Moronene people forced out of national park

Down to Earth No. 48, February 2001

Indigenous people living on ancestral lands in Rawa Aopa Watumohai National Park, Southeast Sulawesi, were forcibly evicted from their homes in November by a security team including police and military personnel. The action has been widely condemned in Indonesia as further confirmation that the brutal treatment which characterised Suharto's "New Order" regime is still being used against indigenous peoples today.

The forced eviction, which involved 60-80 security personnel, took place from November 22-25 last year. On the instruction of Southeast Sulawesi provincial governor, Laode Kaimuddin, around 100 homes were destroyed in the three villages of Hukaea-Laeya, Lampopola and Lanowulu. The security team consisted of the local police, members of the notorious Brimob mobile brigade police, plus forest police and officials. According to press reports, Moronene villagers, including children, watched in tears as their wooden and bamboo homes were demolished with chainsaws.

Staff from local NGOs who have been trying to prevent the evictions, were accused of inciting resistance and of using the Moronene case for their own political agendas. This is a typical response from authorities who find themselves up against communities resisting plans made without popular consultation or consent.

The action has also drawn criticism from central government in Jakarta. A letter from environment minister Sonny Keraf asked the Southeast Sulawesi governor not to move the indigenous villagers out of the park. Keraf said that outsiders destroying the forests were the main problem, not the indigenous people. Following this, governor Laode Kaimuddin said that Keraf "understood" the provincial government's policies after discussing the problem with the governor and that points in the letter arose from a misunderstanding. Days later, forestry minister Nur Mahmudi also urged a different approach, saying it was not necessary to react harshly against people living in national parks if the environment was safeguarded. The minister also offered to hold a dialogue between the governor, Moronene leaders and the environmental group WALHI.

The government's national commission for human rights, Komnas HAM, has also criticised the evictions, stating that they represent a grave violation of human rights by the provincial government. Indonesia's indigenous peoples' alliance, AMAN, has likened the evictions to 'using a cannon to shoot a mosquito'. In a letter to governor Laode, Den Upa Rombelayu, AMAN's eastern region deputy co-ordinator, accused the eviction team of using the same methods as Suharto's New Order regime. The letter called for negotiations to recognise Moronene rights to their land and moves towards an area planning process which fully involves the Moronene people.


Land and identity

This is the third time in four years that the Moronene have been the victim of forcible evictions. In 1997 security forces burned down 175 homes and destroyed crops; just under a year later, a further raid burned another 88 houses and ended in year-long jail sentences for twelve indigenous villagers. (See also DTE 41:6 for more background.)

The conflict stems from the changing status of the Moronene lands, which were made a national park in 1990. The decision to turn the area into a park was taken without consultation with or reference to the forest-dwelling Moronene, whose ancestral rights over the lands have never been recognised by the government. The Moronene argue that they lived in the area for generations before the park was created and should not be forced out against their will. According to WALHI, Hukaea-Laeya is an old Moronene centre, as is evident from the ancestral graves there. In Dutch colonial times, it was the centre for 11 settlements, seven of which now lie within the national park boundaries. During the politically troubled 1950s many of the Moronene villagers moved to other parts of Sulawesi, but started returning again in the 1970s.

The local authorities say the Moronene have no proof that they have any rights to the land. Some officials are even casting doubt on the villagers' identity as Moronene people. Head of the eviction team, Saleh Umarella, was quoted as saying that the people living in the park were not Moronene, but outsiders who had occupied houses abandoned years earlier. Governor Laode has acknowledged that there are masyarakat adat (indigenous people) living in the park, but says that if they are permitted to stay, their presence will encourage more people to settle there. On another occasion he said only a tiny minority had any historical connection with the Moronene people. The villagers have been pressured to move to a transmigration-style resettlement site in a 700 hectare area. The relocation site is next to a timber estate run by the timber conglomerate Barito Pacific in Rarowatu subdistrict. There each family will only have a two hectare plot on which to support themselves instead of being able to practise their traditional, extensive form of agro-forestry.


