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Papuan farmer dies after alleged police assault at palm oil company

One of Korindo's oil palm estates in Papua. Photo courtesy of Mighty

  • An indigenous Papuan farmer, Marius Betera, has died after allegedly being assaulted by a police officer when complaining about a palm oil company bulldozing his banana plot.
  • Police at the district level have arrested the officer, but police at the provincial level deny he did anything wrong, claiming that Marius died of a heart attack and that an autopsy showed no signs of bruising.
  • Activists have demanded an independent investigation into the case, noting that the alleged assailant, Melkianus Yowei, was last year transferred from his post after assaulting an elderly indigenous woman.
  • The palm oil company, PT Tunas Sawa Erma (TSE), is a subsidiary of the Korindo Group, which has a track record of violating traditional and human rights in the Indonesian provinces of Papua and North Maluku.

JAKARTA — Activists in the Indonesian province of Papua are demanding an investigation into the death of an indigenous man who was reportedly assaulted by a police officer after complaining about his farm being cleared by a major palm oil company.

Marius Betera died on the way to a clinic in Boven Digoel district to seek medical aid on May 16, hours after the alleged assault at a field office of PT Tunas Sawa Erma (TSE), a subsidiary of palm oil and logging giant Korindo Group. He was buried on May 18.

“The perpetrator being a police [officer] who helped PT TSE has violated his duties and functions as a police,” a group of NGOs said in a statement.

“The act of violence … leading to the death of the victim is a criminal offense that must be held accountable before the court,” they added.

The incident stemmed from the morning of May 16, when Marius, a former security guard at PT TSE’s plantation, arrived at his banana plot on the company’s land and found it had been bulldozed. The company allocates land for its workers to plant their own crops that they can sell for extra income, and while Marius had resigned from PT TSE in August 2019, the company had allowed him to continue staying on site.

Marius went to the company’s field office to complain about his farm being cleared, saying the company should have notified him that it planned to do so. Because he’d gone there straight from his plot, he was carrying farming and hunting implements, including a machete and bow and arrows.

As he was leaving the company office, he was accosted by Melkianus Yowei, a police officer who was previously assigned to provide security at the plantation and continued to frequent the site because his wife works there. Eyewitness accounts describe the two men tussling over the implements. Melkianus managed to gain control of them and struck Marius repeatedly in the face with the bow. He then punched him several times in the head and neck, and kicked him in the stomach. According to some witnesses, Marius was left bleeding from the ear.

Marius then left for a nearby police post to file a complaint, but was told that the officer on duty was on a break. From there, he headed to the PT TSE clinic for treatment, but collapsed just outside the clinic, and was pronounced dead soon after.

NGOs have demanded that both the Boven Digoel district police and the Papua provincial police “undertake immediate action to catch the perpetrator and enforce the legal process through a trial of police ethics and a general court process, as well as passing a justifiable sentence.”

The groups and local media both noted that Melkianus had a history of violence against civilians, having been transferred away from the plantation in 2019 after assaulting an elderly indigenous woman.

The police have issued conflicting statements on the case. The Boven Digoel police chief, Syamsurijal, said his office had detained Melkianus and encouraged Marius’s family to press charges. The Papua police, however, denied any wrongdoing by Melkianus and said Marius died of natural causes.

“From the autopsy result, there was no bruising on the victim’s body,” Ahmad Mustofa Kamal, a spokesman for the provincial police, said as quoted by Kompas. “He died of a heart attack.”

Ahmad said Marius had arrived alive at the clinic but refused to get medical treatment.

“That’s deception,” said Okto Betera, Marius’s younger brother. “This is murder.”

Papuan indigenous rights organization SKP KAMe, which advocates for some of the communities affected by Korindo’s operations and is among the NGOs calling for justice in Marius’s death, said police were too quick to downplay the incident. Anselmus Amo, a pastor and director of SKP KAMe, said it was unethical for the police to clear Melkianus without an independent investigation.

“The police have the rights to respond, but don’t be so quick in determining the cause of death, going so far as declaring that it’s a hoax,” Amo told Mongabay.

“There should be an independent body that investigates [the case]. If not, then we will just trade opinions and arguments with each other.”

SKP KAMe and the other NGOs said PT TSE and other companies operating in the region should stop using the military and police in their disputes with locals.

“We view the company … has used a repressive approach to resolve problems that occurred and were carried out by means of violence, rather than deliberating to find the best solution for victims who felt aggrieved,” they said.

The company’s director, Vinoba Chandra, denied that PT TSE had called in the police when Marius arrived to complain. He also said the company had notified Marius to vacate the land in February, and that Marius didn’t hold any customary rights to the land, having come from outside the region.

Korindo Group said it would launch its own investigation into the incident and work with the local community and authorities. It said it would also immediately open a grievance channel for the case on its website and disclose the progress and results of the investigation.

U.S.-based campaign group Mighty Earth said Korindo’s response to the incident shouldn’t stop there, adding the company has a long track record of disregard for and exploitation of Papuan rainforests and indigenous peoples.

A two-year investigation of Korindo’s deforestation practices by the Forest Stewardship Council, prompted by a complaint filed by Mighty Earth, found that, among other violations, Korindo had violated traditional and human rights in Papua and North Maluku, Indonesia.

“Yet Korindo has largely dismissed these concerns, or, when it could no longer avoid accountability, merely paid lip service to agreements to improve its practices,” Mighty Earth senior campaign director Deborah Lapidus said. “One such agreement, as stated on the Korindo website, is to ‘resolve grievances promptly, responsibly, responsively, and proactively;’ yet [Marius] Betera’s grievance resulted in his death.”

Lapidus called on the FSC, which certifies its member companies’ adherence to environmental and human rights standards, to immediately open its own investigation into the case, especially in light of Korindo’s earlier agreement with the FSC to “comply with the principle of Free, Prior and Informed Consent (FPIC) and remediate its negative impacts on communities.”

Korindo has disputed the findings in the report.


Banner image: One of Korindo’s oil palm estates in Papua. Photo courtesy of Mighty Earth.


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