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Indigenous communities resisting dams in Indonesia claim they face repression, rights abuses

  • Developers plan to build a hydropower dam in Seko, a remote sub-district in North Luwu, Sulawesi that is home to several indigenous communities.
  • Some residents support the project, but many others have resisted since developers arrived in 2014, launching road blockades and protests.
  • Thirteen residents have been imprisoned for involvement in an August 2016 demonstration in which protestors dismantled tents used by company workers and took drilling samples.
  • Villagers allege people opposed to the dam have been arrested with force, have had to flee their homes, and that even school children have been beaten.

In October 2014, when developers entered Seko and Central Seko to begin preliminary work on a 480-megawatt hydroelectric dam, the communities living there say no one asked their permission.

The area, in the Seko Subdistrict of North Luwu, in the southern part of Indonesia’s Sulawesi Island, is home to indigenous peoples including the Pohoneang, Hoyyane and Amballong.

Without seeking consent from these communities, contractors entered the area and planted stakes around the project’s borders and the survey area, locals say. This resulted in the developers having to pay a ritual fine of ten million rupiahs (around US$ 750) and a water buffalo to the local communities. This ritual-fining incident was followed by efforts by the communities to persuade the company not to pursue their activities within the villages’ traditional landholdings.

Then, the situation reversed: The company reported the incident as an extortion attempt by local people.

This was just the first salvo in a fierce and ongoing struggle between those who support the project and those who oppose it, fearing their land and way of life is at risk.

READ ALSO: In remote Indonesian villages, indigenous communities fight a hydropower dam

One of the survey pegs put in place by hydropower developers. Photo courtesy of Mahir Takaka.

The dam, to be constructed by the Seko Power Prima Company, is part of a broader plan to build 1,154-megawatts of hydropower in the region. Many residents fear hydroelectric development will lead to villages being separated from each other and land being inundated.

The plans have also raised fears that the dam’s construction will be the first step in bringing mining and other extractive industries into the area. Mining concessions have already cropped up in North Luwu: Iron ore mining company PT Kalla Arebamma is conducting preliminary environmental studies for a 6,812-hectare concession, while Citra Palu Mineral holds 36,382 hectares in a gold-mining area.

Mongabay-Indonesia made repeated attempts to contact PT Seko Power Prima management. Finally, on April 17, 2017 project manager Ginandjar agreed to a meeting.

“I see the news in various media, and it’s not balanced,” he said.  “They don’t understand the substance.”

Claims the dam will inundate land or separate villages are misguided, Ginandjar said. “No one will be harmed. It’s bewildering. Work hasn’t started but it’s already being rejected.” The company is still in the survey stage, he said, and has not yet settled on a final design. Once they have, they will meet with villagers again. “Where community land will be affected, we will pay accordingly.”

In his view, people who oppose the dam do so without justification. “They have only one response: refusal of hydropower. Why they refuse? That they also do not know. The important thing is to refuse,” he said.

The project and associated infrastructure will bring in 2.5 trillion rupiah (around $188 million) in foreign investment, and its construction will employ 6,000 people, he said. “This hydropower plant is for the benefit of the people. Why, really, is it being blocked like this?”

Seko residents protest the dam, holding a banner proclaiming that they are indigenous Pohoneang and Hoyyane Peoples opposed to the Seko Power Prima hydroelectic project. Photo courtesy of Aman Tana Luwu.

A divided community

Some local groups do support the project. In August 2015, NGOs who were part of the Network Node Activities of North Luwu (abbreviated as “Sijalu” in Indonesian) organized a demonstration in front of the local House of Representatives, urging the government to speed up the construction of the hydropower plant. The district’s representatives responded positively, stating that the upcoming general assembly would give permission for the construction of the plant.

Others have taken a stand against it. In October 2015, developers, guarded by around 70 members of Indonesia’s elite mobile police force headed to Seko. Community members blocked the road.

In May 2016, they once again blockaded the access road to Central Seko. “We listen to our sources. If we hear that the company’s heavy equipment is coming, we block them,” said Andri Karyo, a local resident active in the resistance to the dam.

Then, on May 17, the police took Karyo and another local in for questioning. “Myself and Mr. Daniel were taken to the police HQ in North Luwu. They questioned us and treated us well,” Karyo said.

This police intervention made the people of Seko worried, and the blockade was abandoned. “Apparently, this was their strategy. They detained us, distracting the people, and so the heavy equipment went rolling in,” Karyo said.

Poor roads make the journey to villages in Seko long, grueling and expensive. Motorcycle taxi drivers, who spend much of the trip pushing their bikes, charge passengers as much as 1.2 million rupiah ($90, a large sum in rural Indonesia) for the journey. Photo by Eko Rusdianto/Mongabay.

