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Inside Indonesia’s highest-profile land conflict

  • Dayak tribespeople in Muara Tae village say their borders were redrawn so two companies could grow oil palm in their territory.
  • The allegations mirror claims being made across the West Kutai region at the heart of Borneo’s palm oil boom.
  • Muara Tae points the finger at Malaysian-owned TSH Resources and Singapore-listed First Resources, both of which preside over extensive holdings in West Kutai.

IMG_8990 River confluence

Masrani stood at the confluence of two rivers in Indonesian Borneo as his father recited the most dreadful oath. The extreme form of sumpah adat, a ritualistic nuclear option for Indonesia’s Dayak indigenous peoples, was reserved for dealing with crises nothing else could solve. The forest chattered to the post-daybreak sounds of hornbills and proboscis monkeys as the two-dozen men assembled for the rite.

One by one, they beseeched the ancestors to punish those who had shifted their borders and robbed them of their territory.

“They were brave enough to steal our land, but not to meet us at the river,” said Masrani, the deposed former chief of Muara Tae, a village in East Kalimantan province. “They didn’t come because they know they’re wrong.”

Indonesia’s shambolic internal borders are a national emergency. No single map of land-use claims exists; contradictory references persist across the different levels of government. The problem impedes efforts to zone the country for sustainable development and underlies thousands of conflicts that pit communities against companies, the state or each other.

Amid the chaos, oil palm plantations have sprung up at breakneck speed across Indonesia’s ravaged hinterlands, eating away at the forests and propelling this country of 250 million to become the world’s sixth-largest emitter of greenhouse gases. At the start of last century more than four-fifths of the archipelago was covered by jungle; today it is fighting to stem forest losses even in its national parks as species like the Javan tiger (Panthera tigris sondaica) fall away into extinction. Indonesia is the world’s largest producer of palm oil and largest exporter of coal, both of which are ubiquitous to places in Kalimantan like where these two ancient rivers meet.

IMG_8979 Asuy at rivers
Masrani’s father, Petrus Asuy, stands in front of a sacred object that was used in the sumpah adat last year. Photo by Philip Jacobson

The destruction of more than 2.1 million hectares of land in this year’s devastating wildfires places additional pressure on reform-minded new president Joko “Jokowi” Widodo to change Indonesia’s lax business-as-usual approach to forestry. Jokowi has shown himself capable of announcing decisive reforms from the Istana Merdeka in Jakarta, but in remote outposts a far cry from the capital, companies and powerful local actors continue to mold borders amid ineffective oversight.

Here in Muara Tae, and in its neighbor Muara Ponak, opposing sides in a land conflict tell wildly contradictory stories about the two villages’ border, on one side of which – or on both, depending on whom you ask – a pair of oil palm developers have already set up shop.

The companies are Malaysia-based TSH Resources Bhd and Singapore-listed First Resources Ltd, whose CEO, Ciliandra Fangiono, is scion of one of Indonesia’s wealthiest families. Both corporations preside over extensive holdings here in West Kutai regency, a subdivision of East Kalimantan province that lies at the center of Indonesia’s palm oil boom.

Not only are the firms accused of employing tested tricks to enter Tae. Some say that more broadly in West Kutai, they are pioneering a new means of grabbing indigenous territory, the latest in an arsenal of tactics used by rapidly expanding agribusiness and extractive industries in the global land rush.

The lay of the land

It starts with Tae and Ponak, the site of West Kutai’s best-known land conflict. People from Tae, a community of 2,500, accuse people from Ponak, whose population is around 300, of selling Tae’s land to the aforementioned companies in a series of fraudulent exchanges. To enable the deals, the head or regent of West Kutai is said to have redrawn the Tae-Ponak border at Tae’s expense, and then tried to railroad Tae’s leaders into submission when they resisted. In 2013, Tae’s elected chief, Masrani, was stripped of office by a unilateral edict or decree from the regent, a politician from President Jokowi’s party named Ismael Thomas.

The Ponak side counters that the land was always theirs. But the allegations from Tae mirror claims being made across West Kutai, where stories of border manipulation crop up again and again.

One case, involving Bentian and Damai subdistricts, has gone to the Supreme Court. The area disputed there is home to a giant coal mine whose royalties were rerouted from one jurisdiction to the other when the regent shifted their border, the plaintiffs told Mongabay. Others have been highlighted by NGOs. In September, six villages that are involved in as many conflicts resulting from operations by First Resources and its sister companies sent representatives to Jakarta for a meeting with the Environmental Investigation Agency, a London-based nonprofit. These included four communities from West Kutai. In constructing a typology of the firms’ actions, the participants identified foul play with borders as a common thread.

West Kutai’s cartography has even been flagged by Indonesia’s human rights commission, known as Komnas HAM. Last year, when Muara Tae was featured in Komnas HAM’s national inquiry into land conflicts affecting indigenous peoples, the commissioners singled out the regency with a recommendation that it review all permits held by commodities companies.

