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Indonesian court jails indigenous farmer in conflict with paper giant APP

Bongku, a member of the Sakai indigenous community in Riau, Indonesia, accompanied by his lawyer. Image courtesy of LBH Pekanbaru.

  • A member of an indigenous community mired in a long-standing land conflict with a subsidiary of paper giant Asia Pulp & Paper (APP) has been sentenced to a year in prison.
  • A court in Indonesia found Bongku, a farmer, guilty of cutting down 20 acacia and eucalyptus trees planted by the company in Sumatra’s Riau province.
  • Activists have condemned the verdict, saying the charges didn’t fit the alleged crime and should have been thrown out.
  • The case is the latest in a long-running spat between the company and the Sakai indigenous community, who occupied the land decades before the company obtained a permit for its plantation there.

JAKARTA — Activists have condemned the conviction and jailing of an indigenous farmer in Sumatra whose community is embroiled in a long-standing land dispute with paper giant Asia Pulp & Paper (APP).

On May 18, a court in Bengkalis district, Riau province, sentenced 58-year-old Bongku, from the Sakai indigenous tribe, to one year in prison and ordered him to pay 200 million rupiah ($13,800) in fines for cutting down acacia and eucalyptus trees planted by PT Arara Abadi (AA), a subsidiary of APP.

While the company holds the concession to the land, the Sakai settled it decades earlier. AA’s concession spans 292,262 hectares (722,195 acres), an area larger than Luxembourg; Bongku had cleared half a hectare (1.2 acres), chopping down 20 of the company’s pulpwood trees near his home in Duluk Songkal village to plant sweet potatoes for his family.

“Bongku only planted a miniscule percentage of AA’s concession, and the company took issue with that,” said Rian Adelima Sibarani, head of operations at the Riau chapter of the Legal Aid Foundation (LBH Pekanbaru), which represented Bongku at trial. “If AA has a good intention to increase the welfare of people around its concession and respect the Sakai community, whose presence is also acknowledged by AA, then the company wouldn’t have done that.”

Bongku’s supporters have taken issue with how prosecutors and judges handled the trial, starting with the indictment. In making their case, prosecutors charged Bongku under a 2013 forestry law that was drafted to tackle illegal logging by organized syndicates. Given that Bongku wasn’t part of any syndicate and didn’t profit from the trees felled, he should never have faced trial on those charges, said Asep Yunan Firdaus, the executive director of NGO Epistema Institute.

“In their verdict, the judges didn’t elaborate on any link between Bongku and a forestry crime syndicate,” Asep said. “It means that Bongku can’t be prosecuted under the 2013 law.”

LBH Pekanbaru director Andi Wijaya said the judges also ignored the fact that there’s an ongoing conflict between the company and the Sakai tribe and that the land is contested.

“There’s a tenurial conflict,” he told Mongabay. “So the conflict has to be solved first through civil means. But this fact wasn’t mentioned at all by the judges.”

Andi said the prosecution then pivoted to a case of deforestation. But even that charge, under Indonesia’s criminal code, should have been thrown out by the court because it may only be brought in cases of the public interest, Andi said. In this case, he added, the aggrieved party is a private company.

Prosecutors justified their use of the deforestation charge by arguing that Bongku’s actions — felling 20 trees out of tens of thousands belonging to AA — would have materially impacted the company’s revenue and hence the amount of tax it paid to the state, thereby making it a matter of public interest.

But the notion of lost tax revenue is ironic, given that AA and APP’s parent company, Sinar Mas, has been accused by the Riau provincial legislature of avoiding taxes, Andi said.

In 2018, the group paid 84 billion rupiah ($5.8 million) in taxes to the province, but should have been liable for another 400 billion rupiah ($27.8 million), according to the legislators. They derived that figure from the production capacity that year of APP’s giant paper mill, operated by subsidiary PT Indah Kiat Pulp and Paper.

Sinar Mas has denied allegations of tax avoidance, saying it has filed all taxes online since 2017 and thus is monitored by the tax agency.

Bongku’s house in Riau, Indonesia. Image courtesy of Walhi Riau.

History of intimidation

Andi said what made the court ruling even more unjust was the 200 million rupiah fine imposed on Bongku — a figure nearly six times the annual minimum wage in the province. If he fails to pay, he will have to spend an additional one month in prison.

“Maybe Bongku has never seen 200 million rupiah in his life,” Andi said. “Because he lives from the forests and his crops aren’t for commercial purposes. How can an indigenous person pay 200 million rupiah? In issuing its ruling, the court should have considered the condition of the defendant.”

