Agribusiness and resource companies embroiled in land disputes with rural communities in Indonesia appear to be using the lull in oversight during the COVID-19 outbreak to strengthen their claims to contested areas. Since the first confirmed cases of the disease were reported in the country on March 2, two local land defenders have been killed and four arrested in connection with disputes in Sumatra, Java and Borneo.
Two killed in Sumatra
On March 21, security personnel from the palm oil firm PT Artha Prigel clashed with farmers in Lahat district, in South Sumatra province. Two farmers were killed in the fighting, the latest flare-up in a conflict that goes back nearly three decades. Locals accuse the company—a subsidiary of the Sawit Mas Group, which supplies oleochemicals to Procter & Gamble—of stealing their land. In September 2018 the locals took over nearly a tenth of the company’s 2,000-hectare (5,000-acre) plantation and began cultivating their own crops. The clash last month broke out as security guards arrived to clear the locals from the area they had taken over. The two farmers died of stab wounds.
“This shows that the company has no humanity,” said Muhammad Hairul Sobri, director of the South Sumatra chapter of the Indonesian Forum for the Environment (WALHI). “During an emergency like this, instead of focusing on handling COVID-19, they’re using the situation to grab people’s lands.”
Repression in Java
On East Java’s Mount Tumpang Pitu, locals have erected tents to protest mining activity by PT Bumi Suksesindo and PT Damai Suksesindo. They especially oppose a plan to expand gold mining operations into nearby Mount Salakan, where PT Damai Suksesindo has a permit.
Rere Jambore Christanto, the director of WALHI’s East Java chapter, said the government ordered the encampment to be disbanded and the tents torn down, citing coronavirus prevention control measures. “But the biggest threat is actually from outside people, not from the locals,” Rere said, adding that locals had reported an increase in the companies’ activity, including equipment being brought in. “To date, there has been no local indicated to be infected with the coronavirus.”
Protesters refused to dismantle their tents, and on March 26 blockaded the road leading to the mining area. Police broke up the blockade the next day, and later a fight broke out between the protesters and a group of people claiming to support the mine. Dozens of vehicles and homes were damaged in the clash, and on April 1, police arrested one of the protesters.
Persecution in Borneo
In the Bornean province of Central Kalimantan, three indigenous farmers were recently arrested for allegedly stealing oil palm fruit from plantation company PT Hamparan Masawit Bangun Persada (HMBP). The company itself stands accused of stealing the farmers’ lands; local officials and rights groups have since 2010 declared that the company has been operating illegally on community lands.
The farmers filed a pretrial motion in a bid to drop the case. The court was supposed to hold a hearing on March 30, but police failed to show up, saying they were occupied with the government’s COVID-19 response. The pretrial hearing was postponed to April 6, the same date as the start of their trial. As a result, the pretrial motion was rendered null, according to Dimas Hartono, the director of WALHI’s Central Kalimantan chapter.
“The pandemic is being used as an excuse to delay…the pretrial hearing,” Dimas said. He noted the police appeared to have no problem pursuing the criminal investigation, while claiming they couldn’t attend the pretrial hearing because of the pandemic. “What the police did was merely an excuse to speed up the legal process.”
Business as usual in remote areas
Indonesia has recorded 5,136 COVID-19 infections and 469 deaths as of April 15, giving it the highest number of fatalities in Asia outside of China. Non-essential businesses have been ordered to shut down in Jakarta, the national epicenter of the outbreak, and other regions are due to follow over the coming week. In many rural and remote areas, however, it’s still business as usual.
Sandrayati Moniaga of the National Commission on Human Rights, known as Komnas HAM, said the government should bar companies from operating during emergencies like a pandemic. “In a situation like this there should be no activities in areas with ongoing conflicts. There has to be a status quo,” she said, according to local media. (Mongabay, April 15)