Displaced villagers win back land

Down to Earth No. 45, May 2000

Villagers in South Sumatra have successfully regained some of their forest which the government had allocated as a plantation concession to PT Musi Hutan Persada (PT MHP). The Department of Forestry and Plantations has agreed to hand 12,050 ha back to the former inhabitants of 12 villages in the sub-district of Rambang Lubai.

This has been a long-fought battle (see DTE 44). The community of Rambang Kapak Tengah I claimed that PT MHP - part of the Barito Pacific group and formerly part owned by Suharto's daughter Siti Hardijanti Rukmana - took their land in 1991 and refused to negotiate over compensation. Previous attempts to claim their rights were met with intimidation by the military and police, until the fall of Suharto. The local people were evicted from their forests, rubber plantations and fields to make way for acacia plantations. PT MHP has a concession of nearly 200,000ha in South Sumatra to supply the foreign-owned PT Tanjung Enim Lestari pulp plant (PT TEL).

The villagers originally demanded the return of 26,000ha plus Rp301 billion (US$30 million approx) in compensation for the loss of all income since the company took over their forest lands. Senior forestry officials from Jakarta met community representatives in March. However, frustrated by the lack of official action in response to their demands, local people seized several vehicles belonging to PT MHP in April.

Soeripto, second in command at the forestry department, was sent to settle the dispute in person. He arrived by helicopter on April 27th, accompanied by various government officials from Jakarta and the provincial capital, Palembang and was met by a crowd of 5,000 former inhabitants of Rambang Kapak Tengah I. The locals had threatened to kidnap him if the matter was not resolved to their satisfaction. After an hour-and-a-half meeting, Soeripto decided that all the disputed land which was still forested would be returned to the villagers and they would be compensated for land which the company had cleared and turned into plantation.

Rambang Lubai is not the only disputed area. Over 200 families from 3 villages in Babat Toman are accusing PT MHP of taking 1,500ha of their land in 1993. The local assembly called a meeting with both parties in late March but, as is typically the case, the plantation company did not attend.

South Sumatra authorities are clamping down on big plantation companies which have not paid local taxes in full. PT MHP was given ten days to pay Rp513 million due (US$50,000 approx), of which only Rp75 million had been paid.

Call for action on pollution

As the air and water pollution from the PT Tanjung Enim Lestari paper pulp mill increasingly makes its presence felt, local people are calling on the authorities to take action. People have been complaining about the smell from the plant several kilometres away, since it began production trials in December 1999 (see DTE 44). Now villagers along the River Lematang, into which PT TEL's waste is discharged, are reporting that the river water tastes of chemicals. They use water from the river for all their domestic needs, including drinking water, cooking and bathing. Fishermen from Kuripan, the village nearest the giant effluent pipes, complain they cannot sell their catches as customers are afraid their fish are tainted.

Community representatives, students and NGOs have joined forces to form a local action group, LEMBAR (Lembaga Advokasi Rakyat). LEMBAR has called on the local government to prevent pollution from the factory. It is also asking the governor and local assembly for South Sumatra to reconsider PT TEL's operating licence. NGOs are planning to train local people to monitor water quality using simple, reliable techniques.

This raises the spectre of another battle like that over the Indorayon pulp plant between local officials keen to secure taxes and revenues from companies producing for export and the local communities who bear the costs in terms of pollution and lost land. LEMBAR has demanded that land cases involving corruption should be pursued through the provincial courts.

NOTE: An update of the information pack on the PT TEL/MHP case will be available (in English only) from DTE in the near future and will be posted on this site.

For other DTE campaigns materials on this case see PT TEL on our campaigns page.

(Sources: WALHI SumSel 17/Feb/00, 4/Mar/00, 8/April/00, 1/May/00, 3/May/00; Jakarta Post 4/Mar/00)