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Unrest and arrests in Sumatra as community fights to protect mangroves

Ilham Mahmudi

Ilham Mahmudi, an environmental lover who fought to protect the protected mangrove forest in Langkat so that it does not become an oil palm plantation, has instead been caught in a legal trap. He is now in Langkat Police custody. Image by Ayat S. Karokaro/Mongabay Indonesia.

  • Police in Indonesia’s Langkat district, North Sumatra province, arrested three people in April and May over alleged criminal damage linked to a conflict over a local mangrove forest.
  • Civil society organizations in North Sumatra allege that local elites have established oil palm plantations on scores of hectares zoned as protected forest.
  • They also allege that these individuals have hired thugs to intimidate local residents who oppose the clearing of mangrove forests to plantations.

LANGKAT, Indonesia — Ilham was sitting outside on his terrace in the village of Kuala Langkat on April 18 when a scrum of men in plainclothes arrived at his home and strong-armed him into a waiting car.

Ilham’s younger brother said the men didn’t show any credentials, and that there was a scuffle as Ilham resisted.

“My brother was taken without any explanation by people who claimed to be police,” Nuzul told Mongabay Indonesia. “When asked where the arrest warrant was, they ignored it.”

Nuzul said the mangrove forest in Kuala Langkat village was part of a protected area that had remained in good condition until about 10 years ago. That was when a man identified only by the initials BP arrived in the area and claimed a concession covering 100 hectares (247 acres), which he began clearing to plant oil palms.

Over time, BP sold off parcels of the concession, around 3-5 hectares (7-12 acres) apiece; to date, he’s sold around 65 hectares (161 acres) to buyers.

A large share of the community objected to this destruction of the mangrove forest, and Ilham reported the deforestation to the provincial police headquarters in North Sumatra. He would later travel back several times to follow up on the case with police.

Frustrated by the lack of response, Ilham is alleged to have taken matters into his own hands by damaging a shelter in the protected forest used by workers hired to cut down the mangrove trees and replace them with oil palms. Ilham was reported to the police for alleged vandalism.

An excavator cutting down mangrove forests in Kuala Langkat, North Sumatra.
An excavator in a mangrove area in Kuala Langkat, North Sumatra. Image by Ayat S. Karokaro/Mongabay Indonesia.

Charge sheet

The Indonesian archipelago is home to 45 of the world’s 75 mangrove species, growing in some 3 million hectares (7.4 million acres) of mangrove forests, which is more than a fifth of global mangroves, according to Wetlands International. The trees provide crucial ecosystem services and serve as feeding grounds for the marine life that coastal communities rely on for protein needs.

In addition, mangrove trees store up to five times as much carbon in their biomass and soil than terrestrial forests, giving them an enhanced role in slowing climate change.

However, almost half of Indonesia’s mangroves have been damaged or destroyed in recent decades as the trees are ripped out to make way for aquaculture businesses and plantations.

In response to this environmental challenge, President Joko Widodo in 2020 announced a target to restore 600,000 hectares (nearly 1.5 million acres) of mangrove ecosystems by 2024.

Local people who spoke with Mongabay pointed out that authorities had been mostly unresponsive to Ilham’s pleas to act against the mangrove destruction, yet were swift and uncompromising in going after him for damaging property.

Dedi Mirza, the chief police investigator in Langkat district, where the village of Kuala Langkat is located, confirmed Ilham’s arrest on April 26, more than a week after he was detained. He said the arrest was made following a report of criminal damage and that Ilham faced charges that carry a maximum sentence of five and a half years in prison.

Dedi said an arrest warrant was produced within 24 hours after the arrest, and that the 40-year-old was charged following a review of photo and video evidence of the incident. Crucially, Dedi determined that the land in question didn’t have protected status, and that no law had been broken by the concession holder, BP.

Mongabay attempted to confirm the protected status of the land with the relevant district agency. No one at the Langkat land agency or the North Sumatra provincial land department responded to requests for information.

Ali Nafiah, deputy director of the Legal Aid Institute (LBH) in Medan, the North Sumatra capital, said Ilham had been wrongfully detained.

Mangrove forests in Langkat are being damaged and will be turned into oil palm plantations.
Mangrove forests in Langkat are being converted into oil palm plantations. Image by Ayat S. Karokaro/Mongabay Indonesia.

Search and destroy

On May 11, police officers, once again armed and in plainclothes, arrested another two Kuala Langkat villagers who were opposed to the clearing of the mangroves. Safii, 48, and Taufik, 34, were arrested while fishing. Ateng, a fellow fisherman on the same boat, described how the officers arrived in a speedboat around 9 a.m. and ordered the two men to come with them.

“We did not see the police who arrested them show any identification or provide an arrest warrant,” Ateng told Mongabay.

At night, the villagers gathered at the police station and called for the release of the two men.

Safii and Taufik said they were arrested by the police because they were accused of damaging the home of a man identified only by the initials SAR, said to be BP’s right-hand man. That incident occurred hours after the arrest of Ilham, with villagers accusing SAR of being behind the arrest. Safii and Taufik said that while they did attend the protest outside SAR’s home, they weren’t involved in any kind of vandalism.

During the subsequent arrest of Safii and Taufik, fellow fishermen confirmed seeing SAR on board the police speedboat, pointing at the two men and appearing to order the police to detain them.

Taufik, a resident of Kuala Langkat, also opposes mangroves becoming palm oil plantations.
Taufik behind bars in North Sumatra. Image by Ayat S. Karokaro/Mongabay Indonesia.
Safii, a resident of Kuala Langkat, who refused to convert mangrove forests into oil palm plantations in Langkat is now caught in the law.
Safii in detention. Image by Ayat S. karokaro/Mongabay Indonesia.

Sumiati Surbakti, chair of the Srikandi Lestari Foundation, a women-led environmental nonprofit, said field visits by her organization with LBH Medan and the Commission for Missing Persons and Victims of Violence, an NGO known as Kontras, showed a high number of oil palms in protected forest areas in Langkat.

“This omission shows that policyholders from the provincial to the village level don’t support the Joko Widodo government’s program to suppress climate change by conserving mangrove forests,” Sumiati said.

Adi Yoga Kemit, a lawyer for Kontras, said their investigation had found villagers who opposed the destruction of mangrove forests faced threats and intimidation by thugs hired by the businessmen.

“We urge the police to arrest the financial backers and anyone involved in destroying mangrove forests in Kuala Langkat,” Adi said. “Stop criminalizing people who protect mangroves.”

Advocates from LBH Medan have twice visited the North Sumatra police headquarters to request information on the encroachment of Langkat’s mangrove forests.

“We urge that Ilham’s report regarding the damage to the mangrove ecosystem in Langkat be followed up immediately,” Ali said.

Banner image: Ilham Mahmudi, an environment lover who fought to protect the mangrove forest in Langkat so that it does not become an oil palm plantation, has been caught in a legal trap. He is now in Langkat Police custody. Image by Ayat S Karokaro/Mongabay Indonesia.

This story was reported by Mongabay’s Indonesia team and first published here and here on our Indonesian site on May 8 and 20, 2024.

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