Sebangau National Park: Central Kalimantan

Once a concession zone, exploited without planning by local and national companies, Sebangau National Park in Central Kalimantan was declared a protected public forest on Oct. 19, 2004, through a Forestry Ministry decree.

“Ninety-five percent of its ecosystem is composed of peat soil,” said head park control officer Drasospolino.

He said peat land in Central Kalimantan had been severely damaged by development activities, forest fires and illegal logging.

The one-million-hectare peat land project undertaken by the previous administration, east of the province, has also been forsaken.

“The region’s only peat zone is in Sebangau,” Drasospolino said.

Covering an area of 568,700 hectares in the regencies of Katingan, Pulang Pisau and the city of Palangkaraya, the park is a combination of the subtypes of mixed swampy forest, transitional forest, lowland canopy forest and granite forest, where 106 species of birds, 35 mammals and several groups of primates can be found.

“Sebangau is also home to rare primates like Kalimantan’s orangutans and bekantan (proboscis monkeys),” said Nancy Ariaini, a communications officer of the Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF)-Indonesia at the Sebangau Conservation Project, Central Kalimantan.

Tumbang Bulan is one of the locations where orangutans (Pongo pygmaeus) can be viewed in their natural habitat. Bekantan can be seen in the forest along Katingan River, while rare birds like rhinoceros hornbills (Buceros rhinoceros) and brahminy kites (Haliartus Indus) flock to the banks of the Sebangau River.

A study conducted in 2004 listed the population of orangutans at 6,200-6,900, with 15 spots of habitat scattered over the park such as the area upstream of Bulan River and Gunung Kaki hill.

“Sebangau National Park serves as the largest orangutan habitat in the whole of Kalimantan, even in the world,” said Drasospolino, adding that there were 166 plant species in the park.

Before its conservation status, the zone saw a lot of illegal logging operations in its adjacent areas from 1997 to 2003. “Illegal wood trading and sawmill businesses used to be run along the Sebangau and Katingan river plains,” Drasospolino said.

But since the government’s ban on the trade and the tough action against illegal loggers, such activities have ceased considerably and the sawmills have mostly closed down.

To restore the damaged areas, the national park in cooperation with WWF Indonesia and the local forestry office has undertaken a critical land replanting program in Pulang Pisau regency, covering 300 hectares during the period of December 2005 to February 2006. However, the presence of this park is also questioned by some members of the communities bordering it.

Aji, 52, a farmer in Mendawai district, Katingan regency, for instance, has been wondering about the exact border between the park and local people’s plantations. He said he had been growing crops on the fringe of the forest, just as locals had been doing for generations, until one day, it was declared a protected public forest.

He also inquired why prescribed burning, which had traditionally been practiced in the planting season, was now banned. Aji, who has five children and three grandchildren, said he knew how to safely carry out controlled burning to stimulate the germination of desirable plants and get rid of the weeds.

For example, burning must not be done during strong winds to prevent the fire from spreading into the forest, while only used farms covered with bushes are burned. He said villagers would not purposely burn a natural forest, as “our livelihoods depend on rattan, wild animals and medicinal herbs”.

According to Aji, the manual way of shrub and weed removal by means of hoes is very hard and expensive, so that September is the time for farmers to cultivate land by burning it first.

After the fire is out, the soil is left idle for a month. Only later will it be plowed for growing paddy, with a harvest rate of two tons per hectare after six months and a sale price of Rp 3,500 per kilogram of rice. The land is again left until the next burning time.

Like Aji, all the Mendawai farmers near Sebangau prefer to grow paddy though they have to burn bushes to prepare the soil. Vegetables are high yielding plants in the district because of its fertile land but the main constraint is marketing, as it is very expensive to transport them to the city. Chili, for instance, only costs Rp 3,000 per kg, so that people in the interior have long been hoping for road access to sell their farm produce and fish, instead of the river route so far taken.

Sadly, Katingan regency is now building a road that belongs to the conservation zone. Less than 20 kilometers long and located in Mendawai district, the road leads to the Kaki hill without passing interior village settlements, thus reducing its proper function. “The road construction should have been subjected to an environmental impact analysis for being part of the park,” Nancy pointed out.

Meanwhile, Sebangau National Park still offers other tourist attractions like Lake Jalanpangen, Lake Purun, and Petak Bahandang village on the Katingan riverbank, where people can enjoy the sunset scenery. Drosospolino concluded that the park also planned to develop limited tourism for orangutan watching, besides serving as a place for environment training and river cruising to observe exotic flora and fauna.

Bambang Parlupi