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Indonesian indigenous land defenders jailed in fight with pulpwood giant

  • A court in Indonesia has sentenced two indigenous farmers to nine months in jail in the latest legal battle over land claimed by both the community and pulp and paper company PT Toba Pulp Lestari.
  • The two sides have been locked in dispute over the land in North Sumatra’s North Tapanuli district since 1992, with the Sihaporas indigenous community claiming ancestral rights to some 40,000 hectares (98,800 acres) inside the concession granted to PT TPL.
  • Tribal elders Jonny and Thomson Ambarita are the latest members of the community to be jailed following charges brought by the company, which itself stands accused of an assault against the community. Authorities have not pursued the Sihaporas complaints against the company.
  • Indigenous and land rights activists have criticized what they say was a flawed trial, and called for greater recognition by the Indonesian government of indigenous land rights.

MEDAN, Indonesia — Activists have deplored the recent jailing of two indigenous community members in Sumatra in a land conflict involving an affiliate of pulp and paper giant Royal Golden Eagle.

The Simalungun District Court, in North Sumatra province, handed down nine-month sentences to Jonny Ambarita and Thomson Ambarita, who are elders from the Sihaporas community, for assaulting an employee of PT Toba Pulp Lestari (TPL), an RGE affiliate company.

The Sihaporas community and PT TPL have been embroiled in a dispute for decades over land to which both lay claim. As in most such cases in Indonesia, the authorities have sided with corporate interests and pursued criminal charges against the community, said Agustin Simamora, head of the advocacy at the provincial chapter of the Indigenous Peoples Alliance of the Archipelago (AMAN).

“The judges ignored all the facts in this case. This [ruling] is very regrettable,” he said.

Thomson Ambarita, left, and Jonny Ambarita, with a sign that bears PT Toba Pulp Lestari’s initials but reads, in Indonesian, “Masters of Environmental Destruction.” Image courtesy of AMAN.

The sentences, handed down Feb. 13, cap a trial sparked by an incident last September in which the company, or people claiming to represent it, appeared to be the side escalating the legal wrangling into a violent conflict.

On the morning of Sept. 16, 2019, according to the community members, a group of men claiming to be PT TPL employees arrived in their village and demanded that they cease their farming activity and leave the area. The farmers refused, and a scuffle broke out, during which the 3-year-old son of one of the community members was reportedly hit by one of the purported company representatives. The child passed out and had to be taken to a nearby public health center.

The following day, leaders of the Sihaporas community went to a nearby police station to file a report about the alleged assault on the child. But the officers refused to receive their complaint, telling them instead to file it at a different precinct office.

Officers from that larger precinct later issued a summons for Jonny and Thomson Ambarita to appear for questioning on Sept. 24. Unknown to the community, PT TPL had filed its own report with the police, alleging that the farmers had assaulted one of its employees in the earlier skirmish. When Jonny and Thomson showed up at the police station, they were promptly charged and arrested.

In the months since then, they’ve been indicted, tried, and convicted. But police have still not acted on the community’s report on the alleged attack on the child.

A part of the ancestral forest claimed by the Sihaporas indigenous community. The area was cleared to make way for a eucalyptus plantation by pulp and paper company PT Toba Pulp Lestari. Image by Ayat S. Karokaro/Mongabay Indonesia.
A stand of eucalyptus trees on a land disputed by the Sihaporas indigenous community and pulp and paper company PT Toba Pulp Lestari. Image by Ayat S. Karokaro/Mongabay Indonesia.

Sahat Hutagalung, the lawyer for Jonny and Thomson Ambarita, called the guilty verdict unfair. Like other observers of the trial, he questioned why much of the evidence presented in court that corroborated the community’s account — including witness testimony and videos of the incident — was ignored. “Unfortunately, it was overlooked by the judges,” Sahat said.

Hundreds of members of the Sihaporas community turned up at the courthouse to hear the verdict and demand that Jonny and Thomson be acquitted. Community members said the trial was a familiar ordeal for them: from 2002 to 2004, three other indigenous members were arrested after PT TPL complained they were farming in the disputed area. Arisman Ambarita was jailed for three months in 2002, while Mangitua Ambarita and Parulian Ambarita were each sentenced in 2004 to two years in prison.

The Sihaporas community has since the early 1900s claimed ancestral rights to a large swath of forest in what is today North Tapanuli district in the province of North Sumatra, where it continues to practice subsistence farming. In 1913, it loaned part of the land to the Dutch colonial authorities for a pine plantation. After Indonesia won independence from the Dutch, the new government claimed the pine forest, among other Dutch-run assets and properties at the time, as belonging to the Indonesian state.

In 1992, the government issued a pulpwood permit in the area to PT TPL, for a concession covering 185,000 hectares (457,000 acres). The Sihaporas community contends that 40,000 ha (98,800 acres) of that concession is part of its ancestral territory. PT TPL has already planted half of the disputed area with eucalyptus.

Activists, indigenous peoples and university students stage a protest outside the courthouse in North Sumatra to demand the release of Jonny and Thomson Ambarita. Image courtesy of AMAN.

In its campaign to free Jonny and Thomson, the Sihaporas community took its case to Indonesia’s National Commission for Human Rights last October. Community elders also sent three letters to President Joko Widodo to demand state recognition of their ancestral lands and ask the government to revoke PT TPL’s permit. There have been no responses to any of those initiatives.

Since 2013, when a landmark Constitutional Court ruling struck down the state’s claim to indigenous peoples’ forests, President Widodo has recognized the rights of 55 indigenous groups to forest areas spanning a combined 24,800 ha (61,300 acres). AMAN, the indigenous rights advocacy group, says it has mapped out some 7.8 million ha (19.2 million acres) of land it says belongs to 704 indigenous communities nationwide, including the Sihaporas community.

“When did land ownership certificates come about? Only after Indonesia came into being as a nation,” said Domu Ambarita, a historian for the Sihaporas community. “But indigenous peoples have existed and lived on their customary lands since before Indonesia was established.”

Domu said it was important to recognize the Sihaporas as the stewards of their land at a time when Indonesia is losing its forest at alarming rates to agriculture and other land-use changes.

“Our rituals exist alongside and protect nature,” he said. “If the ancestral forest is owned and seized by PT TPL, everything will be destroyed. We completely reject that.”

The Sihaporas indigenous community practices subsistence farming in the highlands of Tapanuli, North Sumatra. Image by Ayat S. Karokaro/Mongabay Indonesia.

This story was first reported by Mongabay’s Indonesia team and published here on our Indonesian site on Feb. 13, 2020.

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