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Down to Earth No. 68, February 2006

In memory of inspirational indigenous leader, Abah Nawi

Afnawi Noeh, popularly known as Abah Nawi, leader of the indigenous community organisation BPRPI, died in February 2006 aged 69. He and his family had been fighting for land rights recognition for peasant farmers in North Sumatra for over 50 years.

Abah was a leading member in Indonesia's indigenous movement, attending AMAN's inaugural conference in 1999 and becoming a Council member. BPRPI currently acts as AMAN's secretariat in North Sumatra. It is also a member of the Indonesian environmental forum, WALHI. Before he died, Abah was making preparations for BPRPI's seventh congress, in April 2006.

From last year, Abah also served on the North Sumatra Provincial Advisory Board for the People's Unity Party.

Last year, Abah was a member of an AMAN delegation to the United Nations. Their statement to the UN Commission on Human Rights in March 2005, said "Indigenous peoples have been neglected and have had their rights violated by the state and apparatus, including the seizure of indigenous lands belonging to the BPRPI by a state company in Deli Serdang…".

Much of BPRPI's work relates to 350,000ha of indigenous land, contracted by the Dutch during the 19th century for tobacco plantations from the Sultan of Deli (as the representative of the local people). But, after independence, the community's rights were never been recognised by the Indonesian government. Over the years, the area of land actively contested has diminished. When legislation allowing foreign investment in state companies came in, some land was sold off - mainly to Japanese and Korean companies. Other parts have been taken over by industry and is no longer suitable for farming. Now some 40,000ha is still disputed.

The land is held communally, not individually, by indigenous communities living between the Wampu and Ular rivers in what is now part of Medan, Langkat, Bijai, Deli and Serdang districts. During the colonial period, tobacco was cultivated in one place for seven years, then the plantation would shift to another village. While their plots were occupied by tobacco, villagers moved to a neighbouring village - sometimes much further away. This constant relocation was not a serious problem as it all took place within their customary territory and adat (customary) structures were still maintained. There was always sufficient land for people to grow their traditional crops of rice or vegetables - depending on the soil.

This system was completely disrupted in the late 1960s, when the Suharto government parcelled out land to plantation companies and industry, with land use permits (HGU) covering 35 years or more. Indigenous people no longer had access to their customary lands. Hence the conflict between communities and the 'new owners'.

BPRPI is now working with a total of 67 communities (kampong) and has a membership of thousands of peasant farmers. For example in Langkat, BPRPI has 17 kampong members each with 100-700 families. The organisation derives its income mainly from communities which are able to farm. Their contributions support the struggle and also promote solidarity, for example by paying hospital costs if a member is ill. Its structure is also based on customary law: adat leaders from each kampong select district representatives. There is a general organiser, (until February 6th, Abah Nawi), and an adat Council with representatives from each kampong which oversees the organisation.

Much of the community land was taken over by the state-owned plantation company PTP IX, which later became PT Perkebunan Nasional II. Some of the original tobacco plantations were replanted with sugar. Now, in turn, the sugar is being replaced by oil palm plantations. BPRPI members have cut down the oil palms in some areas because, unlike tobacco, oil palm occupies the land for 20-30 years - during which time people can't use their land. There have been a number of cases where people who have cleared plantation company sugar, cocoa or oil palm in order to plant their own crops, and BPRPI supporters from other villages - including Abah Nawi - have been subjected to brutal treatment by security forces and imprisoned for several months, sometimes without trial.

The most recent example is a case in Tanjung Morawa where BPRPI members reoccupied the land 6 years ago, after the state-owned plantation withdrew. Thirty-four families live and farm there. Now a businessman claims he has bought the land to build a warehouse. He has evicted all the inhabitants, built a huge fence round the area and uses local thugs (preman) to guard it. Families concerned that the guards were ransacking their property broke down the fence. As a result, three people were arrested, including one woman, and are now accused of criminal damage. The rest of the community has no access to its land or crops. The court forbade the farmers to take down the fence until it has reached its verdict, so they used ladders to climb over it. The businessman's response was to make the barrier higher and more solid - it now stands at 4m - and to destroy most of the houses within the enclosure. In desperation, some farmers have tunnelled under the fence "like rabbits" and reoccupied the two remaining houses. Abah Nawi went to Jakarta in December to help to defend these people against being criminalised for wanting to use their homes and land. The actual land dispute case has yet to start.

Ideally, BPRPI wants the whole 350,000ha of its members' indigenous lands recognised by the government. However, it is now prepared to settle for recognition of adat rights over the last 40,000ha. It is not interested in negotiating over plots of land piece by piece as that goes against the communal nature of their customary lands. For example, BPRPI members held a demonstration outside the governor's offices and the North Sumatra provincial assembly in April 2005 to reject an offer of 450ha. "We are not just asking for land; we are demanding the return of our customary lands, or at least recognition of our traditional rights, from Wampu river in Langkat to the Ular river in Deli Serdang", explains Abah Nawi's youngest son. Monang, an agriculture graduate in his twenties, is just one of the BPRPI members who plans to continue in Abah Nawi's footsteps and continue the struggle for justice.

(For more on BPRPI, see DTE 63)

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