Bestari Raden sentenced

Down to Earth No 63  November 2004

Bestari Raden, indigenous activist and environmental campaigner, has been sentenced to two years and six months imprisonment. The verdict, handed down in October, found Bestari not guilty of part of the main charge of 'rebellion', but guilty of threatening state security and incitement.

Bestari Raden was arrested by military personnel from Southeast Aceh district command in March 2004. He was on a government assignment to review sections of the environmentally damaging Ladia Galaska road project, which cuts through the 2.6 million hectare Leuser Ecosystem, one of the world's richest ecological areas. His arrest was believed to be political, since Bestari is a well-known activist promoting indigenous rights and opposing destructive logging in Aceh - campaigns that threatened the business interests of military and police officers. The security forces use Aceh's forests for income-generation and it is an open secret that military and police personnel are protectors of illegal loggers and timber concessionaires. Bestari is a former council member of the indigenous peoples alliance, AMAN.

Bestari's trial opened in Tapak Tuan, South Aceh in June, but was put on hold during the second round of the presidential elections in September. The case prompted an international campaign protesting against his treatment and calling for a fair trial. (see DTE 62 and 61 for background).

The case is a telling illustration of how forests, corruption and conflict politics are interlinked in Aceh. The final defence statement by Bestari's legal team describes how he was originally a sports teacher who became a coach at district and provincial levels and accompanied teams to national events. He also helped set up a cultural group, Rimeung Lam Keulut, which promoted traditional ritual arts. When serious flooding affected Kluet district, PT Medan Remaja Timber, a logging concessionaire, was believed to have been directly responsible for a school being washed away. Bestari Raden and his colleagues in Rimeung Lam Keulut lobbied local and national level authorities to have the company's permit withdrawn. Lack of progress in negotiations led the community to take matters into their own hands and burn down a building at the company's base camp. The forestry minister withdrew the company's logging permit in 1999.

His defence lawyers say that a previous detention, during which Bestari was tortured in police custody, and other instances of intimidation were probably linked to the forest guards' loss of illegal income once PT MRT's operations were stopped. Bestari was also sacked from the civil service and, shortly afterwards, put on the official wanted list by the South Aceh police who claimed he was the local GAM (Free Aceh Movement) commander for Tapak Tuan.

(Source: Defence Team press release 2/Oct/04 and others).


Ladia Galaska raised at European Social Forum

DTE and Tapol, the Indonesia Human Rights Campaign, co-hosted a seminar focussing on the Ladia Galaska Road network and conflict in Aceh in September. The seminar was part of the European Social Forum (ESF) held this year in London.

European money funds the conservation body that manages the Leuser Ecosystem - a huge forested area that will be opened up to more logging by Ladia Galaska. The EU has spent 31 million euros (USD39.4) on Leuser since 1996.

A petition addressed to Hilary Benn, the UK development secretary, was circulated. It called on the UK government to use all available channels to bring about Bestari Raden's release and to halt the Ladia Galaska Road project. The petition, with more than 50 signatories was sent to Benn. No reply has yet been received.

DTE's powerpoint presentation on Ladia Galaska is available on CD, GBP 2 postage and packaging - contact

(Source: EU Business 17/Feb/04)


Community action post-Suharto
Rimeung Lam Keulut's campaign to shut down destructive logging companies in South Aceh, was part of the local response to new possibilities opened up in the more fluid political climate which followed the resignation of President Suharto in 1998. Deforestation had been rapid in the 1980s and 1990s (see box, below). As flooding had claimed lives and livelihoods throughout the 1980s and 1990s, and many incidents were linked to over-exploitation of forests, it is not surprising that logging concessionaires became a major target for community action.

