From 18th to 21st May, 13 PM.Haze volunteers together with partners from Singapore Institute of International Affairs (SIIA), journalists from Straits Times and Lianhe Zaobao went to Sungai Tohor. We spent four meaningful days learning about the sustainable peatland development practices, building a canal block, and absorbing the local life and culture.
Despite a 6.5 hours journey and 3 changes of boats, the boat ride from Singapore to Sungai Tohor was very enjoyable. We had fun getting to know each other, in the fresh breeze of the sea.
Drone footage of Sungai Tohor. Credit: Singapore Institute of International Affairs
Sungai Tohor (Tohor River) is located on Tebingtinggi Island, Riau Province. Tebingtinggi Island is an extensive peatland area. Riau alone has the largest stores of peat in Indonesia and its peat forest cover has declined from 80 per cent in 1990 to just over 36 per cent in 2010. We chose Sungai Tohor because we liked the use of sago mixed with native tree species as a solution to peat drainage, as sago grows naturally in water-logged peat and thus does not require drainage. There was also a broad plan to sustainably manage the forests through the Village Forest (Hutan Desa) permit.
Once reached, we were received by Taufik from WALHI Riau, our local partner. He shared that after a massive fire in 2014, he started an online campaign to promote community forestry, which eventually led to President Joko Widodo’s visit. There has also been land conflict between the local community and a pulp wood company called PT LUM. Finally in 2016, the government revoked PT LUM license and returned the land to community to manage it sustainably.
We then visited a coconut plantation and witnessed how the roots of the coconut trees had been left exposed because of peat subsidence. The subsidence is a result of peat decomposition after canals were dug by PT LUM and a sago palm company National Sago Prima (NSP). We were puzzles why NSP dug the canal as sago grows naturally on peat. By 2011 local production of sago was in decline because the drainage canals began drying out the peatland forest ecosystems and reducing sago yields. Under these conditions canal blocking became imperative as a way of restoring the water table and boosting sago yields.
Dinner at Cik Manan’s place. Credit: Lightcraft Creative Collective
The girls stayed at Cik Manan’s house. Dinner was simple great home cooked Malay food. The freshly homemade chili source was the most delicious. Through out our stay, we were amazed at the kampong life here. Things to try when you visit Sungai Tohor: a local version of teh halia called bandrek, the avocado milkshake from warong (cafe) and homemade coffee.
Due to the small roads in the village, Ijal from WALHI helped arranged the local youngsters to ferry us with motorbikes. The weather was very humid, but we looked forward to the motorbike ride during which we got to cool down.
Locals skilfully sticked the logs in the canal to make the structure. Credit: Nor Lastrina bte Hamid
via GIPHY Yihan tried very hard to help, but still cannot make it. Credit: Nor Lastrina bte Hamid.
Our original plan was to get our hands dirty and build the canal block ourselves under the supervision of the local experts. However, the building process was completely out of our league. Skill, strength and speed were required to build the block within one week. Therefore we mostly stayed out of the way and did very simple tasks. On Day 2 and Day 3, we got the chance to help out in the final stages of the canal-block that we crowdfunded. We helped in filling the gunny sacks with soil, sewing the sandbags and transporting the sandbags to the canal-block.
Iris digging the soil. Credit: Lightcraft Creative Collective
We then visited a sago plantation managed by the villager and saw how it was interspersed with trees, in this case, rubber trees from the previous rubber plantation. Our guides, Cik Manan and Bang Yet explained that the high water table and presence of trees helped to improve the yield of the sago palms. You can observe from the drone footage that the sago is mixed with trees, which keeps water in the area and prevent fire from happening.
Drone footage of sago plantation. Credit: Singapore Institute of International Affairs (SIIA)
We visited a sago mill nearby where the process of turning sago into wet sago flour was demonstrated. The plan of the community is to explore ways of value-adding to the raw sago. At the moment most wet sago is sold to Malaysia to dry, and the village keeps a small amount to make into sago noodle and sago eggs, a topping for different dishes. In Singapore, we eat sago in dessert, such as Mango Pomelo Sago, and sago starch are used to make Udon noodles at time. Sago starch are used interchangeably with tapioca starch both in pearl and powder form.