Activists say Bongku’s case is a textbook example of how indigenous peoples continue to be defenseless against powerful companies grabbing their land. The Sakai people, scattered across 10 villages, have lived in the area and farmed the land here since 1830. They were granted official ownership of the land in 1940 by the sultan of Siak. Bongku’s grandfather, Kaso, moved to the area in 1959, adopting a nomadic agricultural life.

AA only obtained its concession for a pulpwood plantation in the area in 1996. Yet the company says the Sakai’s land claim dates back to only 2001. In response to this claim, the company conducted a field inspection with community representatives. The inspection concluded the land had never been occupied or managed by the Sakai community, but was instead used for commercial purposes by third parties not related either to the tribe or to the company.

“Despite the finding, between 2001 and 2019, several members of the Sakai community continued to try to occupy land and halt the company’s operations,” APP said in a statement.

Pramasty Ayu Kusdinar, the program coordinator of the NGO Akar Foundation, said it was obvious the Sakai people had occupied the land decades before AA obtained its concession. Testifying in Bongku’s trial, Jummadel, a member of the Sakai community and head of the neighborhood unit where Bongku lived, said the site where the trees were cut down was close to two community graveyards.

“The Sakai community already lived in the contested location before [the company entered the area],” Pramasty said. “And this is proven by the existence of villages, lands that had been farmed, and cultural sites that are protected and respected by the Sakai tribe.”

Indonesia’s national human rights commission, known as Komnas HAM, has recommended that the Sakai tribe be recognized as the rightful owners of the land under the 1999 Forestry Law. But the tribe has not moved to stake that claim because of the complicated bureaucratic process involved.

In 2008, a fact-finding team from the commission found the Sakai people had lost their right to live peacefully and safely because of constant pressure from the company. It found the company had deployed security personnel and trained dogs to drive away farmers working on the disputed land and to intimidate children traveling to and from school.

That same year, the dispute crested into violence as more than 700 police and civilians raided the village of Duluk Songkal to drive out the inhabitants. Amnesty International cited local reports that a 2-year-old child died after falling into a well during the incident and a 2-month-old infant died of burn injuries. Some 400 villagers fled for the forest as police helicopters dropped fire accelerant on the village and destroyed 300 homes.

Jummadel referred to the 2008 incident in his testimony at Bongku’s trial. Since then, he said, there hadn’t been any physical conflict between the community and the company because the villagers were afraid.

That fear is expected to deepen with the jailing of Bongku, according to Rian of LBH Pekanbaru.

“This is a [common] trick employed by companies,” he said. “Just point to one person, and others will be afraid. Just pick Bongku, and others will get scared. Bongku is a scapegoat.”

He added Bongku’s legal team would file an appeal against the verdict.

“We hope that the judges at the high court will be more thorough in making a decision on this case and correcting the mistake in law enforcement by the judges at the Bengkalis district court,” Pramasty said.

A poster demanding justice for Bongku. Image courtesy of LBH Pekanbaru.

Threats against defenders

Bongku’s case has trigged an outpouring of support, with an online petition seeking his release garnering more than 25,000 signatures.

On May 21, a group of young activists staged a small protest outside the Bengkalis district head’s office; police reportedly charged four of them with violating physical distancing measures, for which they could face up to four months in prison.

Another campaign calling for Bongku to be freed was launched online after the court ruling by a coalition of activists, but was soon targeted with threatening messages from a user claiming to be a reporter. In a WhatsApp message to one of the organizers of the campaign on May 19, the user, identified only as Firman, asked them to take down the content calling for Bongku’s release and “not get involved because it’s a big company.”

At least one other member of the campaign was targeted with similar messages, but attempts to trace the identity of the user failed.

“There’s a strong suspicion that this is a threat and a form of intimidation toward civil society and human rights defenders who demand justice for Bongku,” Andi of LBH Pekanbaru said. “The perpetrator wants Bongku’s case to be silenced. This surely will affect the [campaigners] and other human rights defenders who fight for justice.”

On May 20, the first organizer contacted by Firman was unable to access their Instagram account for half an hour. When they regained control of the account, the posts related to Bongku’s case had been deleted.

The organizer said they were not afraid of the threat: “It’s better to die for justice rather than dying while not fighting for it.”


Banner image: Bongku, a member of the Sakai indigenous community in Riau, Indonesia, accompanied by his lawyer. Image courtesy of LBH Pekanbaru.


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