The 2015 celebration of Indonesia’s Independence Day became the turning point for the residents of Sungai Rotan Village in Jambi. As usual, they held a fishing tournament at the river, but found the amount of fish had declined. They then decided to do something to conserve the river for the future generations. 

Freshwater fish like the giant gourami (Osphronemus goramy), golden mahseer (Tor putitora) and hampala barb (Hampala macrolepidota) had become increasingly difficult to find in the Pengabuan river ecosystem, which passes this village, 143 km from the province’s capital. Overfishing was one of the main reasons behind their disappearance.

"Our children and grandchildren will never know these fish; they will only know their names, just like the dinosaurs,” said Suherman, Head of Usaha Bersatu Smallholder Group, one of the five groups under the Merlung Renah Mendaluh Independent Smallholders Forum (FPS MRM), which obtained RSPO certification back in 2015.

The village residents and their customary leaders agreed to conserve and close off a 500 metre span of the Pengabuan river for three years. Villagers were not allowed to fish within this area called “lubuk larangan”, or restricted fish sanctuary, during this period. 

The villagers and independent smallholders’ resolve to conserve the river attracted the attention of RSPO smallholder credit buyers. The Body Shop, a cosmetics company renowned for their commitment towards the environment, purchased RSPO Credits from FPS MRM as a way to meet its sustainability commitments. Purchasing these credits also aligns well with the brand’s values and heritage of supporting marginalised independent smallholders.

“We have purchased RSPO Credits for many years to offset our use of palm-based ingredients that are not available as RSPO certified,“ said Jonathan Escolar, Sustainable Sourcing Assurance Officer at The Body Shop. “The RSPO Smallholder Credits programme offered us the opportunity to do this while supporting smallholders,” he added.

"FPS MRM has an interesting story about them reforesting riparian zones around the river to improve the quality of water, which links to both environmental and social issues,” said Escolar, who received advice on which smallholder groups to support from the Sustainable Palm Oil Smallholders Forum in Indonesia (Fortasbi). “We are very keen to understand how our purchase of their credits will allow them to further develop and invest in their community.”

Independent smallholders of FPS MRM welcomed The Body Shop’s support. "We put more attention and care towards the restricted fish sanctuary because it actually positively affects our credit sales. We are now even more motivated to preserve the river," said Suherman.

Sungai Rotan first closed off the restricted fish sanctuary in 2015. When it reopened in 2018, villagers found an abundance of fish and many rare species, such as the tinfoil barb (Barbonymous schwanenfeldii), known as lampam by the locals. Seeing this success, the village agreed to expand the restricted fish sanctuary to 700 m long, and to close it off again. They have not discussed when the area would be reopened.

Rivers, as a source of water and fish for its surrounding inhabitants, are areas with High Conservation Values (HCV) that must be conserved, in accordance with RSPO standards. Independent smallholders who obtained RSPO certification received training on the importance of HCV assessments, and understand that areas providing them with sources of livelihoods must be preserved.

"We hope independent smallholders become HCV champions,” said Guntur Prabowo, Independent Smallholders Programme Manager at RSPO Indonesia. “The plantation area of these smallholders may be small, but they live in these areas and whatever happens here deeply impacts their lives.”

Pengabuan River is the second longest river in Jambi, after the Batanghari. This 120 km-long river is the place where villagers conduct daily activities, such as bathing and washing clothes, and as a means of transportation and water source.

“The village head of Sungai Rotan invited a shaman from West Sumatra to lead the ceremony to close off the restricted area of the fish sanctuary,” said FPS FRM Group Manager, Suhaili. At the ceremony, residents prayed together before the village head read the rules on how to use that section of the river. The area of the restricted fish sanctuary was marked with white cloth along the riverbank.

"Apparently when someone catches and eats fish from the restricted fish sanctuary, their belly will become swollen or he/she will have some health problems," said Suhaili.

"You can take a bath, but you cannot fish and take fish seeds. Disturbing the fish and using poison in the river are also not allowed," Suherman said. 

Supported by independent smallholder members of FPS MRM, Sungai Rotan’s success has become an example for neighbouring villages. Smallholder groups and residents in the villages of Pulau Pauh and Rantau Benar have also made restricted fish sanctuaries in the sections of the river that pass through their area. 

"This shows that we care for our surroundings. We invite other village heads to follow (the example of) the restricted fish sanctuary, so that it may be replicated by other villages," said Suhaili.

For more information on how RSPO is supporting smallholders in the sustainable palm oil sector, visit https://rspo.org/smallholders

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