So far and yet so near

[Side bar story to: Oil Palm and Rivers Don’t Mix]

KUALA KARANG, WEST KALIMANTAN, Indonesia — At the end of Kapuas River, a stream fans out into a landscape similar to a river delta such as the Red River Delta in Vienam, providing fertile resources and livelihood for local residents.

Kuala Karang is a fishing village near the mouth of the Kapuas river.
Kuala Karang is a fishing village near the mouth of the Kapuas river.

Here lies Kuala Karang, a fishing village located in Kubu Raya District, with a population of about 8,000. Most of the men here fish for a living while their wives tend to the family, although many also forage occasionally in the forest for stuff that they can use for meals or sell. The homes look shabby and bereft of urban comfort, but they can apparently withstand strong sunlight and winds whipping from the sea. Life here cannot be too bad, either, since judging from the full table before me, the locals are able to enjoy an abundance of catch from the sea.

Kuala Karang is about 10 hours by boat from the PT MAR plantation upstream. No oil-palm plantation is in sight here, because the villagers have put up a very strong resistance to any attempt by corporations to put up one. Still, plantations are closing in. Zainun, a housewife and leader of the local women’s group, said that about a kilometre to the east of the village, one corporation has already secretly deployed its workforce to cut down trees and clear the land for an oil-palm plantation.

The absence of an oil-palm plantation here, however, has not meant that Kuala Karang has been spared the ill effects that other West Kalimantans attribute to such developments. Villagers here in fact say that they have felt the impact of the aggressive expansion of oil-palm plantation in lower Kapuas since 2000, among them a decrease in the marine life, including their catch. Zainun said wastewater discharge plus residues from fertilisers and pesticides have destroyed marine life. Other villagers also said that usually, they would have to wait for the wastewater to flow farther downstream before they could fish again.

The villagers have not sat still, and they have filed numerous complaints against the corporations that they believe to be the culprits. But their efforts have gone nowhere; in fact, just like in Thailand, the corporations pressed charges against some of the villagers, accusing them of inciting unrest.

Kuala Karang residents have turned cynical as a result. Remarked Zainun: “Villagers used to protest with local government. But there’s no reaction whatsoever in solving the problem. The corporations bribed officials.”

What surprised me, though, was when Zainun said that apart from the decrease in marine life, the supply of vegetables was now much less, and what little was available had become quite expensive. To explain this, Zainun said, “We asked after each other’s well-being — us and villagers on the other side who live right by the palm plantation. Their lands were seized by the companies. They had no land to grow vegetables like morning glory, pumpkin, potato, and so on. Meanwhile, coconut trees were cut down to make way for oil-palm trees.”

I was reminded of a Thai saying that goes, “When you pick a flower, the star can feel the tremour.” It means that in nature there is a thread that binds all things together. When any element is disturbed – no matter how small or whether it is visible to the human eye —  it would set off a chain reaction to affect the rest of others and whatever consequences would affect human beings. In this case, a weakened Kapuas River has been sending out tremours, some of which are nothing short of an earthquake equivalent to Intensity 9 on the Richter scale.

Zainun also pointed out that the lower section of Kapuas is full of crocodiles, which means any expansion of palm plantation would also destroy the habitat of these creatures that might then be forced to migrate nearer or into human enclaves. Zainun said folks here are spotting crocodiles more frequently. Fortunately, though, there has yet to be any report of a crocodile attack on humans here.

Besides crocodiles, this area is full of monkeys, Zainun said. If they are pushed away from their natural habitat – say, because of the clearing of the land for a plantation — they just might become nuisances to the communities one of these days.

All these have led Zainun to conclude that “PT MAR is no good at all”. She added, “We in Kuala Karang are worried about the well-being of those living hear PT MAR.”

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