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Indonesian farmers refuse to budge for train line through karst landscape

  • Farmers in Indonesia’s South Sulawesi province have rejected government offers to buy their land for a railway project, saying they depend on it for their livelihood.
  • The residents of Salenrang village say protecting their lands and farms will be more beneficial than selling them for the railway line, which the government is touting as a boost for the economy.
  • The farmers also say the government is shortchanging them with its offers, arguing that the market rate for the land is more than five times higher.
  • The land conflict in Salenrang village is one of hundreds that have popped up across Sulawesi as the government splurges on infrastructure projects.

MAROS, Indonesia — Santuwo straightens the crease in the sarong that he often wears while working in his rice field in the village of Salenrang, in Indonesia’s South Sulawesi province. The 55-year-old farmer is one of several who have refused to sell their land for a government-backed railway project.

“I don’t think they get what these fields mean to us,” he tells Mongabay Indonesia. “They must realize that this is how we sustain our families.”

The Indonesian government has since 2015 been working to build a 144-kilometer (89-mile) railway from the provincial capital, Makassar, north to the town of Parepare. The planned line crosses Salenrang village in the district of Maros. The government has budgeted 9 billion rupiah ($627,000) for the project and laid 42 km (26 mi) of the line in the last five years.

Workers lay the tracks for the railway line that’s part of the larger Trans Sulawesi network. Image by Eko Rusdianto/Mongabay Indonesia.
The train station being built in Salenrang village, South Sulawesi. Image by Eko Rusdianto/Mongabay Indonesia.

The government is touting the project as an effort to boost local economic growth by making it quicker and easier to move people and goods across the province. The line also forms part of the larger Trans Sulawesi railway project that will run 2,000 km (1,240 mi) from Makassar to Manado, the capital of North Sulawesi province.

The Salenrang section of the line will run 2 km (1.2 mi) and feature a train station. But in a village that spans just 9.6 km2 (3.7 mi2) and has a population of less than 5,400 people, most of them dependent on farming, it will have an outsize impact, residents say. They warn the project will affecting 13 plots of land, including Santuwo’s rice field and house, located 600 meters (less than 2,000 feet) from where the train station is now being built.

South Sulawesi plays an important role in Indonesia’s agricultural sector. In 2018, the province had more than 11,000 km2 (4,250 mi2) of rice fields, producing more than 3.3 million metric tons of the grain.

The village of Salenrang is also an important nature tourism site, serving as the gateway to Rammang-rammang, a karst landscape that’s home to hundreds of caves and currently under review by UNESCO for recognition as a Global Geopark.

The rice fields and houses of Salenrang village sit at the foot of the karst hills of Rammang-rammang in South Sulawesi. Image by Eko Rusdianto/Mongabay Indonesia.
Santuwo, 55, has held out against government offers to buy his land to build the railway line. Image by Eko Rusdianto/Mongabay Indonesia.

Santuwo and 20 other farmers have fought since 2019 against the railway project, saying the fields they’re trying to protect have supported their families for generations. The farmers also say the compensation the government is offering for their land is much lower than the market rate.

The Salenrang village administration says the farmers have been offered 81,000 rupiah ($5.60) per square meter (about 52 cents per square foot). But the farmers say the market rate is as high as 500,000 rupiah ($34.80) per m2 ($3.25/ft2). They also point out that the state-owned electricity utility, PLN, in 2017 offered them 280,000 rupiah ($19.50) per m2 ($1.80/ft2) for land for an electrical substation.

In January 2020, the government procurement team for the railway project went to the Maros District Court to try to finalize its offer for Santuwo’s land: 108.8 million rupiah for 1,153 m2 ($7,580 for 12,410 ft2). The court sided with the offer and agreed to hold the money in escrow. To claim it, Santuwo would have to formally agree to the price. To date, however, he hasn’t done that.

“If we were to accept compensation for our land, what would we do with it? Save it and then slowly use it up? That won’t last for more than a year,” he says. “I would end up having to buy rice. Right now, I don’t even need to buy rice.

“Until death, I will never let my rice field be taken away just like that,” he adds.

The land conflict in Salenrang village is one of many that have popped up across Sulawesi as the government splurges on infrastructure projects. These include the Maminasata highway and the Makasssar New Port in South Sulawesi, and industrial zones in Morawali, Central Sulawesi, and Konawe, Southeast Sulawesi.

In South Sulawesi alone, the Makassar Legal Aid Agency (LBH) recorded 174 cases in 2020. Observers say most, if not all, of these projects are marred with land conflict with the locals who have subsequently received violent backlash and even criminalization. The group said 361 experienced abuse from the law enforcement.

“This is indicative of an authoritative government,” said Asfinawati, director of the Indonesian Legal Aid Institute (YLBHI). “It’s when law enforcement becomes a tool for the government instead of a tool for the nation.”

The railway line will cut through rice fields in Salenrang village. Image by Eko Rusdianto/Mongabay Indonesia.

This story was reported by Mongabay’s Indonesia team and first published here and here on our Indonesian site on Jan. 5 and Aug. 5, 2021.

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