inside the park has become extremely tense. At least 1,500 families, or about 10,000 inhabitants, have lived in settlements inside the TNNP area for the past decade. These citizens are now restless and feel threatened that their land will be taken over by the government. They are on high alert with machetes and other sharp weapons ready to defend their positions. This is all thanks to Harrison Ford and the drama he instigated with his visit. Fearful for their homesteads, the settlers are now refusing entry to foreigners who attempt to enter the area. In the end, Harrison Ford’s sabre rattling has disrupted the lives of the otherwise peaceful inhabitants of TNNP and created the potential for a huge police-community conflict.
Based on the finding of the TNNP Bureau, there are at least 22 villages that intersect directly with TNNP. Three villages have already been confirmed to have been violated. They are Bagan Limau, Air Hitam, and Lubuk Kembang Bunga. In 2010, the Bureau forced the clean-out of the core area of TNNP by bringing down the palm oil trees in Bagan Limau. The Bureau, along with the police, successfully brought down 200 Ha of palm oil trees, which had an average age of less than 10 years. Unfortunately, the long-term results of the effort are unclear. The head of the TNNP, Kupin Simbolon, said that approximately 30,000 Ha have been converted into palm oil plantations and residential areas. According to Kupin, his side has not taken repressive action against the settlers because the TNNP problem is so complex.
This situation is nothing new in Indonesia, where restrictive action is never taken in the first place, thereby leading to greater problems down the road. This is what we are now seeing unfold in TNNP. After a decade of benign neglect by TNNP officials and the government, one would think that the people who settled in the park have by now surely acquired some level of squatters’ rights. The situation begs the question of how could these people have obtained “permission” to live in TNNP and make a living there for ten years if doing so were not legal? And, should the people who still live there be required to suffer because the government refused to enforce its own land laws?
Harrison Ford has gone home to California now, leaving an unfolding human drama in his wake. One that is unlikely to provide the plot for his next blockbuster film.