IMG_8210 3 Bentian guys with map
Bentian residents who oppose their new border with Damai include, from left, Apung Barnel, lawyer Lirin Dingit, and Roesli, a local official. They say Bentian lost 40% of its territory when the regent published an official map of the two subdistricts. Photo by Philip Jacobson
IMG_8125 Long Hubung
Long Hubung Ulu village chief Lawing Uning, left, and other residents say a Fangiono family company is encroaching on their customary territory. PT Fangiono Agro Plantation A received a permit from Ismael Thomas, the West Kutai regent, in 2010, but locals say it negotiated with residents of a neighboring village, Long Gelawang, for the rights to Hubung’s land. Photo by Philip Jacobson
Top: Bentian resident Apung Barnel (from left), lawyer Lirin Dingit and Bentian official Roesli take issue with a government edict they say violates a centuries-old border with neighboring Damai subdistrict. Middle: Lawing Uning (left), the chief of Long Hubung Ulu village, says a Fangiono family company is encroaching on his community's territory. Above: The chief of Benggeris village in West Kutai says a mining company and an oil palm firm have violated his village's northern and southern borders. Photos by Philip Jacobson
The chief of Benggeris village in West Kutai says a coal mining company and an oil palm firm have violated his village’s northern and southern boundaries. Such stories abound in West Kutai regency. Photo by Philip Jacobson

A senior official in the regent’s office acknowledged the severity of the problem. Franky Yonathan said the issue needed to be rectified so development could be equitable and sustainable. But he downplayed the significance of village boundaries in determining who owns land. “The border is an administrative matter – it doesn’t affect land rights,” he stressed in Sendawar, the West Kutai capital.

First Resources makes the same point. But that contention is only true insofar as one’s ownership is enshrined in a paper document, whereas Indonesia’s indigenous communities have traditionally held land communally. A certificate for collectively owned land has only recently been introduced and has yet to be tested. But indigenous lands are regularly leased to companies, with the government system allowing village chiefs to vouch for a transaction. The location of a border is therefore of paramount importance, because it determines whose chief can facilitate a deal.

In practice, the reality of Indonesia as a country of legal pluralism, where state law must coexist with adat law – a term that refers holistically to indigenous peoples’ various life systems – has been neglected by the government, said Chip Fay, a fellow at the Samdhana Institute.

“The vagueness and the lack of actions toward balancing these two legal systems serves business as usual, and people suffer as a result,” Fay said.

Overlaid on Muara Tae's own map of its territory (area enclosed by black line) is the new Tae-Ponak border drawn by the regent (red line) and the area covered by PT Borneo Surya Mining Jaya's location permit (yellow line). The shaded area was acquired by the company from a Ponak resident named Yokubus. Image courtesy of Lingkar Komunitas Sawit
The shaded area is under dispute between Muara Tae and Muara Ponak villages, but First Resources has already planted some of it with oil palm. The black line represents Tae’s own map of its territory; the regent drew the red borderline in 2012. The yellow line corresponds with First Resources’ location permit, which gives it the right to negotiate with locals to acquire their land. Not pictured is TSH Resources’ permit, which also overlaps with territory Tae claims. Image courtesy of Lingkar Komunitas Sawit

When Muara Tae cried foul over TSH Resources, the first of the companies to strike a deal with Ponak residents, in 2011, the West Kutai government sent its special team for resolving border disputes to both villages. The team eventually recommended a compromise border, and this was cemented by a decree from the regent.

Ponak accepts this decree. Tae challenged it in court. The community was represented by its chief, Masrani, a stocky 34-year-old with an implacable manner and a steely command of his subject. He also possesses a university education, a rare asset among these Dayak Benuaq people for whom subsistence farming and hunter-gathering remain the norm.

Soon, the regent issued another decree to remove Masrani from office. This edict came, Masrani says, after he refused to be coerced into dropping the lawsuit, which judges in Samarinda, the provincial capital, ultimately rejected on the grounds that Tae lacked standing to challenge the border – a decision based on the assumption that land rights are unaffected by village boundaries. Masrani and others in the community have nevertheless continued to resist the oil palm companies as encroachers in Tae’s customary territory.

Their battle has been an uphill one, even with support from a cast of NGOs and other groups, including the United Nations Development Programme, which recently named the Tae community a recipient of the prestigious Equator Prize for conservation. Masrani’s father, Petrus Asuy, accepted the award at the UN climate summit in Paris on Monday.

Masrani and his wife and son before the sumpah adat last year. Photo courtesy of Masrani
Masrani and his wife and son before the sumpah adat last year. Photo courtesy of Masrani

The picture is complicated by a lack of unity not just between Tae and Ponak but also within Tae over whether to enter into an agreement with the companies. One group of Tae people, all of them closely related, has sought to do business with First Resources.

When he was chief, Masrani rebuffed the relatives’ proposal to enter into an agreement with First Resources because, he says, the other community members opposed it. The relatives responded by circulating a petition for Masrani’s impeachment. Many Tae residents say the petitioners forged their signatures, and the document was rejected by a key administrative body for that very reason. Nonetheless, the document was cited by the regent as the primary basis for Masrani’s removal.

Muara Tae is a small community, and the petitioners live just a few doors down from Masrani on the two-lane asphalt road that links this settlement with the region’s bigger towns. Barely a few minutes pass without a brightly colored truck racing by to load up on palm fruit at one of the plantations nearby.

The companies’ supporters paint Masrani as a “provocateur” with a vendetta against oil palm that dates back to the 1990s, when Muara Tae was the site of Indonesia’s first major conflict involving the crop. It started when PT PP London Sumatra Tbk, now an arm of the Salim Group conglomerate, began clearing land in which several communities had a claim. Local people finally occupied the company’s base camp before setting fire to the site. The police’s special forces were deployed. Some residents were arrested and, Masrani says, tortured by the police. Others, including Masrani’s father, fled into the jungle. He stayed there for two months, waiting for the heat to subside. Masrani was in middle school at the time.