Park versus people

Governor Laode Kaimuddin has insisted that the 105,000 hectare national park should be cleared of people in order to preserve fauna and flora. This is an outdated view: most major conservation organisations now recognise that indigenous inhabitants can play a positive part in protecting endangered species and the integrity of forest areas under threat from outside pressures.

The latest wave of evictions is being driven by the provincial government, not the park authorities themselves. The park's head is reported to acknowledge the Moronene's role in conservation.

WALHI argues this case in a letter of protest to the governor, pointing to evidence that wildlife around the Moronene settlements is thriving, and arguing that the villagers play a positive role in protecting fauna and flora from illegal hunting. Ironically, since the evictions, there has been an increase in poaching in the park - gangs of poachers using motor vehicles are coming in the park nightly to hunt deer. This is blamed by the local government on the evicted villagers, although the organised nature of the poaching suggests police or military involvement.. Moronene leaders have denied the accusations, saying it is just another example of the authorities trying to give them a bad name.

WALHI has contrasted the inhumane treatment of the Moronene people in Southeast Sulawesi with the more tolerant approach taken in neighbouring Central Sulawesi. Here the local authorities have permitted the indigenous Katu people to remain in Lore Lindu National Park (see DTE 41, Supplement). Attempts had been underway to persuade the Southeast Sulawesi government to adopt a similar approach. Just one month before the evictions, two Moronene leaders, Mansyur Lababa and Ibu Vera, had been received sympathetically in a series of meetings facilitated by local NGO, Yayasan Suluh Indonesia, and WALHI. They met the minister for resettlement and regional infrastructure Erna Witoelar, regional autonomy director-general Mangara Butar-Butar, a top official from the state nature conservation agency, Komnas HAM and others. Now Yayasan Suluh, WALHI and eight other NGOs have formed a network to prevent more oppressive actions against the Moronene and are preparing legal action against the provincial authorities over the evictions.


DTE protests

In December DTE wrote to governor Laode Kaimuddin protesting against the evictions. The letter stated:

"Evicting the Moronene people will solve nothing in the long term. Neither will resettlement on a transmigration site. This will not be able to prevent the destruction of Moronene culture, which is inseparable from their forest-based way of life…As the implementation date for regional autonomy approaches, surely now is the time to launch a new, progressive and more accountable policy, based on genuine dialogue with indigenous peoples, on respect for adat culture and commitment to serving the interests of the rural poor."

(Letter to Laode Kaimuddin, 22/Dec/00)


Economic motivations

According to WALHI, the evictions are known to be closely related to economic interests. The area is included in the Buton-Kolaka-Kendari Integrated Economic Development Zone (Kapet) and there are suspicions that the Moronene have been moved out in order to let the investors in. If these suspicions are proven to be correct, this would expose the arguments for evicting the Moronene - to protect the integrity of the national park - as totally false. Moreover, regional autonomy measures, now being implemented (see also next article) are likely to mean that governors like Laode Kaimuddin are more confident in putting their own policies into action, whether central government agrees with them or not.


Wiping out a culture

Local NGOs concerned with the case argue that the assault on the Moronene is not just a dispute over land or resources: it amounts to wiping out the last surviving remnants of Moronene culture. Moronene people living outside the park have had their lands taken for transmigration sites, timber estates, logging concessions and other 'development' projects over the past decades. According to Yayasan Suluh, those remaining in the park are the last members of the group still practising their traditional culture. As the forest lands are closely bound up with Moronene culture, permanent resettlement on land elsewhere will be disastrous.

(Sources: AMAN letter to Governor Laode Kaimuddin, copy emailed 9/Dec/00;WALHI letter to Governor 19/Oct/00; Kendari Pos 30/Nov/00, 12/Jan/01; Suluh, Suara Pembaruan 1/Dec/00; NGO Statement 27/Nov/00; Kendari Ekspres 6-12/Dec/00, 13-19/Dec/00; GAMMA 11/Jan/01; WALHI environmental outlook 2001)