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Sumatra: this land is my land

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Daniel Pye reports from Indonesia on a dogged resistance by rural communities to plantation companies’ violent land-grabbing.

Daniel Pye
Locals in Mesuji overcome with grief gather to hear testimony from victims of a campaign of terror carried out by plantation companies and the local authorities. Daniel Pye

On the rain-drenched plains of Mesuji district in southern Sumatra, locals are embroiled in a deadly struggle against plantation companies for the right to farm the land they have lived on for generations. Since 2008, thousands of residents of the numerous hamlets and villages in Mesuji have carried out a campaign of nonviolent resistance to the companies, despite the companies financing a campaign of terror in the villages.

Mesuji massacre

In April 2011, a number of palm oil and rubber firms paid three government agencies – Satpol PP (the civil service police unit), the Forestry Ministry and the local police – and PAM Swakarsa (a private militia that used to protect the interests of the former President Suharto) $770,000 to destroy a number of settlements in the Register 45 area in Mesuji as a warning message to the locals. The ‘Integrated Task Force,’ as it was called, used a loud-hailer to tell residents to leave within three days. When they refused, the militia, backed up by the police, attacked the people, chasing them down and executing them before cutting off their heads with pocket knives and arranging them in the streets as a warning to others.

Daniel Pye
A family’s makeshift home in Register 45 in Mesuji. Locals are occupying the site where their village once stood in a protest against plantation companies they say paid the security forces to terrorize them. Daniel Pye

Many of the victims’ families fled, and the villages were bulldozed and burned. But locals have defied the authorities and returned to occupy the site of their former homes, erecting a small protest camp out of tents built with sticks and tarpaulin that do little to hold back the torrential rains and thick, heavy mud.

Some 20 families are now living in tents on the site, and the local branch of the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) has helped build a clinic where Occupied Mesuji’s first baby was born on Christmas Day.

The only permanent structure remaining where the village in Register 45 once stood is the burnt-out shell of the mosque. The roughly 180,000 residents of Mesuji are predominantly Muslims, but there are many Hindus and Christians from other parts of Indonesia, brought here under a policy of transmigration intended to provide cheap, abundant labour to feed the world’s demand for consumer products. A local indigenous tribe, the Megou Pak, have farmed the area for generations and have joined the united front against the companies.

Since 2008, the companies have got the police to deny villagers ID cards and have disconnected electricity supplies. Not having an ID card means simple things such as attending schools and getting medical treatment is difficult.

Capital is king in today’s Indonesia, as it was under Suharto. There is no justice and the government is more supportive to business than to the people

A member of PAM Swakarsa’s intelligence division has gone public with his role in the murders and mutilations. While the authorities have denied a video taken during the April raid was shot in Mesuji – they initially said it was in Pattani in Thailand – Trubus said he took the video himself. He had applied for the job, which was advertised as a ‘forestry officer’ position, under the impression that he would be protecting the environment. But the company then told him to spy on his people.

‘All the events shown in the video were in Mesuji,’ Trubus said. ‘I know, because I was holding the camera. There has been conflict over the land for many years, but then the company formed what they called an ‘integrated task force’ to clear the villages. In April, I saw bodies lying in the street and as I walked I found two severed heads on top of a jeep,’ he said. The video clearly depicts a headless corpse hung from a pole and masked gunmen holding up the heads of their victims to the camera.

Going home

‘We will continue to occupy our traditional lands, the lands of the Megou Pak,’ said 42-year-old Surdi, an elder of the Megou Pak from Banjar village. ‘There are few of us here, but if BNIL [one of the plantation firms] does not return the land to us according to our customary rights, we will bring more people to occupy our land.’ ‘We are willing to die to demand our rights,’ he continued. ‘We are Indonesian citizens who have the same right to life as everyone else.’

On 26 December, a delegation from Jakarta – comprising Islamic leaders, human rights activists and military veterans and led by a retired general – visited the protest camp to broadcast testimony from the victims. As the delegation made its way up the kilometre-long mud track towards Register 45, cries of ‘Allah-u-Akbar,’ and ‘the people are powerful’ filled the air as the heavens opened. Residents greeted them with shouts of joy and wails of collective grief and flooded towards a pavilion in the centre of the camp.

The land agency has said that 7.3 million hectares of communally held land will be expropriated by the state and sold off for infrastructure projects – an area larger than Ireland

As the crowd began to swell with people arriving from other areas to join the meeting, the head of the local branch of Majelis Ulama, Indonesia’s top clerical organization, led the people in prayer before they sang the national anthem. Then two women took to the stage to speak publicly for the first time about the horror they had experienced.

Ibu Mimin and Ibu Narsi shook with a mixture of grief and relief as they spoke of how they were living in fear for their lives. ‘We have nowhere to live with our children,’ said Ibu Mimin. ‘I am still in trauma and every day is a struggle.’