“We were terrified,” Masrani recalled.

This trauma, Masrani’s adversaries allege, has fed within him and his father such a hatred of oil palm that they have declared war on the crop, bent on opposing it wherever it may lie, even outside Tae’s own boundaries.

“We have to differentiate between the people of Muara Tae and Masrani’s group,” Rudiyanto, Ponak’s chief, told Mongabay. “Masrani’s group — they don’t like palm oil. That’s the only reason this is an issue.”

London Sumatra's burned out base camp in the 1990s. Photo courtesy of Telapak
London Sumatra’s burned-out base camp in the late 1990s. Photo courtesy of Telapak

Masrani denies this. While he freely admits his distaste for oil palm monoculture and his preference to continue farming, hunting and living off the forest, his position, he maintains, is that his neighbors can do what they want. What he can’t stand, he says, is the outright theft of Muara Tae’s customary land, which belongs to all of its indigenous residents, not to a few opportunists with powerful backing.

The alternative view Masrani presents is that of a conspiracy among unscrupulous companies, a crooked regent and pliant members of both communities to force a lucrative estate crop down Muara Tae’s throat.

“That’s how it is in this regency,” Masrani said.

Out of line

Local borders were slow to develop in much of Indonesia. Sparsely populated islands like Borneo and New Guinea had plenty of land for everyone. You claimed what you could clear: labor was the real commodity.

The handle of a ladder in the forest is engraved with a face. Photo by Philip Jacobson
The handle of a ladder at a Muara Tae guard post and sapling nursery in the forest. Photo by Philip Jacobson

For much of the colonial era, the Dutch hunkered down in fertile Java, the Spice Islands and parts of coastal Sumatra and did little about the rest of the archipelago. After independence, General Suharto’s New Order regime was likewise more concerned with exploiting Indonesia’s vast natural wealth than delineating its boundaries. From the 1980s, his forestry ministry was supposed to establish jurisdictional certainty in the three quarters of the archipelago designated as forest area, a process known as gazetting. It did only about an eighth of the job. When it came to dispensing permits for logging and pulpwood plantations, the ministry got considerably farther, spreading such concessions over half of the forest zone.

When Suharto became president in 1967, Indonesia’s GDP per capita was $56. In 1998 it was $470. But Indonesia today has one of the highest Gini coefficients in the region, a legacy of the New Order’s kleptocracy which made billionaires out of men like Martias Fangiono, Ciliandra’s father and a First Resources founder. In 1998, Suharto was finally deposed, but Martias’ conviction in 2007 in an illegal logging scandal that brought down the East Kalimantan governor symbolized how the regime’s political corruption had carried over into the era of democracy, albeit with certain structural differences.

Most notably, as part of an ambitious archipelago-wide decentralization program that followed the strongman’s fall, control of natural resources was largely devolved to the local level. Many regents took advantage of their newfound power to hand out large numbers of mining and plantation permits. Ismael Thomas, the regent of West Kutai, was among the first in line. By 2012, the area covered by his overlapping coal concessions exceeded West Kutai’s actual area, according to a report by Indonesian Corruption Watch.

Ismael has never been named a graft suspect, but since 2005 more than half of all regents have been linked to corruption scandals, often for trading licenses for bribes to fund their election campaigns.

IMG_8361 Bentian coal mine
Herman Dingit, a resident of Bentian subdistrict in West Kutai, says a coal mining company stole his land. Photo by Philip Jacobson

Ismael’s rise came in 2004, when he stepped down as vice regent to run against the incumbent, Rama Asia. During his own administration, Rama had sought foreign funding to create a methodology for mapping indigenous lands, part of a strategy to reduce the risk of land conflict. The program reached the pilot phase and was tested in several subdistricts. But after beating Rama by a thin margin, Ismael scrapped it.

“Rama Asia stressed the need to be clear about communities’ territory before bringing in private investors,” said Martua Sirait, a World Agroforestry Center (ICRAF) researcher who worked on the project. “Once Thomas came in, the government seemed to lose interest.”

Ismael Thomas Twitter pic
Ismael Thomas, the regent of West Kutai. Photo courtesy of @ThomasIsmael

Some regencies have maintained a focus on community mapping. Four in Sumatra and Sulawesi are working with the Millennium Challenge Corporation, a U.S. foreign aid agency, to draw precise village boundaries under a set of guidelines that places greater emphasis on the participatory aspect than does the home ministry’s official framework. Local governments have a mandate to sharpen the vague, small-scale maps that usually accompany the formation of new jurisdictions in Indonesia, a process that has gone into overdrive since the fall of Suharto. If in making them more explicit, however, a dispute arises between neighboring villages and cannot be resolved – as with Tae and Ponak – the regent has sole discretion to decide on the border. “If that happens,” according to an MCC policy paper, “the conflict will just continue.” The MCC advocates for mediation of disputes by a citizen council composed of representatives from every village in a subdistrict.

Ismael Thomas has not done things this way, and some say his constituents have suffered for it. In 2007, a study on poverty in West Kutai by the Center for International Forestry Research noted that the government had sacrificed the environment and social cohesion for the benefit of an economy “largely based on the non-regenerative extraction of natural resources.” As a result, conflicts about access to and benefits from such resources were increasing at all levels.

One of the authors, Godwin Limberg, told Mongabay that, as far as he knew, the situation was as bad as ever.

