By: Rini Ramadhanti
In mid 2009, I started making regular visits to the village of Teluk Meranti to meet the women and talk about their current living conditions and the issues that affect them. Teluk Meranti is a village of about one thousand people next to the Kampar Peninsular, a peat swamp forest in Riau, on the island of Sumatra, Indonesia. On my first visit we discussed women’s fears of losing their agricultural lands and forests, and their desire to further develop their gardens and small businesses. The women were concerned about a plan of the government and the pulp and paper company APRIL to create a pulpwood plantation covering 56,000 hectares and take over a forest that their community have managed for generations.
In previous months, several meetings had been held in the village to discuss this threat but the meetings were dominated by men; if women attended at all, they would just sit at the back of the room and wouldn’t be asked to speak. Women in their village were not given the opportunity to add their voice and opinions to community discussions.
In coastal and lowland areas of Riau Province, most communities are part of the Malay ethnicity, and traditionally live from fishing and river trade. Riau Malay culture is guided by the norms of Islam, especially for women. The Teluk Meranti community is typical of Malay lowland villages, having a patrilineal kinship system, and the public space within the community is almost exclusively the domain of men. The role of women has been limited to family or household affairs but this situation is changing slowly, and women in Teluk Meranti in particular have recently become more engaged in community discussions and decisions.
Over 2009 and 2010, I made regular visits to meet with the women of Teluk Meranti, and our group discussions led to concrete plans for the women to increase their income from production and sales of craftwork and food crops. We also discussed the threats to their village lands and forests, and shared information on the negotiations between their men and the pulp and paper company. Having received and discussed this information amongst themselves, some of the women gained the courage to enter into meetings with their men and express their concerns.
With support from various parties, including some of the village men, the women shared their concerns in village meetings on how they thought that the Acacia plantations would create social and economic problems for women. During the same period, protests by NGO’s at the provincial, national and international level highlighted resistance to APRIL’s plans to clear peat forests. In response to the controversy, in February 2010, the National Minister of Forestry visited the community of Teluk Meranti, to explain the government’s plans for the Kampar Peat Forests. The women of Teluk Meranti confronted the Minister as he stepped out of his helicopter for a brief visit. They informed him that they did not want their forests and gardens taken over for Acacia plantations. Women leaders from Teluk Meranti were also vocal in expressing their concerns when journalists and a parliamentary commission visited their community later in 2010 to discuss the controversial plantations.
The courage of the women of Teluk Meranti to speak out in village forums and also when dignitaries and outsiders visited their community is a clear sign that these women wish to play a broader role in discussions and decision-making within their community. Unfortunately, when the community selected its leaders to negotiate with APRIL, no women were included in the negotiation team. Today, part of the forests of the community of Teluk Meranti have been cleared for Acacia, but the struggle of the women to secure their rights to their customary lands, improve their economies and to have their voices heard goes on.
About the Author: Rini is the director of the NGO Institute Social and Economic Changes (ISEC). She has been working for the last decade to assist rural communities in Riau, and especially women, to improve their livelihoods and to engage with development proposals from government and industry.