Ulma Haryanto | December 21, 2011
Abetnego said that in the few successful cases where a company gave up and returned the land to the people, a number of factors were at play. First, he said, the regional authorities were committed to justice. “Second is the company’s legal base itself. In some cases, they don’t have a strong legal base to support their arguments,” he said. The third is the people themselves. “Their demands have to be clear, and they should have an accountable way of working,” Abetnego said.
East Kotawaringin, Central Kalimantan. When the Constitutional Court dropped two articles from the 2004 Plantations Law back in September for potentially discriminating against indigenous farmers in land disputes, Mulyani Handoyo thought his problems were over.
The 44-year-old was arrested a month earlier and charged under Articles 21 and 47 of the law for “disrupting” the activities of Buana Artha Sejahtera, a subsidiary of palm oil producer Sinar Mas Agro Resources and Technology (Smart).
However, prosecutors reacted quickly and revised the charges to theft just before the trial began.
Purnomo, the head of Biru Maju village in East Kotawaringin where Mulyani is from, was convicted earlier this year in the same case and only recently released. Mulyani is the village secretary.
“No land conflict in the country takes place overnight,” Abetnego Tarigan, director of Sawit Watch, a palm oil industry watchdog, told the Jakarta Globe on Tuesday. “They involve a process, and the criminalization of community figures to intimidate others is just the start.”
This also applies to story of the Biru Maju villagers, which started in 1997.
In search of a living
The seven-hour drive to Biru Maju from Palangkaraya, the provincial capital, includes a 20-kilometer stretch of bumpy dirt tracks and a series of narrow wooden bridges.
The vegetation is sparse, consisting largely of shrubs, with quarries and the occasional oil palm plantation peppered throughout.
Biru Maju has a population of just more than 1,000, most of them transmigrants from other islands who moved here in 1997. The rest are indigenous Dayak tribesmen and workers from nearby oil palm plantations.
“I joined the government’s transmigration program because I wanted a better life,” said Sarji, 45, one of the villagers. “I came from Semarang [in Central Java], where it was hard to get your own land. Our dream was to become farmers: to cultivate our own land, grow our own food and make money selling the produce.”
After arriving, however, Sarji and the 214 other families who joined the program were in for a nasty surprise. Of the six hectares of land awarded to each family under the program, less than half was arable.
“Parts of the transmigration area were also claimed by the local people,” Sarji said.
After complaining to the local authorities, the transmigrants decided to expand their territory beyond their designated 1,290-hectare area. Things went well after that, and they managed to grow a variety of fruit and vegetables.
“A few years later, each of us registered our plots of land with the subdistrict office so we could get an SKT [provisional deed] before applying for a title deed,” Purnomo said.
But in 2004, with just the SKTs in hand and the deed applications still being processed, bulldozers appeared in the village and began razing the fields.
“The previous village head started knocking on everyone’s door, persuading them to sell their land because now it was owned by the company,” Purnomo said.
Sarji said the persuasion contained a veiled threat.
“He wasn’t being harsh, but the way he put it, I might get into legal trouble if I didn’t sell my land,” he said. “Finally, I gave in.”
A total of 15 families gave up their land for just Rp 1 million ($110) a hectare.
Those like Sarji now make a living selling vegetables. “I can only make Rp 10,000 to Rp 60,000 a day,” he said. “People here have five or six SKTs, but no land.”
Battle for rights
When Purnomo was elected village head in 2009, he instigated a local resistance to BAS that saw villagers repeatedly block roads, hold demonstrations or fence off the areas belonging to them. These actions led to his arrest in January this year.
“We tried everything. We went to the district council, we sent letters to Komnas HAM [National Commission for Human Rights], and after I was arrested we also sent letters to the Judicial Commission and the Judicial Mafia Eradication Task Force, but nothing happened.” Purnomo said.
He was charged under Articles 21 and 47 of the 2004 Plantations Law. During his trial, he said, the court ignored evidence he presented to refute BAS’s claim to the villagers’ land.
A regional map issued by the local forestry office in April and shown to the Globe revealed how parts of the company’s 657-hectare concession overlapped with the transmigration area.