“Of course,” he said, “anywhere where boundaries have not been well defined and where suddenly large-scale economic activities start will very likely result in land disputes.”

Test the waters

Borneo is a land of rivers. The most imposing among them rise up in the central highlands and wind their way over hundreds of kilometers to the surrounding seas. The eastern versant of Asia’s biggest island is dominated by the Mahakam River. It originates near the border with Malaysia in mountainous Mahakam Ulu regency, traverses a region of shallow lakes and fishing villages in West Kutai, weaves through the former Kutai Kartanegara sultanate’s capital of Tenggarong, and passes a succession of sawmills before running out into the Makassar Strait near Samarinda, whose population of less than a million makes it Borneo’s largest city.

A coal barge makes its way down the Mahakam. Photo by Philip Jacobson
A coal barge floats down the Mahakam River. Photo by Philip Jacobson

Tae and Ponak lie in the hilly lowlands due south of the Mahakam. The Dayak Benuaq are predominantly Christian: a framed portrait of Jesus seems to hang in every home. If Ponak is more secluded, with far fewer people and no proper road, the part of Tae known as Camp Baru is rather bustling, home to hundreds of transmigrants, many of them Muslim, who were relocated as part of a government program to spur growth in sparsely populated regions. Camp Baru lies on the main highway, but the village’s official center is located farther back, in the shade of the rambutan trees on the forest’s edge, where the Tae River runs into the Nayan.

Tae and Ponak’s names refer to the streams at whose mouths, or muara, they sit. The waterways originate on opposite sides of a range of hills that, Masrani says, long ago separated the domains of Raden Mas and Raden Sukma, noblemen under the Kutai sultanate. Both streams travel north via different river systems. The waters of the Ponak eventually reach the Mahakam. Those of the Tae flow into Lake Jempang just south of the great river.

For Masrani and others who oppose the oil palm companies, these geographic features, especially a hill called Benuakng, always defined the boundaries between Tae and Ponak.

“The new border cuts through our adat territory,” he said. “It is obvious that if we look, it was changed deliberately so that the companies could operate on our land based on an agreement from Ponak.”

Though no longer sovereign in stature, the sultanate still exists, with a palace in Tenggarong that advises local governments. There, Mongabay met Prince Poeger, the sultan’s spokesman. He confirmed that kingdom administrators used to rely on natural borders to demarcate their territory.

Prince Poeger at the palace in Tenggarong. Photo by Philip Jacobson

“Ridges, rivers, valleys – these were the boundaries in the era of the sultanate,” the prince said. “If there was a dispute, there were criteria for resolving it: natural borders.”

Indonesian law says that in drawing borders, governments must respect the adat norms already in place. Indigenous rights advocates interpret this to mean that adat boundaries should be upheld. The state is also allowed to consider other factors. “If the village’s area is large but the population is just a few, I think the government can make a case for not using the natural borders,” Poeger explained. “But don’t take away the rights of the people who live there.”

Rudiyanto, the Ponak chief, tells it differently from Masrani. Rather than defining the “original border” by the hills and headwaters, he places the defining point elsewhere, at a small harbor on the Nayan River called Singabanda.

When Muara Tae split from neighboring Mancong in 2004, Rudiyanto said, the new village lobbied to increase its territory, and the border was shifted at Ponak’s expense – first to a spot on the Perpaka River, and then to a place called Putih Dasar, known for its honey-producing benggeris trees (Koompassia excelsa). The new border, Rudiyanto explained, actually represents a compromise, situated as it is between the range of hills and Singabanda harbor.

Rudiyanto, the chief of Muara Ponak. Photo by Philip Jacobson

Over coffee one evening at a food stall in Camp Baru, near London Sumatra’s plantation – the now fully grown oil palm trees stand sentinel on either side of the asphalt road – Rudiyanto assured that the Singabanda border was rooted in the era of the sultanate. There, he said, Ponak once had a longhouse, traditionally the center of Dayak village life. He struggled, however, to describe the border as more than a single point – as a line, with a beginning and an end.

Ultimately, his point is that the regent has already made a decision that was upheld in court. “That’s number one,” he stressed.

Ponak will compensate anyone with hak kelola, or management rights, in its territory, he added. These are different from the underlying hak waris, or inheritance rights. According to Rudiyanto, some Tae residents have management rights because Ponak residents have lent them tracts of unused land to farm. But the inheritance rights are Ponak’s exclusively.

But Masrani insists that no one in Ponak has any rights in the disputed area, and that Ponak never had a longhouse at Singabanda. “The evidence is in the field,” he said. “Old farms, all of which are owned by Tae people. Ancient gravesites of Tae people. There’s no longhouse there.”

The dispute is rooted in a “misunderstanding about history,” Silan, then the head of Jempang subdistrict, within which Tae is located, told Mongabay at his office in March. The government’s response was to draw a line down the middle. “They couldn’t agree, so the government split the area in two,” he said. “I think that’s the best way.”

Durian-like fruit lie on the forest floor. Photo Philip Jacobson
Durian-like fruit on the forest floor. Tae residents like to turn them into a paste for dinner. Photo Philip Jacobson

Masrani said the mediation was doomed to fail. After the border team visited the area, once each with Tae and Ponak, “They put us in a room and expected us to agree right away. We had 15 minutes,” he recounted. “When no agreement was reached – of course it was impossible to agree like that – both sides were asked to state their case in a letter for the government to make a decision.” Ponak “lied about everything,” he said.

Franky Yonathan, who now oversees the border team, declined to comment on the case because he wasn’t in charge at the time.