Another local figure in the struggle against destructive logging is Jailani Hasan, an indigenous leader from North Aceh, who is also a member of AMAN's council. Jailani, as profiled in the Indonesian newspaper, Kompas, is customary leader of around 40,000 people in seven villages, who follow traditional systems of natural resource management, resource rights and dispute resolution. Under customary law, for example, the use of poison and explosives for catching fish is forbidden as it damages the environment and harms others people's interests: the traditional method of river fishing is using fish traps and nets. People caught using the outlawed methods are fined millions of Rupiah. Disputes are settled and fines set by the indigenous leader, religious elders and the community.

Jailani and his group, together with local NGOs and community groups, have succeeded in getting 21 logging concessionaires suspended by the central government, including a company owned by the man who was once Indonesia's most powerful timber baron - Bob Hasan. This has been achieved in the face of terror, intimidation and violence by employees of the targeted companies. Jailani's goal is to achieve recognition for indigenous claims over the forest and to protect the ecosystem. "Entrepreneurs, investors and rich people can stay in hotels with there's a flood, but the ordinary people drown", says Jailani. However, the ongoing conflict and security situation makes it difficult for this indigenous leader to meet and consult the communities to consolidate their work (Kompas 27/Sep/04).


NGOs under pressure 
Many of Aceh's NGOs - especially those dealing with human rights and humanitarian aid - have struggled to stay in existence during the years of conflict. Already severely restricted in their movements and scope of activities, and under pressure from the security forces, the situation for NGOs worsened considerably following the declaration of martial law in 2003. Human rights defenders were rounded up and held in detention. Political space for opposition to Jakarta's policies was closed down. Several NGO and student activists have been tried and remain as political prisoners in Aceh's jails. Since martial law was replaced by the civilian emergency status in 2004, it has become easier for some civil society organisations to operate in Aceh. However, there remain serious constraints on people wishing to move around inside Aceh, due in part to the creation of pro-Indonesian militias*. One of the tasks of militia groups is to report unusual activities in the villages - when an outsider turns up, for example.

Human rights defenders who advocate a negotiated settlement to the war in Aceh, continue to be labelled as GAM supporters by the Indonesian authorities. This propaganda has to some extent successfully served to cut off potential support and solidarity from Indonesian NGO human rights groups in Jakarta.

Civil society is constantly trying to find ways to get around the heavy constraints on their activities. Recent initiatives include solidarity-building visits by Acehnese activists to Europe, plus training courses, organised by the Aceh Civil Society Institute, to build the capacity of civil society groups working in Aceh.

*The NGO Eye on Aceh has written a booklet on this topic: Fear in the shadows: Militia in Aceh, see


Environmental NGOs: threats and violations
WALHI Aceh is an environmental NGO that has maintained a voice throughout the conflict, speaking out against forest destruction, illegal logging and corruption. WALHI Aceh is part of the NGO campaign to stop the Ladia Galaska Road project and has also been involved in advocacy to bring US-based oil multinational, Exxon Mobil, to account for human rights violations around its Aceh gas installations. Director Muhammad Ibrahim told the Jakarta Post that it has been possible to continue working in Aceh, where other organisations have been forced to suspend operations, because WALHI deals with environmental issues. Still, the risks remain high: after joining the campaign against Ladia Galaska, Muhammad Ibrahim was targeted. "Some local figures sent a letter to the governor, asking him to take stern measures against Walhi and if he (the governor) failed to do so, they would take the law into their own hands", said Ibrahim. Now he regularly receives threats through phone calls and letters (Jakarta Post 23/Apr/04).

Unfortunately, this kind of intimidation happens frequently and there are cases which show that such threats can be in earnest. On January 31, 2000, Sukardi, a volunteer with the Bamboo Thicket Institute (Yayasan Rumpun Bambu Indonesia), a local environmental and human rights group based in Aceh, `disappeared'. His bullet-riddled corpse was found on February 1 (Human Rights Watch, 2001). An Amnesty International document stated: "It is not known who is responsible for his death or why he was killed. There are unconfirmed reports that a witness heard the sounds of someone apparently experiencing severe pain coming from Sawang police station on the evening of Sukardi's `disappearance'." (Amnesty International, 2000)

In January 2001, a mass grave containing 14 bodies was uncovered in Terbangan, Kluet Selatan in South Aceh. One of the bodies was identified as that of a researcher from the Centre for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) in Bandung, West Java. Three young researchers from CIFOR and a member of the Gunung Leuser National Park staff had disappeared over a year previously in September 1999 (see DTE 48).