Despite this initial setback, resistance to the project has continued. In August 2016, a handful of residents went to a site in Basseang where the company has begun exploratory drilling, dismantled the tents used by workers and used them to cover up construction machinery. They also confiscated mineral samples from the drilling.

“Our brothers in Central Seko are not bad people. We don’t want to pick a fight with them. That’s why we carefully dismantled the tents and we returned the drilled samples to the earth around there, because that’s where they came from,” said Yulius Patoo, another local resident opposed to the dam.

“The demonstration was very tense. There were hundreds of us, some did some destruction. That happened,” Karyo conceded.

Four witnesses identified people they claimed masterminded the demonstration, twelve of whom were arrested on Oct. 20, 2016.

“I know that two [of the witnesses] were workers on location. When we demonstrated in Ratte – where they were planning to build the turbine’s lodge – they were there. One other person was at the company’s base camp at that time, quite far from where things happened. The fourth was not even in Seko at the time,” said Karyo.

According to Karyo, the 12 detainees were arrested with violence. On October 23, he and a lawyer made the lengthy journey to the provincial capital of Makassar to submit an official report. “At that time, they refused our report. The provincial chief of police said that our case’s dossier was incomplete,” Karyo said.

On October 29, Karyo himself was arrested, making him the final member of the group now referred to as the Seko 13.

In January 2017, the case was handed over to the District Attorney’s officer, and the trial commenced January 11. The charges amongst the defendants included group acts of vandalism, individual acts of vandalism, and threats with violence.  All of the Seko 13 were found guilty. On March 27, the judge handed down 7-month sentences to all of the defendants.

“Nonetheless, our resistance continues. Prison is not the end of everything,” Karyo said.

The Seko 13 (in orange prison vests) and their families. Photo courtesy of Desma Warty.

Ongoing resistance

Despite the detentions and the ongoing trial, community protests against the dam continued unabated throughout late 2016 and early 2017.

A wave of protests against the dam was organized in late December. Then, on December 28, a meeting was held between residents, the police and the hydropower company. This meeting failed to result in any resolution, with those residents who oppose the dam continuing to refuse its development.

In the wake of this meeting, yet another Seko resident was detained. On Jan. 7, 39-year-old Amisandi, one of those strongly opposed to the project, set off from the village, having accepted an invitation to meet with company representatives in Massamba. On Jan. 9, he was arrested, and he has remained in detention ever since.

According to Amisandi’s lawyer, Nasrum, the company filed a police report at around 11 a.m., and Amisandi was arrested just three hours later. “After the report, there should have been an investigation, interviewing witnesses and gathering evidence for an arrest warrant,” said Nasrum, who is part of the Indigenous Peoples of the Archipelago Defenders Association (abbreviated in Indonesian as PPMAN). He argues that Amisandi’s arrest was a violation of due process.

Additional allegations of human rights abuses have emerged in a related case.

Two residents of Tana Makaleang, one of the villages at the center of the resistance to the dam, began the long journey to Massamba on March 5 to serve as witnesses in Amisandi’s case. The two men — 18-year-old Ivan Stovia and 32-year-old Aris Marlon — allege they were detained en route and subject to brutal treatment by the police.

“My hands were grabbed right away. We were forcibly brought into a house,” Marlon told Mongabay-Indonesia. “We were brought to the kitchen, sat on a bench, asked all sorts of questions.”

According to Marlon, he was beaten during questioning, receiving strikes to his face, head and ribs before being transferred to Sae, the future dam site and location of the Seko Prima Power company basecamp. Stovia also told Mongabay he was hit three times on the back of the head.

In Sae, Marlon said, they slept under police guard. “There was a mattress, and also a blanket. My hands remained tied, and my feet were also chained up. With a padlock,” he said.

The following day, the men said, they were loaded into vehicles owned by the power company and transferred to the North Luwu police station, where the two were held overnight. Marlon was then locked up on charges connected to the August 2016 protests. Then, he said, a police officer offered to release him in exchange for signing a statement agreeing to take no part in future actions against the company. Marlon agreed and was released.

Local police declined to comment on the case.

A view of the Betue River Valley in the Sae area. Plans are underway to dam the valley for hyrdoelectric power. Photo by Eko Rusdianto/Mongabay.

More fallout from December demonstrations

On the evening of Jan. 25, 2017, contacts from Seko contacted Mongabay-Indonesia, alleging that three students at the Seko I Public High School were slapped at school after participating in the Dec. 28 demonstration.

