Flores eviction protest ends in bloodshed

Down to Earth No 61  May 2004

Six people are reported dead after police fired on protesters at Ruteng, East Nusa Tenggara province. This is the tragic outcome of the local authorities' hard-line approach to clearing coffee growers from land designated as state-owned forest. The incident is the latest example of a concerted effort by the authorities to strengthen control over lands claimed by indigenous communities

Anger erupted into violence on March 10th, according to media reports, as around 500 farmers attacked the police station at Ruteng, Manggarai district. The Indonesian daily, Kompas, reported that the protesters arrived at the police station at around 9:30 in the morning. Armed with machetes, they destroyed the guard post, injuring the guard, then went inside, smashed all the windows and destroyed a computer. Next, they went to the police barracks, where the police opened fire, killing four protesters. Twenty eight more were wounded - two of these men later died and several others were in a critical condition. The police chief for East Nusa Tenggara province, Brigadier-General (Police) Edward Aritonang, said that the Ruteng police fired warning shots first, but the protesters ignored them. He accused 'provocateurs' of instigating the attack.

An NGO group - the Advocacy Team for the People of Manggarai - said the media reports were misleading because they were all based on the police's version of events. The Team called on the National Human Rights Commission to go to Ruteng immediately to gather the facts.

According to Elsam, a member of the NGO Team, around 400 farmers gathered at the police station for a peaceful protest to demand the release of seven of their fellow-farmers, 5 men and 2 women, who had been arrested the day before. Things became heated when members of the police started to block the protesters' way and the two sides started pushing and shoving each other. The police then started firing to disperse the crowd and the protesters ran in all directions to escape. The police then chased the protesters, beating and kicking them. Elsam says that five people were killed and 28 others wounded as a result of the police violence.


Campaign of evictions and arrests
Behind the bloody incident of March 10, is the district authorities' campaign to clear local coffee-growers out of Meler Kuwus, an area which they claim is state-owned protection forest (hutan lindung). The official stated purpose is to start a reforestation programme. Over the past two years, this campaign has involved mass evictions of coffee-growers from their land and homes and bringing in police, troops and outside labour to destroy large areas of coffee plantations - the basis of the local communities' livelihood.

An urgent action call issued by Elsam in March this year gives further details. In October 2002, the Manggarai Bupati (district head), Anton Bagul Dagur, signed an instruction (DK.522.11/1134/10/2002) which launched a year-long operation by joint security forces and the district authorities. This destroyed all productive crops belonging to local farmers. It also involved three operations to arrest and detain the farmers. The first of these was in May 2003, when 71 people were arrested in Mahima; followed by the arrest of 29 more the next month in Salama, Reok. The third round of arrests was on March 9th 2004, with the detention of the seven farmers at Ruteng police station.

According to provincial police chief Brig.Gen.Aritonang, a Manggarai Peasants Union meeting in February had rejected the clearance of coffee plantations and the district authorities' one-sided forest management policy. The meeting had criticised the district assembly (DPRD) for supporting the clearances and denounced assembly members who agreed to it. The local military, police and civilian authorities (Muspida) responded by deciding to visit the cleared area on March 9, to see the situation for themselves. On that day, said Aritonang, a lot of farmers were at the site claimed by the district government as protection forest, but the forest police only arrested seven of them, and handed them over to the Ruteng police.

Director of the NGO Bina Desa, Roman N. Lendong, who is from Manggarai district, said that the seven detainees had been reclaiming their customary land because the reforestation project promised by the local government, had not yet gone ahead.

The coffee plantations have long been established in the area - since colonial times, according to the villagers. Those destroyed by the local authorities were mature and productive, providing enough income for local people's daily needs and for their children's education.

In the 1970s, when the Suharto-era forest classification system was established, the villagers were informed that their plantations and villages were on state forest land. A compromise was reached whereby the villagers contributed 60% of their production to the district government.

Now these people have been subjected to what one local NGO leader described as "a process of systematic impoverishment" at the hands of the district government. The district authorities appear to be determined to push ahead with clearing the area, whatever the consequences for the local population.

Erwin Usman from the environmental NGO WALHI questioned the district government's intention in spending Rp 2.6 billion on the reforestation project, agreed in May last year. "Is it really to save the forests?", he said, "or is this just a front for other plans?" WALHI suspects the local government may want to secure easy access to the area's mineral and forest wealth. According to Usman, the district government has already issued six logging licences (IPK) for the area.

Local government officials say they explained the situation to the local population during 2000 - 2001, told them about the risk of legal action against them for occupying state forest land and appealed to people to leave the area, destroy their own non-forest crops and demolish the huts or houses on the land. But the villagers' version of events is that one or two officials came to see the village head, collected some data and then left.


Wrong approach
Local and national NGOs have strongly criticised the authorities' approach. Even if local people had encroached on a protected forest area, they argue, there is no justification for this inhumane action which violates human rights. Instead, local people should be involved in and benefit directly from reforestation activities. "These measures are foolish, destructive, and without basis in a legal decision," said Pius Hamid, director of the local NGO Sanarki.

The NGO Advocacy Team has written to national police chief General Da'i Bachtiar calling for an end to repressive actions by the police. The NGOs also said they would send a lawyer to assist the evicted farmers.

In November 2003, a Manggarai student group (Siomama) staged a demonstration against the coffee clearing, by sending a coffin to Anton Bagul Dagur. They said this symbolised the death of ethics, sense of humanity and justice and the authorities' inability to come up with positive alternatives.

The Bupati told Kompas that the coffee-farmers' livelihoods had not been cut off and they would not be left to fend for themselves, but would be allowed to join the transmigration programme and development projects for the poor.


Further arrests
The immediate consequences of the events of March 11 have been more arrests, not of the police officers who fired the shots, but of protesters charged with being involved in the incident.

General Da'i Bachtiar offered his condolences to the families of the dead and said police headquarters would send a fact-finding team to Ruteng. The district police chief was suspended and questioned by the national police team, along with several middle-ranking police officers. Provincial police chief Aritonang said that other officers would be questioned and insisted that the case would be investigated thoroughly, but no arrests have been made so far.

For civilians it was a different story. By March 16, fourteen people had been arrested. Deputy police spokesman Brig.Gen. Soenarko told reporters in Jakarta that ten people had been caught carrying machetes during the incident. In mid-April the head of the Manggarai Peasants and Indigenous Peoples Union (SPMA) was reported to have been arrested, with an NGO leader expected to be detained next.

In April, the National Human Rights Commission (Komnas HAM) sent a fact-finding mission to investigate the shooting. Commission member Taheri Noor said the deaths of civilians indicated possible rights violations. The Manggarai diocese has also said it will investigate the incident.

(Source: Kompas 11&12/Mar/04, 14/Nov/03; Elsam Urgent Action 03/Elsam/III/2004; Press Release, Advocacy Team for the People of Manggarai (TARM) at www.walhi.or.id; 19/Jul/2003;Jakarta Post 16&17/Mar/04; Suara Pembaruan 20/Jun/03; Update News TARM 28/Apr/04 and others)