Look and see

To give each side a chance to prove its claim, Mongabay asked residents of both Tae and Ponak for a tour of the disputed area with someone from the community – a village elder with a deep knowledge of the terrain who could prove it was their long-held adat territory.

Masrani’s side was eager to make the trip. Petrus Asuy, his father, drove Mongabay by motorbike up and down narrow forest paths and terraced oil palm monocultures, pointing out ruined dwellings and forgotten burial sites that he said verified Tae’s claim. Durian and chempedak stands had been planted by his ancestors; the occasional benggeris tree towered over the landscape.

“Ponak doesn’t know where any of this stuff is,” Petrus said, cutting a path through the forest with his machete. “Why? Because it’s not their land.”


Top: Petrus Asuy stands in a grove that was protected by Tae people from the oil palm companies' bulldozers. Above: The grove from afar. Oil palm seedlings are growing on what Petrus says used to be Tae residents' farms. Photos by Philip Jacobson
Top: Petrus Asuy stands in front of a ruined dwelling in a grove Tae people protected from the bulldozers. Above: The grove from afar. Oil palm seedlings now grow on what Petrus says used to be Tae residents’ farms. Photos by Philip Jacobson

The other side was less enthusiastic to provide a tour. Giarto, one of four Ponak residents who signed a contract with TSH Resources, the Malaysian company, balked at the proposal. He wrote in a text message:

if you’re asking about proof it’s impossible because the proof is all gone … destroyed by muara tae people … they made farms and killed all the benggeris trees … and the old longhouse … they made farms on it all

Repeated attempts to reach Rudiyanto about a trip were unsuccessful.

IMG_8452 Giarto
Giarto, one of four Ponak residents who signed a contract with TSH Resources’ subsidiary, PT Munte Waniq Jaya Perkasa. He received 312.5 million rupiah ($22,400) in the deal, an incredible sum in the hinterlands of Kalimantan. Photo by Philip Jacobson

‘The company is manipulating you people’

One clear morning in June 2012, several Tae men were walking near the pure waters of the Melinau River when the sound of bulldozers rang through the forest.

PT Borneo Surya Mining Jaya, a First Resources subsidiary, had set up a base camp in the area. Masrani and others hurried over and demanded an explanation. There, Rizaldy, PT BSMJ’s general manager, broke the news that the company had acquired 400 hectares of land from a single Ponak resident, Yokubus. He also informed them that the regent had issued a decree regarding the border. The area now lay squarely within Ponak.

“If you don’t like it, you’re welcome to go to court,” Masrani remembers him saying.

That summer and fall, Tae residents did what they could to stymie PT BSMJ’s operations. Residents would patrol the area and run in front of the machines when they approached. Some stayed in the forest for weeks at a time, sleeping in guard posts they built.

One day, Masrani was among a group that encountered bulldozers being protected by around 30 Ponak residents and some police officers. Things became heated, and the villagers almost came to blows. Masrani implored Rudiyanto: “Please don’t force land clearing here, we are being pitted against each other. The company is manipulating you people.”

Muara Tae 1
Masrani (blue) and his father (front) in a forest cleared for palm oil. Photo by Tomasz Johnson/Environmental Investigation Agency

Masrani was surprised and angry that PT BSMJ had entered the forest. The First Resources subsidiary had acquired the land based on the premise that it was free of competing claims, despite Tae’s having taken pains to communicate that it considered the area part of its territory.

Back in 2010, the regency government had granted PT BSMJ a location permit, which lets a company negotiate with owners to acquire land in a given area. Later, a company can obtain a plantation permit, allowing it to operate on land that has been legally acquired.

The location permit covered area on both sides of Benuakng Hill – said to run between Tae and Ponak – and the company approached each community about striking a deal. Tae rejected all advances. In the summer of 2011, after PT BSMJ delivered a public presentation in Tae, the village issued a formal letter explaining exactly where its borders were. It wanted to avoid a repeat of what was already brewing with TSH Resources, whose own subsidiary would begin demolishing forest later that year. At this point, Tae appeared united in its opposition to the companies. Even the relatives who would later seek Masrani’s impeachment signed the letter to PT BSMJ.

First Resources and its local arm might therefore have guessed their deal with Yokubus would ignite a fresh conflict. Yet they allowed him to provide a “self-declaration” that the land belonged to him. The contract included a pledge that there were no competing claims to the area and said that if there were, PT BSMJ bore no liability. The document was endorsed by Rudiyanto and two other Ponak officials, one of whom was Yokubus’ first cousin. Yokubus received 400 milion rupiah ($29,000) in the exchange, an incredible sum in Indonesia’s hinterlands.

First Resources’ position is that when the border decree was issued, it assumed the competing claims had been resolved, according to Chong Wei Kwang, a senior sustainability manager at the company.

Ambrosius Ruwindrijarto, whose NGO, Telapak, has worked with Tae since the 1990s, said the company’s actions “show ignorance, or even worse, bad intentions.”

“But this is how companies operate,” he added. “We see it all over. They don’t care as long as they get a piece of paper. Don’t care who they get it from. That’s the only thing they need.”


Signatures on Yokubus contract
Top: Yokubus poses with a PT BSMJ official after signing away 400 hectares of land to the company. The area is claimed by both Tae and Ponak. Above: A typical page in the contract was “acknowledged” by Rudiyanto, Ponak’s village chief; Burhan, the kepala adat, or customary chief; and Markus, the head of the village deliberation council.