Daniel Pye
Ibu Mimin (left centre) and Ibu Narsi (right centre) speak of how they have lived in fear for their lives since palm oil and rubber companies forced them from their land. Daniel Pye

‘After the killings, when the company came to destroy my home, I was cooking cassava,’ said Ibu Narsi. ‘When PAM Swakarsa and the police crushed my house I was inside and the boiling water from my pot covered my body and I was badly burned. My husband was killed by the forces of [plantation company] Silva Inhutani when he was out farming in the fields.’

Both women had been silenced by the brutality they had witnessed and only now, in front of a live news broadcast by a local TV station and with the support of retired Major General Saurip Kadi, felt they could tell their story. ‘I did not dare to talk about this before because I was so afraid, so I said what the police wanted me to say. Life has been so horrible and full of terror.’ The pair collapsed with exhaustion and were carried away.

‘What happened in Mesuji goes back to the Suharto era,’ said Kadi. Nothing has changed in the way land is managed. Capital is king in today’s Indonesia, as it was under Suharto. There is no justice and the government is more supportive to business than to the people.’

One woman, who wished to remain anonymous, from Tunggal Jaya hamlet near Register 45, said the conflict has been going on since 1999, when seven villages were destroyed and several people ‘disappeared’, including two of her children.

A policy to reshape Indonesia’s economy, called MP3EI, aims to divide the country into six economic ‘corridors’ and includes a new land law that allows the government to sell off traditional lands to companies.

The land agency has said that 7.3 million hectares of communally held land will be expropriated by the state and sold off for infrastructure projects – an area larger than Ireland. ‘The government’s role,’ a document outlining the plan written by President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono in 2009 reads, ‘is to provide incentives for business,’ in the spirit of ‘Indonesia Incorporated’.

A big mafia

An investigations team comprising several human rights organizations and led by Kadi, who headed the delegation, has presented the case to parliament, and a parliamentary fact-finding team led by the Deputy Human Rights Minister, Denny Indrayana, has been dispatched.

The police have, after much pressure and denial, admitted to playing a role in some of the killings. An internal investigation by the local police found that some of its members had killed villagers. Their punishment? Fourteen days’ detention, an office job and a pay freeze. About 130 people were held in the local jail for living on land the companies claim and 30 prisoners remain behind bars.

After the meeting, the delegation met Member of Parliament Nudirman Munir, a supporter of the case, and headed to BNIL’s factory to speak to the manager. At the gates of the factory, the group was met by about 60 police and company security who denied them entry.

All across the underdeveloped regions of provincial Indonesia, people are engaged in a determined struggle against the capital-friendly export-oriented economic policies of the government

The companies say the 1,350 hectares where Register 45 once stood belongs to them under a concession granted to them by the government. But locals claim the land under a form of customary law called adat that has existed on the Indonesian archipelago since before the Dutch Empire arrived.

In many parts of the country, poor, mostly rural communities have begun to occupy symbols of what they see as a corrupt and unfair system.

In Bima, in West Nusa Tenggara province, locals occupied a port in opposition to a gold company they say is polluting the water, damaging the environment and exporting the wealth of the mine without benefiting the local people. In predominantly Christian Bima, on Christmas Eve, members of the Mobile Brigade of the police attacked the protesters and killed two of them. All across the underdeveloped regions of provincial Indonesia, people are engaged in a determined struggle against the capital-friendly export-oriented economic policies of the government.

Daniel Pye
Displaced Mesuji residents (with retired Major General Saurip Kadi at front row, third from right) speak out against palm oil and rubber companies that have forced them from their lands. Daniel Pye

The Mesuji delegation has now joined forces with groups from Bima, Kalimantan (where there were recently reports of several beheadings related to land rights-related violence), Riau and Sampang to demand the government rethink its policies.

‘Under our Constitution, the land is sacred and belongs to the people,’ said Wayan from Puncak Jaya hamlet. ‘That doesn’t include already-wealthy foreign firms that come here to exploit and care nothing for the people who rely on the land to survive.’

Locals claim the land under a form of customary law called adat that has existed on the Indonesian archipelago since before the Dutch Empire arrived

Kadi said there were dark forces at work blocking progress in the case. ‘We are not coming together today because we are broken,’ he said. ‘We are doing it because of the incompetence of our government. The case of Mesuji is just one case of a plethora of abuses across Indonesia; in Bima, East Java, Papua. Here, PAM Swakarsa are the vanguard for the companies’ interests and behind them are the police.’

‘There is some bigger power behind this and the hands of the National Police boss are tied. [There is] a big mafia that includes the companies and goes all the way to the president,’ he went on. ‘The mafia pays for lands the government says are useless, but people live there and farm the land collectively. The companies always win in court because the courts don’t recognize customary rights and the companies have land deeds.’

The investigations team announced at the meeting that if significant progress in the case is not made, they will file a class action lawsuit against the companies. ‘This is a long struggle,’ said Kadi. ‘It will not be over quickly.’

Daniel Pye is an independent journalist based in Jakarta who has reported from Burma, Syria and Indonesia.

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