Farmed Forests

Farmed Forests

A Story of Displacement in Indonesia

The International Reporting Program is a yearlong course offered to students at the UBC Graduate School of Journalism. This is a first-person narrative from a student about their experience of covering a challenging subject abroad and what it brought to their life and career as a result of being in the IRP program.

A story by Heather Roy

Chief Saripudin sat barefoot on the red mat that stretched across his living room. He smoked a cigarette and stared intensely into the distance, as if unaware of the giggles and curious looks approaching the doorframe behind him. He answered our translator’s questions in a deep, raspy drone while we sat around the edge of the room — unable to understand the conversation, but entertained by the smiling faces of young children who, having overcome their shyness, gathered in the purple-trimmed doorway.

It was December 2012 and I was in Indonesia with fellow UBC students Emily Bodenberg and Sadiya Ansari, and Peter Klein, our faculty advisor and founder of the International Reporting Program.

We were in the country to cover the misappropriation of land from indigenous groups and the slashing, burning and bulldozing of natural forests. Our story was part of a larger reporting project, called CUT, about the global timber trade.

Three months of research, late-night overseas calls, video chats, visa negotiations and planning felt like part of a school assignment until Sadiya, Emily, Peter, myself and Sri Kusmiati, our translator who goes by “Atik”, walked into the house of the chief of the Koto Sebelimbing, an indigenous group living in rural Sumatra.

Suddenly, we felt like real reporters.

But it’s hard to be a journalist and not be able to talk directly to your sources. We had to rely on Atik to translate everything. The experience was disorienting. Language barriers are both a reality and frustration of international reporting — one that I would come to know very well when I graduated from UBC and moved to the Middle East to work for Al Jazeera English. But at the time, all I could do was listen to the back and forth staccato of Bahasa while I watched the scene unfold in the colourful room.


From the Director

Peter Klein, Associate Professor and Director of UBC’s International Reporting Program, and Director, Graduate School of Journalism (2011–2015)

In 2009, with a generous donation from Mindset Foundation, we created the International Reporting Program to train the next generation of global journalists — allowing them the opportunity to spend time in the field, experiment with new approaches to global reporting and produce major projects from around the world.

Our media partners have included The Globe &Mail, Toronto Star, The New York Times, CBC, Global, PBS Frontline, Al Jazeera and CBS News, and past projects have won a long list of awards, including an Emmy, an Edward R. Murrow Award, a Sigma Chi Delta Award, a Webby Honor and numerous top prizes at the Canadian Online Publishing Awards.

But our bigger reward is having impact on global conversations. Our multimedia Pain Project is used by global health professionals to advocate for palliative care worldwide. Our documentary about the hazards of illegal electronic waste exports has been used by policymakers in Washington to establish strict new rules about e-waste export. And just six days after our investigation about the murder of a Brazilian Indigenous leader ran in The New York Times, more than a dozen suspects were arrested.

We are now growing the IRP into an ambitious non-profit Global Reporting Centre, the first organization in Canada dedicated to advancing global reporting and producing major projects on under-covered stories throughout the globe.”

From the Instructor

An inside look at teaching in the International Reporting Program with David Rummel, Assistant Professor, UBC Graduate School of Journalism.

Chief Saripudin
Chief Saripudin stands shocked amid the ruins of his group’s mosque.

Roadblocks to Jakarta

A few days before this, our team was still in Vancouver, scrambling to nail down interviews and get our gear together. And then, as if almost instantly, we were sipping tea and water in this brightly-painted house set along a dusty logging road on the other side of the world.

The experience was surreal because, for months, the trip seemed like it might never happen.

Planning to report in Indonesia was a lesson in persistence and challenging a government that tries very hard to conceal the truth. The topics we wanted to cover were sore points for a country that, at the time, faced harsh global criticism for allowing a third of its natural forests to be destroyed by the pulp, paper and palm oil industries. Even though we approached the story impartially, it was hard to sell it to officials.

The two other UBC reporting groups (team Russia and team Cameroon) were granted their visas well before their departure dates. But our team struggled for months.

Trying to get an Indonesian visa is like running through a maze: just when you think you’ve conquered it, you reach another dead end. We needed to report in December so we could spend the second semester putting our stories together. Without visas, this couldn’t happen.

Trying to get an Indonesian visa is like running through a maze: just when you think you’ve conquered it, you reach another dead end.

After weeks of phone calls and emails, we figured out that we needed to apply for a social cultural visa. This category required us to jump through hoops to find an Indonesian organization willing to sponsor us. To make matters worse, that organization had to be in the government’s good books to guarantee the success of our visa applications.

Pressure was mounting: The eight weeks we had between October and December to secure visas might seem like a lot of time, but we had to conduct pre-interviews, find a translator, deal with public relations companies, track down government sources, research background information, book hotels, cars and flights, get our gear ready and much more.

We eventually hired someone on the ground to find a sponsor and KKI WARSI, a group that promotes sustainable development in Indonesia, agreed to write a sponsorship letter.

We received our visas just days before our departure.

