A Gift From The Forest

Text by Nety Riana, Sinaryatie Saloh and Serene Ashley Chen
Photo by KEHATI Foundation

Aek Matio Jae is a small village in the fringe of the Batang Toru forest block in North Sumatra. The village is home to 29 households who have struggled with the lack of accessibility to electricity for three generations now. The scarcity of this resource is felt most strongly after sunset. When night falls, electricity is supplied for only three hours via private and group-owned generators which residents have to provide fuel for, an arrangement that is taxing on the low-income community. In some households, government-funded solar panels provide just enough to light a single electric lightbulb.

Ironically, electricity supply is not far off. Just three kilometers away from the village, a micro-hydro system had long been installed and used by a state-owned electricity company (PT PLN) to provide electricity to Sibolga, a port city located about 60 kilometres away from Aek Matio Jae. The micro-hydro system draws its power from the currents of the Aek Raisan River in the vicinity.

Residents of the remote village have put forth multiple appeals to PT PLN and the local government for the village to be connected to this electricity supply. Their appeals were met with disappointment as the exercise was deemed to be too expensive for the relatively small number of households in the village. The irony mocked Aek Matio Jae residents for years given how active they have been in protecting the forest that channels rainwater into the tributaries of the Aek Raisan River.

“We fight tooth and nail to protect a forest that we get no benefit from. Sometimes we feel like chopping down the trees and destroying the forest so everybody gets nothing,” recalled the ill-treated villagers bitterly.

Hope arrived in 2012 when PETRA, a local NGO of North Sumatra submitted a grant application to TFCA (Tropical Forest Conservation Action)-Sumatera for a proposal to implement a community-based forest management project. The installation of a micro-hydro power plant would come as an incentive for the villagers. As the micro-hydro power plant depended heavily on water coming from the upper stream forest, the Aek Matio Jae community were more than willing to protect the upper stream forest in order to sustain the electricity they had been waiting for.

The villagers spent the most part of 2013 designing and constructing the power plant with support from PETRA and TFCA-Sumatera. The tightknit community managed to pull together resources and complete construction of the IDR 500 million (US$ 50,000) micro-hydro power plant with a grant of IDR 225 million (US$22,500) by TFCA-Sumatera. The newly constructed power plant generated 10.600 Kilo Watt of electricity during a trial. A stable water flow rate from the upper stream forest will ensure a sustainable power supply for years.

For the first time, villagers of Aek Matio Jae were able to usher in the New Year (2014) with a celebration of light. Each of 29 households along with an assigned midwife house, a preacher house, a church and a school keeper house are now powered with 220 watt. They have electric bulbs and television on, and mobile phones can be recharged at IDR 20.000 (US$ 2.0) per month for each house. An official structure has been formed to manage and administer the maintenance of the turbine.

On 12 February 2014, the representative of the Head of District of North Tapanuli officially launched the micro-hydro power plant of Aek Matio Jae, with members from the local government and TFCA-Sumatera in attendance.

The grateful villagers are now fiercely protective of the forest that has made electricity self-sufficiency possible for them. “One must step on our dead bodies if they want to harm this forest,” exclaimed the villagers candidly. They are fully aware that the sustainability of their power resource is dependent on the water flow rate, and the forest is crucial.

PETRA is now working to obtain a certificate of Community-Based Forest Management from the Minister of Forestry and Environment for the upper stream forested area. At the same time, the process of obtaining permit from the Ministry to manage 1,026 hectares of forest under the community-based forest management scheme is also underway.

The success story from the Aek Matio Jae Village has inspired neighbouring villages to pursue a brighter future with their own micro-hydro power plants.


TFCA (The Forest Conservation Action) is a multi-year forest conservation programme that is managed and administered by KEHATI Foundation. TFCA-Sumatera is funded from the debt for nature swap by the US Government through USAid. The article is adapted from a 2014 project report to the US Congress.

KEHATI is an Indonesian national grant making foundation for the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity in Indonesia. The foundation was established in Indonesia on 12 January, 1994 under an MOU between the Government of USA and the Government of Indonesia to conserve and promote sustainable use of biodiversity in Indonesia. More about KEHATI at www.kehati.or.id

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