Pak Arus has plenty on his plate just transforming ABT into a profitable business that can deliver that proof to Fahmi. But the company’s responsibilities don’t stop there. A big part of its bottom line is simply protecting the forests from people who want to illegally clear them.
The day after the sialang climb, in a rubber plantation bordering ABT’s concession, two men unpack a plane-shaped drone from its case. One switches on the remote control; the other lifts the aircraft, activates its propeller, and launches it buzzing into the skies over Thirty Hills.
These men are undercover investigators for Eyes on the Forest, the deforestation watchdog group that WWF helped establish in 2004 with two local NGOs, Jikalahari and Walhi Riau. The group has become renowned for its investigations, using intensive fieldwork and satellite data to reveal widespread and often illegal deforestation for palm oil and pulpwood plantations in Sumatra.
“We’re now one of the most respected sources of deforestation information in Indonesia,” says Nursamsu, the group’s founder and director.
In 2016, after ABT secured the concession license, Eyes on the Forest partnered with a new member organization—KKI Warsi—to launch a branch of operations in Thirty Hills. Their investigators explored its forests and villages in a variety of disguises and surveyed the land by drone.
What they found was significant illegal encroachment in the westernmost half of the concession. “While we were waiting for the concession license, nobody was protecting the land, so a lot of the forests got clear-cut,” Vertefeuille says. The biggest discovery was a 3,200-acre palm oil plantation that had reportedly been developed by a powerful individual in Jakarta. The person who illegally sold them the land, the investigators believe, was a village leader hostile to ABT.
ABT has filed a police complaint against the plantation owner. The company is also organizing dialogues with the village head and other encroachers to reach an agreement over the land. “My dream is to restore all of that forest with the support of the local communities,” Pak Arus says.
Meanwhile, ABT has launched its own protection units in Thirty Hills: two patrol teams that comb the concession for encroachers, and a squad of firefighters on call around the clock to respond to forest fires. The former routinely find poaching traps and signs of other illegal activities in the concession’s dense woods. The latter has already responded to multiple fires, at least one of which was arson.