Tree Farms

Tree Farms

  • Mismanagement of forests and corruption costs the country an estimated US $2 billion per year.

  • People live, work and raise their families in this mill in Central Kalimantan, Borneo.

  • From small-scale operations to pulp and paper mega-factories, timber is everywhere in Indonesia.

  • Some kids grow up surrounded by timber.

  • Feeding the forest industry — one man takes his business to a local mill.

After we finished our tea in the chief’s house, we left the smiling children behind and sped down the highway. Chief Saripudin and several members of his community joined us.

We dodged between flatbed trucks teetering with logs and bounced for hours in pickup trucks down an unpaved logging road to reach the Koto Sebelimbing’s ancestral land. The chief said the government and a subsidiary of pulp and paper giant, Asia Pulp & Paper Group (APP), stole the land from the community.

One thing you notice almost immediately about Indonesia is the absence of natural forests. In Sumatra, roads snake through rolling hills of perfectly aligned rows of eucalyptus and oil palm trees, planted like corn.

The clear-cut areas are even more astonishing. Levelled forests back onto plantations for as far as the eye can see. It’s as if a bomb was dropped and destroyed everything for kilometres.

It’s as if a bomb was dropped and destroyed everything for kilometres.

We arrived at a wooden structure with a rusted corrugated metal roof at around lunchtime and were greeted by the man and woman who lived there. Dogs, cats and chickens scurried around the tiny garden in front of the house.

We sat down and had lunch on the porch, sharing a meal of rice and meat that we bought earlier at the restaurant across the street from the chief’s house. Everyone started to eat with their hands, but then the woman, her head wrapped in a bandana, went into the dark house and reappeared with cutlery for Sadiya, Emily, Peter and me. The dogs, cats, and chickens pecked at fallen rice around our feet.

As far as we could tell, the woman and man were the only two people still living on the land. Broken-down structures, clotheslines and dishes were scattered along a path from the house to a river. If other people once lived here, they were gone now.

An Evolving Story

One of the few houses still standing on the Koto Sebelimbing’s ancestral lands.

The day before our tour with the Koto Sebelimbing, we met Albadry Arif in our hotel lobby. He worked for Scale Up, a conflict resolution NGO. He warned us that the company that was clearing the indigenous group’s ancestral land might not tolerate foreigners ‘trespassing’ on it.

Emily led the interview with Arif whose wild, black hair sprung off his head as if he had been electrocuted. The rest of us sat and listened. We were shocked to learn that the widespread protest we thought was happening on the contested land had fizzled to a few people who refused to leave.

In the months leading up to our arrival in Indonesia, we interviewed countless potential sources over Skype, dealing with a 14-hour time change and a major language barrier. We were initially told that a large group of people were living in tents set up on the disputed land, protesting the APP subsidiary’s work.

When making a video, images are critical. Two people living in a hut in the middle of nowhere sends a very different message to viewers than hundreds of ‘trespassers’ refusing to leave.

We all felt a little disappointed — as if our story might have completely fallen through.

Looking back, I have to give a lot of credit to Peter who encouraged us to stay positive and find solutions when something didn’t go as planned.

We went to bed not knowing what we would see the next day.

Empathy in the Field

After finishing lunch, we trudged through shoulder-high grass to reach a river the chief said was once a lifeline for the Koto Sebelimbing people. Dressed in sun-faded clothing, the man and woman from the house later took us to a rectangular stone covered in tiny shrubs — the grave of the group’s first chief.

We then headed back to the wooden house, thanked the couple for showing us the land and travelled back down the logging road, leaving a plume of reddish dust in our wake.

Meeting one of the youngest members of the Koto Sebelimbing. Pictured from left to right: Heather Roy, Emily Bodenberg and one of the women in the Chief’s house.

Our next destination was a mosque perched on a cliff in the middle of a recently cleared patch of land. The structure, held up by pieces of timber, was a basic platform with no walls and a metal roof. Tarps, ropes, clothing and posters littered the land around it.

The chief blamed the paper company for destroying a sacred building, but he didn’t have any proof that the company did it.

The scene was eerily beautiful as the sun set over the plantation. There was something sad about the weakened and graffiti-covered structure standing in the middle of a naked landscape.

I worried that our short video might not be able to convey the importance of this scene to a Western audience. Clashes with security forces and firebombing of villages, which we were told happened in the past, seemed like a better way of showing the Indonesian government’s land mismanagement. But we didn’t get those images because they didn’t exist.

Our story had evolved into something different than what we thought it was back in Canada. But did that really matter? No. The Koto Sebelimbing’s defeated efforts to retrieve their ancestral land, the government’s ‘arbitration’ process and corruption — this was the real story.

At first, the adrenaline of thinking we had one thing and finding out we had something different was a little overwhelming.

I later realized that having a story ‘evolve’ is one of the best and most exciting parts of international reporting.

I later realized that having a story ‘evolve’ is one of the best and most exciting parts of international reporting. You simply have to learn to deal with some degree of uncertainty in the field. Storytelling is a lot like travelling. You can book your hotels and map out your route, but you never know what you’re going to see or learn along the way.

