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Indonesian Middle Schooler In Hot Water With Local Authorities For Fighting Against Chinese Wood Pellet Exporter

Syarifah Fadiah Alkaff with her grandmother. The middle school student used social media to protest against a Chinese-owned company for polluting the local environment. Photo by Zulfa Amira Zaed.

“The road only has a capacity of five tons, but the Jambi mayor Syarif Fasha allowed [trucks of] up to 20 tons [to pass], exceeding and violating the regional regulation concerning road transportation,” a young girl eloquently spoke to the camera. The girl continued: “They worked together – the Chinese company and the Jambi regional government – to violate the regulation.”

The young girl is Syarifah Fadiah Alkaff, a middle school student in Jambi, a mid-sized provincial capital located on Indonesia’s largest island Sumatra. Syarifah has been using the social media platform TikTok to air her grievances about China-owned wood pellet processing company Rimba Palma Sejahtera Lestari (RPSL), which she deems responsible for damages suffered by her grandmother’s house. 

The house, which was built in the 1960s – long before RPSL – is now only a few hundred meters away from the company’s headquarters. Like many other houses nearby, Syarifah’s family house suffers from cracked walls and floors due to RPSL’s truck activities of transporting materials. 

Syarifah’s demand is for the company to repair her family’s house. She also accused the Jambi City government of violating the law. Because of this, local authorities reported Syarifah’s TikTok account to the police under the country’s rigid online speech law. 

RPSL is a subsidiary of ELL Environmental Holdings Limited, an environmental solution service provider in Jiangsu Province, China. ELL primarily engages in wastewater treatment and biomass power generation businesses, according to its website.

ELL’s operations in Indonesia take up nearly 64,000 square meters in Jambi, a complex that was built in 2018. At the time, RPSL operated as a biomass power plant that supplied electricity to Indonesia’s State Electricity Company. This year, the company pivoted its business to become a wood pellet processing factory. 

This TikTok by Syarifah Fadiah Alkaff where she explained how the large trucks from a local Chinese-owned factory are damaging her grandmother’s house has more than 1.7 million views.

RPSL’s factory complex stands only a kilometer from the residential area, a clear breach of the country’s guidelines for industrial estates, which state that the distance between industrial activity locations and settlements must be at least two kilometers. For some reason, the company succeeded in getting all of its necessary permits from the local authorities. 

When I visited the wood processing plant area, there was dust everywhere. Dust on the clothes I wear, and dust on the houses’ corrugated iron roofs. Most of the local residents I spoke to have no choice but to tolerate the dust-filled environment, especially because the company allows them to work at the factory and hand out food assistance. 

“Every family living in this area is given the opportunity by the company to work there. One person for each house, at least a high school graduate,” said Sari, a 45-year-old resident who has lived in the area for a decade. For the last three months, Sari’s eldest son has been working at RPSL, stationed at Talang Duku Harbor for material loading and unloading.

Sari said she did not know the details of RPSL’s operations. What she knows is that six-wheeled trucks would pass from eight in the morning to five in the afternoon, every day. 

A hundred meters from Sari’s house lived Supiyah, the owner of a small food stall. The table and benches in the stall were covered by dust, but she didn’t seem to mind. About 20 families have received food donations every month for the past year now, she said. 

“As many as 20 homeowners who live along the factory vehicle route, receive assistance every month in the form of basic necessities, containing 10 kilograms of rice, sugar, and cooking oil,” Supiyah told CGSP. 

According to ELL’s annual report, RPSL has so far donated around $3,500 to support local residents in Jambi. The holding group itself raked in a total revenue of nearly $26 million last year, an almost 100% increase from 2021’s revenue of $13 million. The revenue jump was driven by an increase in biofuels sales and the group’s electricity project in Bangka, another island in Indonesia. 

RPSL did not respond to requests for comment from CGSP. 

Meanwhile, Syarifah the middle schooler is still waiting for compensation for her grandmother’s house. All ninety families in the area have received theirs, except for Syarifah, according to the Head of the Jambi City Government Legal Unit, Gempa Awaljon. This is because the company thinks the amount that she’s asking for – IDR 1.3 billion or $84,800 – is “irrational and baseless”. 

Fery Irawan, an activist from the Indonesian environmental group Perkumpulan Hijau, said that the environmental and social impacts of RSPL are real. Irawan asked the government to re-evaluate the company’s permit to operate in Jambi. 

“This has become a loophole for companies developing renewable energy businesses,” Irawan said. “Although this is renewable energy, which people call a ‘clean energy’, it turns out that in practice, it’s still not clean enough from social conflicts.”

Zulfa Amira Zaed is a freelance journalist based in Jambi, Indonesia

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