An interview conducted by an Australian academic in February 2000 gives a first-hand impression of how activists who try to prevent forest destruction are at risk:

"I worked for the Leuser Project…Myself and a friend, [name withheld], who also worked with Leuser tried to tell them it was the local police and military doing the logging. I know this is a fact because my own brother was paid by the military to help clean the trees once cut. He was paid by a local commander Rp 25,000 a day. That's a lot of money, but the work was hot and had to be done quickly…My friend - the one who worked with me - has disappeared. I don't know where he is. The people in the office say he has probably gone back to his village, or gone to Jakarta or Medan to earn money. I don't think so - I think he has been arrested. One day last year, we found some military giving orders to a group of workers about cutting trees. I was afraid and told my friend to come away, but he wouldn't. He had an argument with the military, and told them they should not be cutting the logs. They were very angry. It was about two months after that he disappeared.

…Look [shows a long scar], I got this one day when I tried to stop a military catching birds. I cry when I see the birds in the nets, some die. The military officer picked up a rough stick and beat me with it". 
(Unpublished interview, Feb 2000).

Source: Provincial Forest Economic Profiles, Ministry of Forestry & FAO, Jakarta Dec 1989; Jakarta Post 3/Dec/03; FWI/GFW The State of the Forest, Indonesia, 2002, MoF website tables at


Forest figures Aceh:
Total land area of Aceh
5,671,700 ha
Forest Area (1989)
3,882,300 ha
-of which 'critical' [degraded](1989)
46,088 ha
Degraded forest (mid 1990s)
Forest cover (1997)
3,611,953 ha
Forest cover (2000)
2,753,000 ha
Forest areas released for transmigration sites (to 1998)
39,377 ha
Number of large concessions (1987)
Area covered by concessions (1987)
Area covered by concessions (1993)
Number of large concessions (2002)
Area covered by concessions (2002)
Deforestation rate
270,000 ha /year
Gunung Leuser Ecosystem
2,600,000 million ha (in N. Sumatra & Aceh)
-of which damaged
Predicted damage due to Ladia Galaska road project by 2010
Predicted losses in natural disasters by forest destruction
US$19.8bn not including the potential loss of life.


No easy answer
Since resource destruction in Aceh is closely bound up both with the conflict and with Indonesia's general approach to natural resource use, it is difficult to imagine a strategy that is capable of reducing deforestation that does not involve conflict resolution in Aceh as well as fundamental change in forest policy in Jakarta.

There is no piecemeal solution to the problems in Aceh. Those interested in preventing forest destruction and loss of biodiversity should also support peaceful initiatives to bring an end to the war in Aceh.

A negotiated peace and military withdrawal from Aceh, would hopefully create better conditions for stopping the destruction of Aceh's forests. It would need to be underpinned by policy change which restores rights over the forests to those communities who have most interest in sustaining them - a move that is urgently needed throughout Indonesia as well as in Aceh. In the immediate term, the Ladia Galaska road project should be halted and alternative ways of developing Aceh's infrastructure properly considered. An Indonesia-wide moratorium on industrial logging, combined with better law enforcement and measures to tackle corruption, would help save the forests in Aceh.

The need for action is extremely urgent - to save lives in the short, medium and long term: to prevent more conflict casualties, to stop more deaths from floods and to maintain the natural resources which will sustain the lives of future generations of Acehnese.

This article is adapted from a longer report, Logging a conflict zone, prepared by DTE for the Australia-based NGO, Eye on Aceh - see