Divided we fall

If Tae had been of one mind against PT BSMJ, something changed after the company started operating. An early sign was the petition circulated by relatives in the community, which culminated in Masrani’s impeachment by regent’s decree.

Bambang Dwi Laksono, First Resources’ head of sustainability, insists his company has neither an interest nor the wherewithal to interfere in government proceedings. But Masrani believes it had a hand in his removal. He points out that Rizaldy, the PT BSMJ manager, is a former politician from Ismael Thomas’ party, the PDI-P. Ismael is chairman of the PDI-P’s branch in West Kutai, and Rizaldy once served in the regency’s legislature under his leadership.

Petrus Asuy stands next to a lone benggeris tree amid a sea of oil palm saplings in the disputed area. Photo by Philip Jacobson
Tae elder Petrus Asuy stands next to a lone benggeris tree, now surrounded by oil palm saplings in the disputed area. Photo by Philip Jacobson

The petition accused Masrani of a long list of misdeeds, and the document was cited as the impeachment decree’s main basis. But none of the allegations were ever proven or even brought to court, as the law says they must for a chief to be sacked the way Masrani was.

As Masrani tells it, his ousting began in November 2012, when Janssen Ewang, the eighth son of a Tae resident named Abdul Sokeng, approached him about entering into an agreement with PT BSMJ. Abdul’s family managed fields in the disputed area, and they had come to feel the path of least resistance lay in cooperation with the company, rather than digging in for a fight. The relatives wanted Masrani, the chief, to sign off on a deal they had struck with Rizaldy.

In the Dayak Benuaq tradition, communities make weighty decisions such as whether to enter into an agreement with an oil palm developer together. The standard mode of reaching a consensus is musyawarah, or deliberation in an open meeting. The Tae community had already expressed its resounding rejection of PT BSMJ. And Abdul’s clan was proposing to hand over not just their own land. Masrani told Janssen no.

Fully grown trees on an oil palm plantation in Indonesia. Photo by Rhett A. Butler
Mature oil palm trees on a plantation in Indonesia. Photo by Rhett A. Butler

That same week, the relatives embarked on a campaign to impeach Masrani. They brought a petition they said had been endorsed by the vast majority of Tae residents to the village deliberation council, or BPK. Unless a chief has been convicted of a serious crime, or named a suspect for treason, terrorism or corruption, he cannot be dismissed without the BPK’s recommendation.

The petition leveled every kind of allegation against Masrani. Besides targeting his character – calling him an “immature leader” with “poor ethics” who “always condemns the people of Muara Tae as stupid, illiterate, uneducated” – it accused him of lacking initiative to develop Muara Tae, forming counterproductive partnerships with NGOs, failing to resolve the “horizontal conflict” with Ponak, and more. Most seriously, it said he had engaged in “corruption, collusion and nepotism” and taken bribes from the oil palm companies.

Tae’s BPK rejected the petition. Not only were its claims unsubstantiated, said Mustari, the head of the five-member council. Many of its signatures had been obtained under false pretenses. “There were people who were told they were signing a petition to get solar powered lights for the village,” he told Mongabay.

Other names were said to have been forged outright. “I never gave my signature, so how can it be in that document?” said Semunaq, a Tae resident.

Saidal, the head of one of Tae’s four neighborhood divisions, or RTs, said he was forced to sign. “Two times they came asking for my signature,” he told Mongabay. “The first time I didn’t sign. The second time I signed because they threatened to impeach me, too.”

Masrani’s files include written statements from a number of people who say they never signed. And the signatures on the petition itself are very difficult to make out. But Janssen’s brother Andiq maintains it is legitimate. He told Mongabay that Masrani must have forged any statements to the contrary. The verbal confirmations must have been coerced. “He threatened them with his legal education,” Andiq claimed.

Masrani “wouldn’t endorse the agreement [with PT BSMJ] because of his jealous nature,” Andiq went on. “He’s jealous of us who want to bring progress to the village.”

Muara Tae elders including Andreas Singko (front) perform a ritual in 2012. Photo by Tomasz Johnson/Environmental Investigation Agency
Andreas Singko (front) stands with other Tae elders in 2012 after performing a ritual in the forest. Photo by Tomasz Johnson/Environmental Investigation Agency

Instead of dropping the matter, the relatives went to the regent’s staff themselves via Silan, the head of Jempang subdistrict. Like all subdistrict heads, Silan was appointed by the regent. Masrani says that in the next few months, the threat of impeachment was used as leverage to force him into line. He says he has records of repeated texts from Silan inviting him to a dubious meeting with both the regent’s aide and Rizaldy in Sendawar, the West Kutai capital.

Once, Masrani texted him back:

may I know the agenda and goal of such a meeting? 

The reply:

1 we clarify the petition 2 we pledge loyalty to the Regent with a declaration for the future 3 if we can reach an understanding about the border maybe we can drop the lawsuit 4 we explain why we haven’t given our land to palm oil

Silan denied pressuring Masrani. “If that’s what he thinks, fine. But that’s just a presumption,” he said.

“I definitely got in touch with him about holding a musyawarah to consult with the community about the investor,” he added. “But I never asked him to drop the lawsuit or give over any land. It’s the community who decides. I’m just a facilitator.”

Bambang Dwi Laksono, the First Resources sustainability chief, said he was unable to provide Rizaldy’s contact details because he had resigned from the company in October.

