- Villagers in Sumatra allege that a pulpwood plantation company owned by forestry giant Asia Pulp & Paper has escalated a long-running land dispute by killing their crops and intimidating them.
- Residents of Lubuk Mandarsah say PT Wirakarya Sakti (WKS) used a drone to spray herbicide on their rubber and oil palm trees, and sent security officials door to door to scare villagers into leaving the area.
- The villagers and WKS have since 2007 been embroiled in a dispute over 2,000 hectares (4,940 acres) of land in Sumatra’s Jambi province that both claim.
- Tensions between the two hit breaking point in 2015 when WKS security guards killed a villager during an altercation.
JAKARTA — Villagers in Sumatra accuse a pulpwood plantation company of using a drone to spray herbicide to kill their crops, calling it the latest in a series of illegal encroachments and intimidation tactics by the company.
Residents of Lubuk Mandarsah village in the Indonesian province of Jambi have since 2007 been embroiled in a dispute over 2,000 hectares (4,940 acres) of ancestral land that the company, PT Wirakarya Sakti (WKS), also claims.
The villagers allege a litany of violations by the company, a subsidiary of forestry giant Asia Pulp & Paper (APP), the latest being in March, when WKS allegedly flew a drone to spray herbicide to prepare for planting a new batch of acacia seedlings. The locals said the drone flew over their plantations and killed their own crops, including rubber and oil palm trees, across 2 hectares (5 acres).
“The oil palm trees dried up three days later,” said Andrian, a member of the local farmers’ association.
Rudiansyah, the director of the Jambi chapter of the Indonesian Forum for the Environment (Walhi), which has been advocating for the villagers, condemned the spraying of their crops. He said it was particularly bad at a time when “the locals are facing threats of food security amid the COVID-19 outbreak.”
A WKS spokesman denied the allegation, saying that while the company did use a drone, it only sprayed inside its own area. “We realize that the method is a new one, using drone technology,” said spokesman Taufik Qurochman. “But we still put forward our standard operating procedure that prioritizes safety and accuracy in the spraying.”
Setiadi, an official with WKS’s social security department, said separately that villagers’ crops that had been sprayed had been cultivated inside the company’s land. “There’s no way we’d let [our] industrial plantation forests that have already been harvested be planted by them,” he said as quoted by local media.
The drone incident is only the latest grievance by villagers against the company. Tensions between the two sides hit breaking point in 2015, when WKS security guards killed a villager, Indra Pelani, during an altercation. That incident prompted a truce, with the company acknowledging blame.
But tensions flared up again at the end of last year, when the villagers accused WKS of operating too close to their farms while using heavy machinery to harvest acacia trees, according to Rudiansyah. Then, in March, WKS filed a police complaint against one of the villagers, Ahmad, accusing him and other locals of encroaching on the company’s land.
At the same time, the villagers said they faced intimidation by representatives from WKS, along with two unidentified people, to give up their land.
“We received updates from the locals that some of the company’s security personnel went to the villagers from door to door to intimidate them,” Rudiansyah said. “They [the security guards] asked the villagers to leave their lands and no longer farm there.”
The company denied intimidating the villagers. But the drone incident soon followed.
On April 15, police summoned representatives from both sides police to a mediation hearing in a bid to ease tensions. Rudiansyah said the villagers and WKS agreed on some points.
“The company can no longer disturb the locals’ plantation areas, and vice versa,” he said. “The company is also obliged to communicate with the locals if there are activities in the field. So they can’t just harvest [crops] and intimidate [the locals].”
But he noted that those same points had been agreed in 2015, following the death of Indra.
“So they’re just repeating [the same things], only this time it’s facilitated by the police,” Rudiansyah said.
He called on WKS’s parent company, APP, to immediately order a halt to all activities near the villagers’ areas until there’s a resolution to the land dispute.
“We’re asking the management of APP to immediately take a concrete action,” Rudiansyah said. “This can’t be done by PT WKS alone because what PT WKS did violated its own commitments.”
He said the villagers had resumed their normal activities, but warned that the conflict could easily flare up again.
“What’s alarming is that the company has built a security post near the locals’ land,” he said. “This could trigger conflict because there hasn’t been a security post since the murder of Indra Pelani.”
He added that the company also hadn’t dropped its police report against Ahmad.
Enjais, one of the villagers, said WKS needed to immediately carry map out the extent of the company’s concession to determine clear boundaries between the plantation and the villagers’ farms.
“I’ve pleaded with the company to determine the boundaries for years,” he said. “But there’s no response from them. If the boundaries have been set, of course we won’t feel disturbed. And they won’t feel disturbed by us either.”
Banner image: Villagers accompanied by activists from the Indonesian Forum for the Environment (Walhi) Jambi staged a protest in front of the trial of the murder of 22-year old Indra Pelani at the hands of security guards contracted by Wirakarya Sakti (WKS), a plantation company owned by forestry giant Asia Pulp & Paper (APP). Image courtesy of Walhi Jambi.
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