We also got to see some of the challenges faced by the sago production, such as most of the sago bark being burnt openly. Locals are trying to use the sago bark for energy. In addition, the run-off from the mill is acidic, causing death of fishes in the river. They asked if we can help to solve this problem and make use of the sago fiber remnant.
Cik Manan is very entrepreneurial and opened a cottage factory at the back of his house. Some ladies from the village make sago noodles for own consumption and for sale. At the moment the market for sago is quite small in Indonesia and overseas. But because the sago-palm is peat-friendly, it has a great potential to contribute significantly to the livelihood of communities on peatland area.
We visited a site where locals were digging fish ponds. We also got to see how the vegetation was concentrated and burnt in a controlled manner.
We walked through a boardwalk that was built by the locals using their own money in order to show their determination to protect the mangrove by making it an eco-tourism attraction.
We returned to the canal block site and spent the morning filling more gummy sacks to complete the canal block.
Ta-da! The canal block that’s completed!
After the hard work, we went for a refreshing swim in a peat “pool” downstream and it was a great chillax session. In Europe, people used to do peat pulp bath in health resorts. Some of us said our hair felt smoother and skin felt better after the swim.
Many researchers are interested in the sustainable peatland development at Sungai Tohor. Yuri (shirtless in the photo above), from Kyoto University Japan, was doing peatland hydrology research in the area. Randy, a master’s student from Jakarta, was researching on the value chain of sago.
After the swim, we went on a 2 hour trek through the ex-PT LUM concession where we could experience the scale of the damage in the 2014 fires. We could see how the distant forests compared the fern-covered landscape of the burnt area. The guide further pointed out how the ferns dried up easily and would be a fire-risk. Fortunately the water levels were much higher now so at least the risk of peat soil burning was law.
Never seen so many starts on the Singapore sky. The locals say Singapore is very bright, they can even see the light from Singapore at their pier.
It’s time to say goodbye to our Indonesian friends. The 4-day trip was a great experience for all of us to further understand the peatland issues and to get inspired by the community’s passion to protect and care for their land.
We had great memories interacting with locals and immersing in their life and culture. We will certainly miss the sky full of stars, the chill kampong life, and the wonderful people here.
We also feel more motivated to work from Singapore to help stop the haze and contribute to the local livelihood. So first step: eat more sago noodles!
In the future, we hope to continue support sustainable peatland community projects financially and raise awareness among people in Singapore about the good efforts communities are making to combat fire and haze.
On 23rd May, our trip received a full page coverage on Straits Times: Singapore team digs in to help Riau village combat haze and a 3/4 page coverage on Lianhe Zaobao: 实地了解烟霾相关课题 本地义工廖内助建泥炭地小水坝.
We would like to express our sincere appreciation to our host Cik Manan and family, and our local partners Taufik and Ijal from Walhi Riau.
Special thanks to our partners Pek Shibao, Fahziah Selamat, and Siti Bazilah Binte Abdul Rahman, from Singapore Institute of International Affairs to participate and publicise the trip, as well as the drone footage.
Special thanks to Straits Time journalist Arlina Arshad and photographer Seah Kwang Peng.
Special thanks to Lianhe Zaobao journalist Song Huichun and photographer Benjamin Lim.
Special thanks to Chrispy and Julian from Lightcraft Creative Collective for covering our trip.
Special thanks to everyone who donated to the canal block project through give.asia.
Last but not the least, a big thank you to all PM.Haze volunteers and staff who took part in this trip. Because of you, we are more committed than ever to fight for a haze-free future!
Tessa Thai, Nor Lastrina bte Hamid, Darlene Kasten, Iris Ng, Bernice Lau, Aravindkumaran Sabapathy, Low Ying Hui, Wong Sang Soi, Russell Darnley.
Aurelie Charmeau (organiser), Tan Yihan (organiser), and Zhang Wen
Further reading: Russell also made a good educational blog about the trip, you can read it here.