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A road project in Indonesia’s Gorontalo carves a path of graft and grief

The Gorontalo ring road, which connects Gorontalo’s Djalaluddin Airport with the main ferry port, is part of a national strategic project. Image by Sarjan Lahay/Mongabay Indonesia.

  • More than 1,000 families were entitled to payments for land needed to construct the Gorontalo Outer Ring Road, a national priority infrastructure project on Indonesia’s Sulawesi Island.
  • The road will connect Djalaluddin Airport in the capital of Gorontalo province with the province’s main ferry port.
  • Spending on the project reached almost 1 trillion rupiah ($69 million) between 2014 and 2017.
  • A senior provincial official and two surveyors have been jailed in connections with corruption in the land acquisition process, while another top official is also standing trial.

GORONTALO, Indonesia — Merlin Tahir says she doesn’t like to dwell on how much money her family lost after they were forced in 2014 to give up their land for a road project in Gorontalo province on Indonesia’s Sulawesi Island.

The mother of two found out suddenly that nearly 4,400 square meters (1.1 acres) of family land here in the hills of Damatai village, around 30 kilometers (18 miles) north of Gorontalo’s provincial capital, would be signed over to the state to construct the road.

Merlin had built three henhouses, where around 6,000 chickens laid enough eggs to generate 4 million to 5 million rupiah ($275-$345) every day.

But the government offered the family a total of 52 million rupiah ($3,600) for the entire plot — less than a fortnight’s sales. Merlin had valued the land at 1.5 million rupiah ($104) per square meter; the state offered just 45,000 rupiah, about $3 a square meter.

“I did not accept it,” she told Mongabay Indonesia.

The chicken houses were valued at 2 million rupiah ($138), but Merlin said that amount wasn’t even enough to buy the nails to build a replacement.

Land and houses of residents affected by the construction of the Gorontalo ring road project. Compensation was paid to 1,184 households, but many complain the payments are too low. Image by Sarjan Lahay/Mongabay Indonesia.

President Joko Widodo was elected in 2014 in part based on a campaign promise to raise Indonesia’s infrastructure spending from historically low levels. From 2014 to 2018 Indonesia’s spending on new ports and roads climbed from 155 trillion to 410 trillion rupiah ($10.7 billion to $28.4 billion). More than 4,000 km (2,500 mi) of new roads were paved across the world’s largest island country by the end of the president’s first term in 2019, supported by new rules on eminent domain.

But for the individuals like Merlin having to make way for this development, the construction has brought only hardship and grief.

As Merlin appealed to local, district and provincial levels of government to consider improved terms, her husband Ridwan tried every day to secure a meeting with the governor of Gorontalo, Ruslie Habibie.

“Until now, we have not received compensation,” Ridwan said. “The compensation money was only deposited in court because it did not match the price we wanted.”

As the family sought in vain to have the case reviewed, their remaining chickens began to die and they had to fire three employees.

The couple’s daughter recalled the pain the family felt when officials arrived to repurpose the land.

“We all cried,” Lia Samiden told Mongabay Indonesia. “I fainted while resisting police officers and the Satpol-PP [municipal officials] — they still didn’t care.”

Abdul Karim Dalanggo details a similar account from the village of Talumelito, west of Merlin and Ridwan’s home in Damatai.

The 70-year-old found out without formal notification that his home lay in the path of the Gorontalo Outer Ring Road. Half of the houses in his village were affected by the project, which links Gorontalo’s Djalaluddin Airport with the main ferry port.

“It’s not that I don’t support the government, but we also need respect,” he said. “They should have notified me.”

A month after Karim complained to local officials, they returned with an offer of 230 million rupiah ($15,850), for his 800-m2 (0.2-acre) lot, with his house, which he accepted.

“As soon as they paid for my land, I built a new house. I also bought a motorbike,” he said. “After the new house was built, I allowed them to demolish my old house.”

The Gorontalo ring road, which connects Gorontalo’s Djalaluddin Airport with the main ferry port, is part of a national strategic project. Image by Sarjan Lahay/Mongabay Indonesia.

Usman Adili, a resident of nearby Pilohayanga village, also accepted a cash offer of 153 million rupiah ($10,600) for 2,900 m2 (0.72 acres) of his rice fields. Usman, a father of four, said he accepted the offer to avoid the additional stress of legal proceedings.

“I didn’t want any trouble with anyone so I just accepted the price,” he said.

As a consequence of the land transfer, Usman gave up farming and opened a minimart. The rest of the money he used to meet his family’s daily needs. He still has 4,100 m2 (1 acre) of rice field, but said he’s not planting it anymore, nor does he want to sell it, despite receiving several offers for it.

Merlin, Ridwan, Abdul and Usman are four of more than 1,000 people whose lives were upended by the Gorontalo ring road project, which accounted for almost 1 trillion rupiah ($69 million) of public spending from 2014-17.

The land acquisition process for the Gorontalo ring road has been plagued with problems, including a corruption case in which three public officials have been imprisoned and another still faces trial. Image by Sarjan Lahay/Mongabay Indonesia.

Across the archipelago many thousands of families have had to accept low compensation offers to make way for infrastructure projects. But the Gorontalo project, like many paved roads in the pipeline, has faced delays owing to land acquisition and corruption.

The compensation payments to around 800 of the 1,184 households that received money for their land were scrutinized by investigators and prosecutors as part of a wide-ranging corruption inquiry. Indonesia’s Development Finance Comptroller (BPKP) estimates the state lost around 43.4 billion rupiah ($3 million) due to unaccounted-for spending as part of the land acquisition program to build the road.

Four people have been charged in the case: the former head of Gorontalo province’s governance bureau, Asri Wahyuni Banteng; the provincial National Land Agency (BPN) director, Gabriel Triwibawa; and two surveyors who set land values.

Asri was convicted and sentenced in April to 18 months in prison and fined 100 million rupiah ($6,900). The surveyors, Ibrahim and Farid Siradju, were both sentenced to three and a half years in prison. Gabriel Triwibawa is currently standing trial and prosecutors have said he could face up to life in prison if convicted.

For Merlin and Ridwan in Damatai village, the loss of their business and land has been compounded by a loss of trust.

“I leave all this to God,” Ridwan said. “If there is no justice in this world, let the court of Allah judge them all.”

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Banner image: A segment of the Gorontalo ring road, by Sarjan Lahay/Mongabay Indonesia.

This story was reported by Mongabay’s Indonesia team and was first published on our Indonesian site on June 25, 2021.

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