- Lawmakers in Indonesia want to question pulp and paper company PT Arara Abadi about its dispute with an Indigenous community in Sumatra that resulted in a member of the community being jailed on dubious charges.
- The company has held the concession to the land since 1996, but the Sakai Indigenous tribe have lived and farmed there since 1830, and claim ancestral rights to the area.
- Those rights, however, are not recognized by the government, which allowed PT Arara Abadi, a subsidiary of paper giant Asia Pulp & Paper (APP), to press charges against Indigenous farmer Bongku for clearing a small plot of pulpwood trees.
- Bongku was granted early release in light of the COVID-19 pandemic and says his fight will continue.
JAKARTA — Lawmakers in Indonesia plan to call pulp and paper executives to testify about a recent case in which an Indigenous farmer was jailed for cutting down pulpwood trees on disputed land.
Sudin, a lawmaker who heads the parliamentary commission overseeing forestry, said the company in question, PT Arara Abadi, a subsidiary of paper giant Asia Pulp & Paper (APP), had been “acting tough” in its attitude toward the Sakai Indigenous community in Riau province, Sumatra.
“My suggestion is to just summon the businesspeople here,” he said at a June 29 hearing with officials from the environment ministry. “There must be someone protecting them. We want to know how strong their backing is.”
The prosecution and jailing of Bongku, a 58-year-old Sakai farmer, has sparked outrage among Indigenous rights and environmental activists in Indonesia and abroad. In early November last year, Bongku cleared half a hectare (1.2 acres) of land, chopping down 20 of PT Arara Abadi’s (AA) acacia and eucalyptus trees near his home in Duluk Songkal village to plant sweet potatoes for his family. The company reported him to the police, citing significant material damages, and in May a court sentenced him to a year in prison and fined him 200 million rupiah ($13,800).
Dongku was granted early release on June 10 as part of a government program to ease overcrowding in jails to prevent the spread of COVID-19. He had been locked up for more than seven months, during which he had to pay for food and water and sleep in an overcrowded cell.
AA has since 1996 held the concession to the disputed land, part of its 292,262-hectare (722,195-acre) concession — an area larger than Luxembourg. But the Sakai people, scattered across 10 villages, have lived in the area and farmed the land here since 1830, long before Indonesia’s independence in 1945. They claim only a fraction of the concession, 7,500 hectares (18,500 acres).
Dedi Mulyadi, a deputy head of parliament’s forestry commission, said the court should have thrown out the charges against Bongku based on this alone.
“The court testimony of Indigenous peoples from the Melayu Indigenous Institute in Riau [LAM Riau] explains that the Sakai tribe has long lived there, way before Indonesia existed,” he said. “And it’s recorded in LAM Riau’s document that [the Sakai peoples] are cultivating lands that are customary lands, which are now located in Arara Abadi’s concession.”
He added that what happened to Bongku should never happen to other Indigenous peoples again.
Hermanto, another lawmaker on the commission, said Bongku shouldn’t have been convicted under the forest crimes statute that prosecutors brought, which applies specifically to organized syndicates that profit from illegal logging.
“We sympathize with Bongku and the Sakai tribe because what they do is for their livelihoods, not to seek profit,” Hermanto said. “I express tremendous appreciation for Bongku because he wants to survive during a time when the government isn’t there to fulfill his basic needs.”
He said there was an uneven playing field between Indigenous farmers like Bongku and big companies like AA.
“The company is given thousands of hectares for its concession while Bongku only cleared [half] a hectare for his life and his family,” he said. “Justice only sided with those who own money: the companies.”
Hermanto also criticized companies’ tendency to use the courts to silence the voices of Indigenous peoples.
“If companies have humanity, they won’t resort to using litigation” every time there’s a dispute, he said. “It’s easy for businesspeople who have money to go to court, but for [regular] people, it’s not. So put humanity at the forefront, and then justice. Give [Bongku] the right to live.”
Hermanto also echoed activists’ criticism that the fine imposed by the court was particularly unjust. At 200 million rupiah, it’s nearly six times the annual minimum wage in Riau province. If Bongku fails to pay, he will have to serve an additional one month in prison.
“I think it’s indeed not fair,” Hermanto said. “How would he get that money?”
Lawmakers also plan to summon representatives from other logging and industrial plantation companies embroiled in land disputes with Indigenous communities, and have asked the environment ministry to submit a list of these companies.
