Activist jailed for forest protest

Down to Earth No 56  February 2003

An environmental activist has been sentenced to six months imprisonment after challenging the forest policies of Gorontalo's district head.

Rahman Dako, known to friends as Aga, is co-ordinator of a NGO advocacy network on natural resources (JAPESDA) in Gorontalo, northern Sulawesi. Local Bupati(district head), Achmad Hoesa Pakaya, took legal action against him for slander after JAPESDA issued a press statement in April 2002 accusing the Bupati of lying about his commitment to protect Gorontalo's forests. One of the environment minister's staff described Pakaya's action as completely misguided and reminiscent of the Suharto years.

The judge of Limboto local court delivered a guilty verdict on December 30th. Aga's supporters held a spontaneous protest outside the court room, lowered the national flag to half mast and marched down to the Bupati's office where they delivered speeches about the injustice of the sentence and the whole legal process. Office staff shouted abuse at the 40 or so protesters and forcibly prevented some of them from leaving the complex until armed police arrived. They were then beaten up by police and thugs who accused them of being anarchists, communists and members of the Free Aceh Movement. Ten protestors were detained and interrogated. One had to be taken to hospital afterwards. At the time of writing, it is not known whether the police will press charges against any of them.

Deforestation has been a hot issue in Gorontalo, northern Sulawesi, since this new province was badly affected by flooding and landslips early last year. Pakaya publicly stated that forest destruction by timber companies and illegal loggers was to blame and set up a team to tackle illegal logging. The day after Aga was sentenced, local newspapers reported that floods had hit 205 houses in Randangan sub-district, forcing 75 families to flee their homes. Over 1,000 ha of rice and maize have also been destroyed.

Local NGOs have been highly critical of the Bupati for his pro-industry stance. For example, Pakaya gave permission for and even opened a wood-processing plant which uses 1,000 cubic metres of timber per month, much of it allegedly the product of illegal logging. Environmentalists claim that, in two years, the PT. Korean Shon Choi Jaya (KSC Jaya) factory alone could strip Gorontalo of its remaining forests. The Bupati also allowed local government company PD PEDAGO to control 10% of the district's logging concessions, contravening regulations set down by central government. The justification for PEDAGO's operations was that it makes timber available for local markets. In fact, it sells timber on to PT KSC Jaya for export. PT KSC Jaya is said to be funding the Bupati's illegal logging action team.

Moreover, the authorities took no action against another company for illegal logging. In July 2002, police confiscated 700 m3 of timber and some of PT Bumi Sumalata Indah's (BSI) heavy equipment as it was operating without permits. However, by August, the Bupati had signed a recommendation allowing PT BSI to continue logging after it paid taxes and levies on the felled timber. Nothing was said in official circles about the forests damaged or destroyed by the company's illegal activities.

Meanwhile, PT Deptero Karpase Hijau, part of the Kalila Group, which is a subsidiary of Indonesian conglomerate Bakrie, is angling for business in Gorontalo. In July 2002, Bakrie made a three-hour presentation to the governor and provincial and district officials in the hope of producing moulding, sawn timber and fancy veneer by the end of 2002. No official verdict has been announced yet.

Ironically, Pakaya was one of the speakers at a national workshop held by CIFOR in Puncak, West Java in Sept 2002 entitled 'Reflections of four years of reform: developing Social Forestry in a period of decentralisation'. The Bupati's report on local community forestry initiatives was apparently well received. A local paper reports Pakaya as saying that environmental destruction in Gorontalo is not too serious. "There is considerable environmental awareness at the community level. It is mostly logging companies which are responsible for the damage". Pakaya was sent on a study tour to Europe last year where he also spoke on regional autonomy and democracy.

JAPESDA and other local NGOs are calling on the Bupati to cancel the permits he issued to PT KSC Jaya last year and to impose a moratorium on logging in Gorontalo in order to prevent more destruction of people's homes and livelihoods due to flooding and landslips. They are also calling for support in their struggle against a corrupt judiciary and authoritarian local authorities.

Gorontalo Post 25/Jul/02, 3/Aug/02, 20/Aug/02, 14/Sept/02, 19/Sept/02, 10/Oct/02, 31/Dec/02; WALHI 19/Sept/02