We drove back to the chief’s brightly coloured house in the darkness and waved goodbye to the Koto Sebelimbing as they stood next to the highway, which was now illuminated by a constant stream of logging truck headlights.

While our story had changed, our overall goal did not. We could still give a voice to an issue and to a people struggling to have one.

Albadry Arif
Albadry Arif overlooks the levelled landscape, cleared for another plantation.

Piecing the Story Together

When we returned to Canada, we started the lengthy process of screening our footage. Our time with the Koto Sebelimbing showed us that, as journalists, we should never assume we know and understand a story until we gather all the pieces together.

No amount of research or pre-interviews can predict what you will discover on the ground. And nothing ever goes completely as planned.

No amount of research or pre-interviews can predict what you will discover on the ground. And nothing ever goes completely as planned.

We ended up using historical context to explain why so many land conflicts are now happening in Indonesia. We also managed to get an interview with Aida Greenbury, APP managing director/chief of sustainability while we were in Jakarta. It took weeks of negotiating with the company’s public relations firm and an in-person meeting to get Greenbury to agree to the interview.

She acknowledged that land conflicts exist, but refused to speak directly about the Koto Sebelimbing’s claim. She said these disputes are all about determining whether indigenous groups were actually living on the land before the company started working on it. The unyielding expression on her face confirmed what we already thought: it is almost impossible to prove rights to land in Indonesia.

Training Ground

Training Ground

Five months after scrambling to organize our Indonesia trip, Al Jazeera English offered me an internship at its headquarters in Doha, Qatar. Kathryn Gretsinger, who was my thesis supervisor and mentor throughout journalism school, edited many drafts of my resume and cover letter and helped me follow up with Al Jazeera. I anxiously waited for an answer for weeks.

When the offer came, I had exactly 16 days to pack, get my visa, find somewhere to live, book flights and emotionally prepare to leave my life in Canada behind for three months. I had never been to Qatar or the Middle East before. And I might not have gone without Kathryn’s encouragement because, while it was an exciting opportunity, it was also an intimidating one. I felt like I was planning to go to Indonesia all over again. But this time I was more prepared.

After my internship, I was offered a job as a producer for the network’s website. I accepted the position knowing that there would be almost no opportunity to report on domestic issues in Qatar.

Online journalists rely on news wires and Skype interviews to write pieces about other countries. I reported mostly on Canada and Cambodia, the focus of my master’s thesis, which also got published in Al Jazeera magazine while I was still an intern.

Covering these countries from Qatar is a lot like the research and reporting I did about Indonesia while in the International Reporting Program. I had to deal with time changes, language barriers and Skype calls. Because of my experience in the IRP, my confidence grew and I pitched stories and did countless interviews with people in Cambodia and Canada. Interviews fell through all the time, but I no longer felt as frustrated.

Ready for the real world

I applied to journalism school at UBC because I wanted to get into the second-year International Reporting Program. Few journalists get the opportunity to report in a different country at the start of their careers or while still in school.

I have always been interested in international news and Al Jazeera English was my favourite network throughout school. Its programs, like People and Power and 101 East, give a voice to voiceless orphans in Cambodia, refugees in Malaysia, and prison children in Afghanistan in an in-depth manner that’s rare at other networks.

Before starting journalism school, I never imagined I would get to work for Al Jazeera. The International Reporting Program and the UBC Graduate School of Journalism opened that door for me.

Heather Roy

About the Author

Heather Roy is a communications specialist and writer. After graduating from UBC with a Master of Journalism degree in 2013, she landed a job at Al Jazeera English in Qatar. Her thesis about generational trauma caused by the Khmer Rouge regime was published in Al Jazeera’s award-winning digital magazine. Heather has written for Al Jazeera online, the Globe and Mail and Discovery Channel’s Daily Planet Show. After almost a year in Doha, Heather decided to return to Vancouver. She now works for Curve Communications, a Vancouver-based marketing firm.

Story Credits

Author: Heather Roy, alumna of the UBC Graduate School of Journalism

Guest author: Peter Klein, Director and Associate Professor, Graduate School of Journalism

Thank you: I would like to thank Kathryn Gretsinger for being a constant source of encouragement in the IRP, throughout my time at UBC, and after graduation. My thesis wouldn’t be published in Al Jazeera Magazine without all of your editing and advice. I would also like to thank Peter Klein for teaching me everything I know about reporting in a foreign country and video script-writing. And finally I want to thank my IRP teammates, Sadiya and Emily. Our reporting trip in Indonesia and final stories would not have been possible without all of your hard work and support.

Story team: UBC Communications & Marketing — Margaret Doyle, Digital Storyteller; Michael Kam, Web Developer/Coordinator; Adrian Liem, Senior Web Coordinator; Jamil Rhajiak, Communications Coordinator, Digital Information Channels; Matt Warburton, Manager, Graphic Design; Aida Viziru, Web Interaction Designer. Additional research and copywriting — David Leidl, Copy Editor and Researcher.

Published: April 2015