Punished for dissent

One evening while the legal process against the border decree was ongoing, Masrani and an older Tae resident were driving the nine hours to court in Samarinda, when their motorbike hit a large rock and skidded to the rough surface.

Masrani’s jeans were torn. The blood got on his shoes. The older man, Sedan, had hurt his hip. They pressed on anyway. But the next day, judges postponed the session because the regent’s side couldn’t make it. Masrani and Sedan would have to return next week.

A road in the area of the former Kutai Kartanegara sultanate. Photo courtesy of Ezagren/Wikimedia Commons
A road in the area of the former Kutai sultanate. Photo courtesy of Ezagren/Wikimedia Commons

Three months after the petition was circulated, in February 2013, the court rejected Tae’s suit. In April, Masrani was stripped of office and replaced with an appointee from outside the village. He tried to challenge that decree, too, with Indonesia’s biggest indigenous peoples organization, AMAN, handling his defense. Mustari, the BPK head, testified that he had never endorsed the allegations against Masrani. In the end, judges threw out the case on a technicality. The lawyer had filed it a day late.

The petition was just one basis of the impeachment decree. The other was a report by the regency government’s inspectorate, which is akin to a financial auditor. According to the decree, the inspectorate found that Masrani had been remiss in handling village funds. The decree also concurred with the petition that he had engaged in “corruption, collusion and nepotism.” It got no more specific than that.

The inspectorate is neither a criminal prosecutor nor a civil or administrative court. The allegations for which Masrani lost his position were never brought before judicial authorities. Masrani says he was never formally summoned to defend himself in any forum.

Masrani, left, hosts Nyeloi, an adat leader from nearby Bentian subdistrict, at his home in Muara Tae. Bentian is embroiled in its own dispute over a border with Damai subdistrict. The two men sit in the dark because Masrani’s house doesn’t get electricity, and they only turn on the generator at night. Photo by Philip Jacobson

Besides the unproven allegations of negligence and graft, the decree faults Masrani for protest and dissent. In physically “blocking thousands of hectares of land,” Masrani “misused his position for private interests.” Also listed as a reason for his dismissal is that he filed a lawsuit against the border decree.

Similarly, the petition cites Masrani for “opposing the government’s basic program” and “being enemies” with the regent.

“That’s why he was fired,” Andiq, the petitioner, explained. “He didn’t do his job properly. He didn’t obey the rules. A person like that deserves to be fired.”

Masrani said Andiq didn’t understand the company’s strategy to gain a foothold in Tae. “They want to drive a wedge between us,” he said. “He’s being used as a tool.”

Level table?

The most common species of oil palm comes from Africa, but Indonesia is the industry’s capital: in 2006 it overtook Malaysia to become the world’s largest palm oil producer. Last year it exported $18.9 billion worth of the commodity, primarily to India and China, but also to the West. In 2010, plantations covered around 8 million hectares in the archipelago, an area larger than Panama. The government intends to double that by 2020.

The boom has fueled economic growth and provided employment for millions of Indonesians, but unbridled oil palm expansion is wiping out the archipelago’s rainforests and fueling a land-grabbing epidemic. The industry has come under further scrutiny for its role in the uncontrolled agricultural fires that blanket Indonesia and its neighbors in a toxic haze each burning season. Emissions from this year’s fires alone are estimated to have surpassed those of the entire U.S. economy on 47 of the 74 days to October 28. Five hundred thousand people were said to have developed respiratory ailments as a result of the disaster.

A man named Bambang stands in front of a pile of oil palm kernels on the side of the road in October, as sun filters through a pall of smoke on one of the most polluted days on record in Palangkaraya, Central Kalimantan. The orange color is not enhanced or manipulated. Photo by Bjorn Vaughn

In 2004, the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil was set up to bring the industry under some semblance of control. Founding members included Unilever, the Worldwide Fund for Nature and the Malaysian Palm Oil Association. The RSPO laid out its own standards for ethical and ecological palm oil production; these now ban the destruction of virgin forests and require growers to obtain the free, prior and informed consent (FPIC) of affected communities. Today, the RSPO is seen by many as the de facto benchmark for sustainability best practices – even as the strength of its standards and its ability to enforce them are increasingly called into question.

First Resources has been an RSPO member since 2008, and in October 2012, the Environmental Investigation Agency, the London-based NGO, submitted a grievance about the company to the RSPO’s complaints panel. The EIA claimed that PT BSMJ was demolishing pristine forest in Muara Tae and operating without the community’s consent. The RSPO upheld the grievance and instructed the company to refrain from clearing and planting until the matter could be resolved.

Three years later, the complaint is still dragging on. In February, Tae finally withdrew from the RSPO’s process, expressing frustration with the organization’s handling of it and a lack of faith in its ability to remain neutral.

Newly planted oil palm in Indonesia. Photo by Rhett A. Butler
Oil palm saplings in Indonesia. Photo by Rhett A. Butler

For Tae, the nail in the coffin was First Resources’ continued insistence that a consultancy called LINKS play a leading role in mending the conflict. The community had consistently objected to the fact that LINKS had been chosen by the company and would be paid by it. First Resources says LINKS is a credible and independent organization; either way, the community was never consulted on its selection, contrary to the RSPO’s initial dictum that an action plan “must be developed and agreed with the Muara Tae community.”