Bambang Hendroyono, the environment ministry’s secretary-general, said the ministry had been mediating the conflict between the Sakai tribe and AA in recent years, but hadn’t been able to reach an agreement.
He said that following Bongku’s arrest last November, AA had included the area of the Sakai people in its CSR program, known as DMPA. Launched by APP in 2015, the program aims to provide alternative livelihood source to communities living in and around the forest to improve welfare and reduce the communities’ dependence on forest land.
“Since 2019, we had asked AA to solve the problem with the Sakai people, especially their rights,” Bambang said. “So after the arrest, the map was revised to include [the community] in the DMPA program, so that Bongku and others can work. So the partnership built [by the company] has involved Bongku, and we’re monitoring.”
The Riau chapter of the Legal Aid Foundation (LBH Pekanbaru), which represented Bongku at trial, says it hasn’t heard from the Sakai community about them being invited to participate in the program.
Mongabay did not receive any response from either AA or APP for comment.
Released, but not free
In 2016, the district legislature in Riau’s Bengkalis district, where the Sakai live, launched an investigation into the conflict. It recommended the district government revoke or at least review AA’s permit to address the overlap with the Sakai ancestral land.
Riko Kurniawan, the Riau director of the Indonesian Forum for the Environment (Walhi), said there was no follow-up action to the recommendation.
“If there’s no guarantee in the legality of Indigenous peoples’ customary rights, then there’ll surely be other cases like Bongku from the land conflict between the Sakai and AA,” he said.
Indonesia’s national human rights commission, known as Komnas HAM, has also recommended that the Sakai tribe be recognized as the rightful owners of the land under the 1999 Forestry Law. But the tribe has not moved to stake that claim because of the complicated bureaucratic process involved.
In 2008, a fact-finding team from the commission found the Sakai people had lost their right to live peacefully and safely because of constant pressure from the company. It found the company had deployed security personnel and trained dogs to drive away farmers working on the disputed land and to intimidate children going to and from school.
That same year, the dispute crested into violence as more than 700 police and civilians raided the village of Duluk Songkal to drive out the inhabitants. Amnesty International cited local reports that a 2-year-old child died after falling into a well during the incident and a 2-month-old infant died of burn injuries. Some 400 villagers fled for the forest as police helicopters dropped fire accelerant on the village and destroyed 300 homes.
According to an analysis by the Riau-based NGO Jikalahari, thousands of Sakai people live inside AA’s concession.
“Their lands have been grabbed, [they] live in houses with dirt floors and walls and roofs with holes,” said Jikalahari coordinator Made Ali.
In a bid to get the rights of Bongku and other Indigenous peoples in the area recognized, Jikalahari on June 19 reported the conflict to LAM Riau, the Indigenous rights organization that testified on Bongku’s behalf.
Datuk Seri Al Azhar, the LAM Riau chair, criticized AA’s refusal to acknowledge the Sakai ancestral land claims and to prosecute Bongku.
In court, representatives of AA testified that the area cleared by Bongku wasn’t registered as Sakai ancestral land with either the district forestry agency or the company. APP also says the Sakai land claim dates back to 2001, not 1830. It conducted a field inspection with community representatives that concluded the land had never been occupied or managed by the Sakai community, but was instead used for commercial purposes by third parties not related either to the tribe or to the company.
“Despite the finding, between 2001 and 2019, several members of the Sakai community continued to try to occupy land and halt the company’s operations,” APP said in a statement.
Al Azhar said LAM Riau would ask AA to clarify its stance on the issue. Made Ali said it wasn’t the Sakai people’s fault that their lands weren’t recognized by either the government or the company.
“Administratively, the Sakai people haven’t been registered in government institutions, and that’s not the fault of Bongku or the Sakai people,” he said. “That’s purely the local government’s fault because they haven’t issued a regulation recognizing the Indigenous tribe.”
Bongku said he had withdrawn his appeal against his criminal conviction. Appealing could have resulted in his early release being reversed, which would have seen him back in jail pending a new hearing. He said he made the difficult decision because he didn’t want to be separated from his wife and children.
“Please help my children and my grandchildren get their rights recognized when I’m gone,” he said while waiting to be picked up outside the Bengkalis jail following his June 10 release. “This fight will continue.”
Banner image: Bongku, a member of the Sakai indigenous community in Riau, Indonesia, accompanied by his lawyer. Image courtesy of LBH Pekanbaru.