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Land conflicts escalate with spread of COVID-19 in Indonesia

A woman faces the police at one of the protests in Kendari early this year. Image by Kamarudin for Mongabay.

  • Companies embroiled in land disputes with rural communities in Indonesia appear to be using the lull in oversight during the COVID-19 outbreak to strengthen their claims, activists say.
  • Since the first confirmed cases of the disease were reported in the country on March 2, two local land defenders have been killed and four arrested in connection with land disputes in Sumatra and Borneo.
  • The national human rights commission has called on companies, including palm oil and mining firms, to cease their activities during this public health emergency.

JAKARTA — Two people have died in a series of land disputes between major companies and rural communities in Indonesia.

Activists have denounced the escalation in the conflicts, saying businesses shouldn’t be taking advantage of the country’s focus on dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic to further their own — often illegal — interests.

On March 21, security personnel from the palm oil firm PT Artha Prigel clashed with farmers in Lahat district, in South Sumatra province. Two farmers were killed in the fighting, the latest flare-up in a conflict that goes back nearly three decades. Locals accuse the company — a subsidiary of the Sawit Mas Group, which supplies oleochemicals to Procter & Gamble — of stealing their land. In a form of reprisal, in September 2018 the locals took over nearly a tenth of the company’s 2,000-hectare (5,000-acre) plantation and began cultivating their own crops

The clash last month broke out as security guards demanded that the locals leave the area they had taken over. Farmers Suryadi and Putra died of stab wounds.

“This shows that the company has no humanity,” said Muhammad Hairul Sobri, the director of the South Sumatra chapter of the Indonesian Forum for the Environment (Walhi). “During an emergency like this, instead of focusing on handling COVID-19, they’re using the situation to grab people’s lands.”

Sandrayati Moniaga, a member of the National Commission in Human Rights, known as Komnas HAM, said the government should bar companies from operating during emergency situations like a pandemic.

“In a situation like this there should be no activities in areas with ongoing conflicts. There has to be a status quo,” she said as quoted by local media.

The body of Suryadi, one of the farmers killed during a clash with palm oil company PT Artha Prigel in South Sumatra, Indonesia. Image courtesy of Walhi South Sumatra.

‘Capitalize on the pandemic’

Indonesia has recorded 5,136 COVID-19 infections and 469 deaths as of April 15, giving it the highest number of fatalities in Asia outside of China. Non-essential businesses have been ordered to shut down in Jakarta, the national epicenter of the outbreak, and other regions are due to follow over the coming week.

In many rural and remote areas, however, it’s still business as usual. In East Java’s Mount Tumpang Pitu, locals have erected tents to protest against mining activity by PT Bumi Suksesindo and PT Damai Suksesindo. They’re also protesting a plan to expand the gold mining operation into nearby Mount Salakan, where PT Damai Suksesindo has a permit.

Rere Jambore Christanto, the director of Walhi’s East Java chapter, said the government had ordered the protests to be disbanded and the tents torn down, citing coronavirus prevention control measures.

“But the biggest threat is actually from outside people, not from the locals,” Rere said, adding that locals had reported an increase in the companies’ activity, including equipment being brought in. “To date, there has been no local indicated to be infected with the coronavirus.”

Residents ordered to cease their protest by the government have questioned why the government doesn’t also order the companies to suspend operations during the pandemic. They have refused to dismantle their tents, and on March 26 blockaded the road leading to the mining area. Police broke up the blockade the next day, and later a fight broke out between the protesters and a group of people claiming to support the mine.

“When that happened, there wasn’t a single police officer there, even though a few hours before there were hundreds of police officers,” Rere said. Dozens of vehicles and homes were damaged in the clash, and on April 1, police arrested one of the protesters.

“There’s an effort to capitalize on the pandemic to stop all activities that oppose companies destroying the environment,” Rere said. “On the other hand, companies are allowed to proceed with their activities.”

In North Sumatra province, farmers allege that a palm oil company is illegally clearing land inside a mangrove forest by burning. The local community has what’s known as a social forestry permit, issued by the environment ministry, for the sustainable use of a 442-hectare (1,100-acre) swath of mangrove forest. Palm oil company PT Karatia has a 64-hectare (158-acre) plantation inside that area, and until recently both parties were able to operate without encroaching on each other’s land, according to Dana Tarigan, the executive director of Walhi’s North Sumatra chapter.

But since the COVID-19 outbreak, independent monitoring of the area has been suspended, and PT Karatia has begun burning parts of the forest managed by the locals, Dana said. He added the incident almost sparked a violent clash between the company and the community.

Locals gather in a tent to protest against a nearby gold mining operation at Tumpang Pitu Mountain in East Java, Indonesia. Image by RZ Hakim/Mongabay Indonesia.

Legal process curtailed

The pandemic has also affected the legal process for three indigenous farmers in the Bornean province of Central Kalimantan.

Dilik Bin Asap, Hermanus Bin Bison and James Watt were recently arrested for allegedly stealing oil palm fruit from plantation company PT Hamparan Masawit Bangun Persada (HMBP). The company itself stands accused of stealing their land; local officials and rights groups have since 2010 declared that the company has been operating illegally on community lands.

The farmers filed a pretrial motion in a bid to get the police to drop the case. The court was supposed to hold a hearing on March 30, but police didn’t show up, saying they were busy with the government’s COVID-19 response.

The pretrial hearing was postponed to April 6, the same date as the start of their trial. As a result, the pretrial motion was rendered null, according to Dimas Hartono, the executive director of Walhi’s Central Kalimantan chapter.

“The pandemic is being used as an excuse to delay … the pretrial hearing,” he said. He noted the police appeared to have no problem pursuing the criminal investigation while claiming they couldn’t attend the pretrial hearing because of the pandemic. “What the police did was merely an excuse to speed up the legal process regarding the theft, but the pretrial motion was ignored.”

James Watt, one of the three farmers, was arrested in Jakarta, where he had he had gone to report the earlier arrests to the human rights commission, Komnas HAM. Commissioner Sandrayati said the pandemic had also affected Komnas HAM’s work mediating conflicts across the country. Face-to-face meetings have been ruled out, while online solutions don’t work for regions that are remote, rural, and often lack electricity.

“Even if we meet in person it’s still difficult to mediate,” Sandrayati said, “much less using virtual or online platforms. It’s difficult for people to get access to, especially for those who live in villages.”


Banner image: A woman faces the police at one of the protests in Kendari early this year. Image by Kamarudin for Mongabay.


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