“They are still schoolchildren. Why do they have to beat them up? They were just concerned about their ancestors’ land,” said Dominggus C. Paoangan, one of the Seko residents who is now in jail

“Ideally, everyone should honor this mandate [to protect the indigenous rights]. The government, the company, and all the people should sit down together. The reality now is not like this,” said Safriadi, the people’s lawyer.

On Jan. 29, 2017, a group of officials and company representatives arrived in Pokap’ang village to meet with residents. The group included the North Luwu Vice Regent Thahar Rum, district police chief Dhafi, PT Seko Prima Power project manager Ginanjar, village headmen and other local officials, and dozens of police.

According to Ab, a Seko resident, the meeting was conducted in the presence of about 60 police and went quietly, with residents conveying their demands: no hydropower plant, and an explanation for why the school children were hit.

“The police didn’t accept it. Women who read out petitions were reprimanded, and they wanted to take the papers. But the women hid them in their bras,” Ab said.

After that, the officials headed to Seko Padang, then onward to Massamba to catch a flight. However, about 40 police remained behind.

On Feb. 1, a local sent a message to Mongabay-Indonesia: “The people of Seko are increasingly feeling threatened… Almost all of the adult men have taken refuge in the forest, because they are threatened with arrest.”

The following day, another message came: “Seko Central is empty, even babies have been evacuated because of the officials. They really have no conscience. Only women are staying, not more than 30 remain.”

Houses in the Sodangan area of Seko Padang, one of the areas affected by the project. Photo by Eko Rusdianto/Mongabay.

According to Ab, villagers were chased through the forest by police and the village headman, fleeing all the way to the neighboring province of West Sulawesi. The fleeing residents said they saw flashlights in the forest and, at one point, heard a shot.

In a telephone interview, North Luwu District Head Indah Putri Indriana said the delegation visited Seko because the North Luwu Police Chief is a new official and wanted to learn more about the region and the conflict over the Seko dam. The residents’ flight to the forest was due to incorrect information, she said.

The police chief for North Luwu, Adjunct Commissioner Dhafi said the meeting aimed to build communication with the community. During the meeting, he said, the community was informed about the importance of developing the region. From a legal standpoint, Dhafi emphasized, the police are on the side of the community. “If companies act outside the legal framework, the police will be the front guard,” he said.

However, Dhafi said the fact that the meeting was attended mostly by women and children made him suspicious. “The men were missing. From this I knew a provocateur was in action,” he said.

“Initially, there was no intention of making arrests. Because information from our intel said there was a provocateur named Idris Abdullah, an outsider, I ordered a search,” he told Mongabay-Indonesia.

According to Dhafi, Abdullah was responsible for spreading the rumor people who oppose the hydropower plant would be arrested. As a result, police and members of the District Military Command were stationed in the area to provide security for citizens and investors.

“Hydroelectric power is a national program. Of course we will stand guard. Mainly, we want to bring comfort to the people. This is one of the requests of the citizens: that no other people, or any kind of provocateur, will approach the citizens,” he said.

Idris Abdullah is part of a legal team giving advice to Seko residents about the ongoing trial.

“He is part of our team,” said Syafriadi, one of the residents’ lawyers. “I, along with the people, asked him to go to Seko. That does not make him a provocateur. Essentially, it was like a field school, so that people could understand the law. That the trial takes a long time, for example.”

“We are always terrorized like this,” one resident said by phone. “We will continue to resist. This will not weaken our struggle.”

Women’s encampment against the hydropower project. Photo courtesy of Aman.

Women continue to protest

In the weeks following the incidents in February, a group of women decided to set up a tent encampment at one of the project sites. Hundreds of women gathered there to form a blockade against the company’s activities, setting up a fence around company equipment.

On March 25, police came to disband the protests, but failed when a mother of three became hysterical and started tearing off her clothes, a villager informed Mongabay-Indonesia: “It was already a shame to see these other women treated so improperly. So when this woman began undressing, the police retreated.”

On March 27, the same day the verdict for the Seko 13 was handed down, police came to disperse the protest. This time, the women couldn’t resist. Their tent and fence were dismantled, their clothing thrown around in the tent, their red and white flag lowered. Even their food supplies were destroyed.

“I don’t know why we, who only want peace and to defend our rights as indigenous people and our common interests, not only individual gains, are always seen as being on the wrong,” said villager Dominggus Paoangan. “It seems that whatever we do in Seko, it would always make us have troubles with the law.”

This story was reported by Mongabay’s Indonesia team. A version of this article was first published on our Indonesian site on Sept. 8, 2017, with updates throughout January, February March and April.

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