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Crackdown on villagers highlights heavy hand of Indonesia’s ‘strategic’ projects

Villagers of Wadas in Central Java, Indonesia, protest against a plan to mine andesite in their village in 2019. Image courtesy of LBH Yogyakarta.

  • The heavy-handed arrest of 67 people, including 13 children, by police in Indonesia has shone a spotlight on long-simmering opposition to a planned mine in Central Java province.
  • Those arrested are residents of Wadas village, the site of a planned mine that would provide the rocks needed to build a nearby dam.
  • The villagers have opposed the mining plan for years, citing environmental and social concerns.
  • Rights groups and legal aid advocates accuse the police of using excessive violence, but the government says the project will go ahead regardless.

JAKARTA — Local opposition to a mine on Indonesia’s Java Island, and the heavy-handed police crackdown on protesters, has turned the national spotlight on a spate of development projects touted by the government as being of “strategic importance.”

The conflict centers on a planned mine that will supply the nearby Bener dam, under construction since 2018, with andesite rock. About a quarter of the village of Wadas in Purworejo district, in the province of Central Java, is slated to be mined — something that locals have strongly opposed since 2013.

But while their protests have simmered for nearly a decade, the issue only exploded onto the national stage this month: On Feb. 8, hundreds of police officers arrived in Wadas, claiming they were there to escort officials from the land agency who wanted to demarcate the 114-hectare (282-acre) mining area within the village.

The heavy police presence triggered a clash with the villagers, resulting in the arrest of 67 people, 13 of them children. Police had previously arrested 11 and 12 villagers, respectively, in similar confrontations in 2019 and 2021.

A preliminary investigation by the National Commission on Human Rights (Komnas HAM) found that the police used physical violence in the latest incident in Wadas. It said this had caused trauma among some villagers, including children, with several people fleeing their homes and not returning yet.

The police have refuted Komnas HAM’s findings, saying they only “forcefully arrested” the villagers without resorting to violence.

A villager, who asked to be identified by the pseudonym Siji, said he was chased by plainclothes assailants when he was praying at a mosque in Wadas. They assaulted him at his house, then handcuffed him and five other villagers before taking them to the local police station.

Waliyah, another villager, told Central Java Governor Ganjar Pranowo during the latter’s visit to Wadas on Feb. 13 that her husband was among the villagers arrested during the clash.

“We’re scared, sir. My husband was arrested without knowing what the problem is,” Waliyah said. “Now [he’s] home and if [he] sees the police or strangers in black outfits, [he] gets scared. Every day [he] locks himself in the house. The doors are always locked. [My] children are also traumatized, sir.”

‘Escort investors’

While the Wadas case is one of many land conflicts in Indonesia in which the security forces have been accused of cracking down on local communities in favor of state or corporate interests, it’s one of the few that has shot to national prominence.

In addition to prompting visits from the governor and the rights commission, the latest clash has also seen representatives from the presidential palace meet with the villagers. And while they’ve promised to convey the villagers’ grievances to the president, longtime observers of this and other conflicts say it’s precisely the Widodo administration’s unrelenting push for infrastructure projects that’s fueling these problems.

Wahyu Yun Santoso, an environmental law expert at Gadjah Mada University, linked the Wadas conflict to Widodo’s pro-investment statements, particularly one he issued in December 2021, when he ordered the national police chief to fire any local police chiefs who fail to “escort investors.”

“There’s an indication that the event in Wadas is linked to the president’s statement, coupled with the fact that the Bener dam project is a national strategic project and thus has become a priority,” Wahyu said.

The conflict has also prompted 55 academics from 31 universities and research institutions across Indonesia to issue a joint call for the government to reconsider the dam project as a part of the slate of national strategic projects.

“The urgency of this project has to be reevaluated, especially with violent acts that come with its process,” they said in a press statement. “The state is obligated to provide protection and fulfill human rights.”

Dewi Kartika, secretary-general of the Consortium for Agrarian Reform (KPA), said the Wadas case is the latest example of how the government’s national strategic projects result in land grabbing and conflicts.

“The president has to make sure that all national strategic projects don’t eliminate people’s rights to their lands and space to live,” she said.

The Indonesian Center for Environmental Law (ICEL) said the conflict highlights the failure of the Bener dam project to involve the public in the decision-making process. Instead, the government has pushed this and other projects from the top down, often ignoring the communities most likely to be affected, the NGO said.

“As a result, there’s no space for the public to learn [about the project] and voice their objection against a national strategic project,” ICEL said in a statement. “Furthermore, public involvement is also not effective and too late, seeing how it’s almost certain that the project will proceed.”

ICEL said it’s important for the Widodo administration to guarantee community rights to decide on a project being undertaken in their area, as well as to strengthen public participation in the country’s development.

Police officers at Wadas village, Central Java, Indonesia, in February 2022. Image courtesy of Wadas Melawan.

‘Nothing’s been violated’

Senior government officials have indicated the mine project will go ahead, regardless of the current furor.

Ganjar, the Central Java governor, who is reportedly eyeing a presidential run in 2024, declined to respond directly to the Wadas villagers’ calls for the mine permit to be revoked, calling it a “technical issue.”

Mahfud M.D., the chief minister for legal and security affairs, was more explicit about where the Widodo administration stands, saying the dam project will continue. This time, he added, there will be dialog with the villagers, with the government taking a “persuasive” approach rather than a repressive one.

Mahfud also rejected allegations that the dam project violates any laws, in response to protesters’ concerns about the lack of an environmental impact analysis.

“[That] has been met,” Mahfud said. “Nothing’s been violated.”

Police officers at Wadas village in Central Java, Indonesia. Image courtesy of Wadas Melawan.

The Indonesian Forum for the Environment (Walhi), however, has noted that the planned mine doesn’t have its own environmental impact analysis. Instead, it’s bundled into the environmental impact analysis for the dam.

Halik Sandera, director of the Walhi chapter in Yogyakarta, the nearest large city to Wadas, said the mine should have a separate environmental impact analysis since mining is a different activity from dam construction. Mining activity also requires a host of other permits, including for exploration and post-mining activity, he added.

The initial presentation by project officials to villagers was “focused more on the benefit of the dam, and what a dam is,” Halik said. “They didn’t inform [the villagers] in detail about what the impact [of the mine] on the people would be.”

The Yogyakarta Legal Aid Institute (LBH), which is assisting the Wadas protesters, said the villagers have never been opposed to the dam project itself. The dam, which is expected to be completed by 2024, the final year of the Widodo administration, would provide electricity for three districts, including Purworejo, where Wadas is located.

What they oppose, said LBH Yogyakarta campaign official Dhanil Al Ghifary, is the planned andesite mine, which would destroy their farms.

Siswanto, a Wadas villager, said they’re also concerned about the mine’s environmental impact.

“Mining will threaten the safety of the villagers of Wadas and its surrounding areas,” he said. “The hills of Wadas are in an area that’s prone to landslides.”

Siswanto said the villagers remain opposed to the planned mine, even if the project is touted as being for economic development.

“What’s the use of supporting the economy,” he said, “if people are going to be sacrificed?”


Banner image: Villagers of Wadas in Central Java, Indonesia, protest against a plan to mine andesite in their village in 2019. Image courtesy of LBH Yogyakarta. 


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