“I showed this to the judge during my trial, and also my SKT. I told them the company didn’t have a license to operate,” Purnomo said.
A 2007 Forestry Ministry decree on plantation licensing requires a long list of documents before a company is issued a land use deed, or HGU, to start farming.
According to Andi Muttaqien, a lawyer for the villagers, prosecutors had failed to present the company’s HGU during the trials of Purnomo and Mulyani.
When asked about this, prosecutor Tigor Sirait told the Globe that the omission was intentional. “We don’t want to show it yet,” he said.
Purnomo claimed the lead prosecutor solicited a bribe from his wife in exchange for going easy on him. After his wife paid Rp 1.5 million, prosecutors lowered their sentence demand from a year to eight months.
The Globe was denied access to the BAS site to seek comments from the company’s estate manager, Ahmad Tarmizi, while his assistant also declined to provide clarification. Calls to the company’s Jakarta office were rejected and no one from Smart was willing to comment.
Law of demand
Purnomo was eventually convicted, but in September, when the Constitutional Court axed the provisions under which he was charged, he was released early.
The judicial review was brought by four farmers from West Kalimantan, East Java and North Sumatra, each of whom had previously been sentenced to between six months and a year in jail for similar actions to reclaim ancestral land, and who were represented by Sawit Watch and several other human rights and environmental organizations.
“Two of them were finally acquitted by the High Court, thanks to the ruling,” said Arie Rompa, executive director of the Central Kalimantan chapter of the Indonesian Forum for the Environment (Walhi).
However, activists warn that with farmland becoming an ever more valuable commodity, land disputes are bound to increase.
A report published last week by the International Land Coalition noted a rising global trend in land purchases for biofuel stock.
“Food is not the main focus of the land deals. Out of the 71 million hectares in deals that the authors could cross-reference, three-quarters of the remaining 78 percent for agricultural production was for biofuels,” Ward Anseeuw, from the French Agricultural Research Center for International Development (Cirad), said in a statement.
Abetnego said that was also the case in Indonesia, where he warned that rising demand for biofuel stock would exacerbate ongoing conflicts and spark future disputes.
“The tendency for conflict will continue to rise,” he said. “The reality is, people’s living space is getting smaller and smaller. There isn’t much left for wildlife, either.”
Indonesia reported an increase from 6 million to 7.3 million hectares committed to palm oil production between 2000 and 2008, according to the ILC report.
“An additional 18 million hectares have been cleared for palm oil, although not yet planted, while 20 million hectares of land have been assigned for plantation expansion by 2020, primarily in Sumatra, Borneo [Kalimantan], Sulawesi and West Papua,” the report said. “Indonesia is also set to establish the world’s largest oil palm plantation along the border of Borneo between Indonesia and Malaysia.”
Sawit Watch said that as of 2010, it had received 663 reports of land disputes between residents and palm oil companies. This year, it is advocating in 28 different cases. The ILC report, however, cites National Land Agency (BPN) data from 2009 that says there were 3,500 land disputes in that year alone.
No solution in sight
Sawit Watch’s Fatilda Hasibuan, who was assigned to assist the Biru Maju villagers, said most companies would try anything to prevent people from reclaiming their land.
“These people will face a hard time if they want to continue the fight,” she said. “The companies will try breaking down their unity by spreading rumors, sometimes smuggling drugs into a village so the people get distracted, or intimidate them by deploying police officers and sometimes soldiers.”
Abetnego said that in the few successful cases where a company gave up and returned the land to the people, a number of factors were at play.
First, he said, the regional authorities were committed to justice. “Second is the company’s legal base itself. In some cases, they don’t have a strong legal base to support their arguments,” he said. The third is the people themselves.
“Their demands have to be clear, and they should have an accountable way of working,” Abetnego said.
Arie said that on the larger scale, “it will still be difficult to change the situation.”
With the issue of land disputes brought to the fore recently by the conflict in Mesuji, Lampung, Abetnego said he hoped the government would pay more attention to the root of the problem.
“We’re pushing for the establishment of a national commission, directly under the president, to oversee the resolution of land conflicts,” he said.