That’s important because the local communities are involved in numerous long-running land disputes with the plantation companies. Under a complicated Nucleus Estates and Smallholders scheme [PDF], the firms are given massive concessions to plant palm oil on forest land—much of it degraded by previous logging—but after five years they are supposed to hand over part of the land to local villagers to manage. It hasn’t happened, Simon says.
Adrianus Adam Tekot, another citizen journalist who is also a village headman, credits the SMS network for pushing the palm oil company in his area to hand over 117 hectares (290 acres) of plantation land to local people in the Binua Sunge Manur region of West Kalimantan where he lives, providing financial compensation in lieu of land to others, and repairing part of a dirt road it had rendered almost impassable due to its operations. This may be a pittance compared to the 8,000 hectares (20,000 acres) in concessionary land the company was provided by the government, but it’s a start, say the Dayak.
As for protecting natural forest, the results have been more limited, but Alim and Simon point to the Nanga Nuar case as an example of how providing news via text messaging can help. “The police came to us following our report on Ruai TV. We did not go to them,” says Alim. “As a result, the Ministry of Forestry has set up an investigative team and we are ready to provide information. A helicopter has come to do aerial surveillance three times, something that has never happened before.”
There have also been disappointments, Alim concedes, such as when he exposed a “big land scandal” in the Senggaulat area, and nothing happened. He’s also frustrated by the fact that many journalists in Kalimantan take payoffs to report positive news about palm oil companies. “I’ve been offered many bribes, too, as much as 30 million rupiah [over $3,000],” he says, holding up three fingers to indicate a stack of bills that high. “It’s actually a sign that we’re doing a good job as journalists. If we were just ordinary reporters, we wouldn’t be offered anything.”
Sam de Silva, an Internews technical advisor who helped set up the SMS network, thinks it can be improved if citizen journalists and other forest monitors are provided with smart phones able to record the GPS locations of infractions. He and his Internews colleagues are also researching “drone journalism” and the use of unmanned aerial vehicles for covering environmental issues.
Meanwhile, Masiun and Alim are keen to get more funding to train more citizen journalists as reliable news sources. There are a lot more conflict areas in West Kalimantan, they say, that are going under-covered. But the fact that Ruai TV is willing to spend its own money to keep the SMS network going is the best evidence that it has value, and should be sustainable.
“Being a journalist opened my eyes to these forestry and land issues,” says Alim. “What is happening now, or beginning to happen is so satisfying, because usually the media only report complaints, but here we feel we are helping provide solutions.”