“It’s pretty obvious why the affected party should be able to choose and/or approve of the mediator,” the EIA’s Tomasz Johnson told Mongabay. “Otherwise there’s just not going to be trust and you’re not going to get a meaningful resolution. The fact that the RSPO and First Resources saw fit to appoint LINKS anyway reflects their approach to this whole process. Muara Tae have never been meaningfully consulted – either on the plantation development in the first place, or through this grievance process.”

He added, “It will set a dangerous precedent if an RSPO member can just ignore and frustrate a community in the grievance process, and then effectively kill [the grievance]. Clearly the RSPO want to close it, but absolutely nothing has changed so we have no intention of closing it or withdrawing from this process.” Without Tae, though, the process has reached a deadlock.

Petrus Asuy walks through the forest. Photo by Philip Jacobson
Petrus Asuy descends into the forest. Photo by Philip Jacobson

The EIA is now seeking other pressure points. One might lie with Singapore-listed Wilmar International Ltd, the world’s largest palm oil trader and a customer of both First Resources and TSH Resources. Wilmar was among the first of a recent wave of corporations to pledge to eliminate deforestation and rights abuses from its supply chain. The EIA has approached Wilmar via The Forest Trust (TFT), the consultancy helping Wilmar implement its commitment, about exerting pressure on the two growers regarding their operations in the disputed area.

Most recently, in September, the EIA brought representatives of Tae and five other villages said to be adversely affected by Fangiono family plantations to Jakarta for a meeting with TFT, which promised to bring their cases to Wilmar. Previous attempts to engage the the trader and its consultancy about TSH Resources, though, were unsuccessful, according to Johnson. It remains to be seen whether commitments like Wilmar’s, heralded as a redemptive force for an unsustainable industry, will actually invoke a sea change.

In July, in fact, First Resources became the latest palm oil giant to issue such a pledge.

“Like everybody else, we’re very keen for them to move on those commitments they have made publicly,” Dejan Lewis, a TFT senior manager based in Jakarta, told Mongabay. “They have a fair bit to do.”

‘We’re all in the same boat’

In September of last year, those in Tae who oppose the companies performed the sumpah adat at the meeting place of the Pose and Nayan Rivers, right where the regent had stuck a GPS point for the border. It was the latest move in the chess game that has become Indonesia’s highest-profile land conflict.

The ritual was a grim affair. Those deemed guilty by the ancestors could be cursed or killed by supernatural forces. But the sumpah adat was actually the final stroke of a longer ceremony in which the Dayak Benuaq vowed to protect nature and prayed for a good harvest. Tae had raised more than $15,000 on Indiegogo, a crowdfunding site, in order to extend the annual event to 64 days. The point was less about justice, more about strengthening the community’s fortitude.

“That is why this ceremony is so vital,” Jane Brunette, a Native American woman who learned about Muara Tae, visited the village and organized the crowdfunding appeal, wrote. “It will heal betrayals over land disputes and bring people back to their shared purpose and sense of unity.”

Andreas Singko, a Tae resident, handles the centuries-old skull of his ancestor during a sumpah adat in 2014. Photo courtesy of Land is Life
Tae elder Andreas Singko handles the skull of an ancestor during the sumpah adat in 2014. Journalists came from as far as Jakarta to witness the event. Photo courtesy of Land is Life

On Monday in Paris, Masrani’s father accepted the UNDP’s Equator Prize at a gala event on behalf of the Muara Tae community.

“They’re vulnerable, no question,” Joseph Corcoran, who manages the award, told Mongabay. “But the prize is also about achievement. The fact that they still have this area of forest that’s been protected in the face of outside pressure is really just remarkable. It’s something we want to shine a spotlight on.”

On Wednesday, Indonesia will hold its regional elections, and West Kutai will choose a successor to Ismael Thomas. The leading candidates are Fransiskus Yapan, another PDI-P politician who is known to be close to Ismael, and Rama Asia, the previous regent, who as a provincial legislator has been fighting for a new regulation on indigenous peoples’ rights.

“What Thomas is doing, this shifting of borders like in Muara Tae and Ponak, is a violation of indigenous peoples’ sovereignty and should be stopped,” Rama told Mongabay. He said Ismael doesn’t understand the concept of sustainable development. “He only knows how to hold onto power. The way things are going, in 10 or 15 years the Dayak peoples of West Kutai will become beggars in the street because their forests are being annihilated by plantations.”

In Jakarta, President Jokowi must shoulder a heavier burden of expectation than almost any of his predecessors since Indonesia’s democracy began in 1998. An unenviable combination of external economic factors has dulled the luster on his pledge to propel GDP growth to 7 percent per year, while the low swing of the commodity price cycle and stubborn inflation are squeezing the livelihoods of the country’s millions of small farmers. After 2015’s catastrophic fires, Jokowi also faces unprecedented pressure to do what he can to turn back the clock on decades of environmental abuse. There is only so much he can do, but meaningful progress on Indonesia’s One Map initiative and a reduction in incidences of gerrymandering will be essential to one of the most urgent environmental challenges of our time.

Back in Muara Tae, comparing notes with other villages has led Masrani to conclude that First Resources and TSH Resources are also playing with their borders. His plan, already in motion, is to link up with those communities in order to resist the firms together.

“We need to examine their modus and cooperate against them, because we’re all in the same boat,” Masrani said. “We’re all victims of the same companies.”

Muara Tae residents intervene to stop a bulldozer. Photo courtesy of Muara Tae
Muara Tae residents intervene to stop a bulldozer. Photo courtesy of Muara Tae

The reporting for this story was supported by a grant from AMAN.

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