NSPU resettles refugees from Aceh

Down to Earth No 50 August 2001

By the North Sumatra Peasants Union, edited by Osmar Tanjung and DTE

There have been no real changes to the lives of the people in Aceh since the withdrawal of 'DOM' status (Military Operational Area) in August 1998. Conditions in Aceh are still extremely bad, and continue to deteriorate.

During all armed conflicts, it is the ordinary people who suffer, often sacrificed to the interests of the military and political elite. Displacement of communities is par for the course, and the movement of refugees both within and outside of Aceh continues on a daily basis. There are currently around 50,000 refugees in North Sumatra, which directly borders Aceh, who have fled since the intensification of the conflict. They are mostly transmigrants moved from Java in the 1980s in the hope of prospering from the fertile soil in South Aceh, East Aceh, Pidie and Central Aceh. Here they grew rubber, palm oil and rice.

The NSPU Humanitarian Programme

Since March 1999, the North Sumatra Peasants Union (NSPU), together with a number of other NGOs in North Sumatra, has carried out a number of humanitarian interventions to assist refugees moving into the province. They established the Humanitarian Committee for Acehnese Refugees (KKPA -Komite Kemanusiaan untuk Pengungsi Aceh). This programme was initially no more than an immediate response to the critical conditions of the refugees by providing rice, clothes etc. donated by local people, particularly members of the NSPU. However, the programme was not designed to run over a long period as it was thought that the refugee situation would be temporary.

Upon seeing the true scale of the problem, the NSPU decided more long term action was necessary. At the same time, in August 2000, a number of refugees who had been placed in temporary shelter in Jalan Pancing in the North Sumatran capital, Medan, came to the NSPU offices in the city to seek assistance. Around 226 families (around 1000 people) wanted to live as peasant farmers again, with the hope of regaining their self respect as well as some kind of economic self sufficiency.

As a mass-based organisation representing peasant farmers, the NSPU is not in a position to assist all the refugees, as its main responsibilities are to its 37,800 strong membership. But after consultation with the members of the board, the executive, the regional representative and most importantly of all, the membership as a whole, the NSPU was given a mandate to go ahead and form an agency to assist these refugees from Aceh, namely the Special Body for Acehnese Refugees (BKPA-Badan Khusus Pengungsi Aceh). The NSPU was offered 400 ha of traditionally-owned land belonging to the indigenous people of Parsombahan-Barumun village in South Tapanuli for the relocation of the refugees.

Resettling 144 families

The problems faced by the refugees have increased on a daily basis. It is clear that people have become disenfranchised in their temporary shelter as they have no proper work, no land to farm and there is no guaranteed education for their children. All these things have made the refugees increasingly restless. The temporary shelter is of a low standard and the sanitation very poor, with a negative impact on the health of the refugees, adding to the trauma which continues to affect them psychologically. Such problems have not been resolved by this bankrupt government, coupled with a general apathy on the side of the political elite. Once again, it is the ordinary people who continue to be the victims.

Of course, obtaining the 400 ha of land does not in itself address the problems faced by the refugees located in Jalan Pancing, Medan. In some ways, it became a moral burden to the NSPU because they then had to think how to relocate the refugees in a sustainable manner. Also, the NSPU must be fair to its members and to the indigenous peoples who offered up their land for use by the refugees. Unfortunately, the NSPU concluded that it could not relocate all 226 families.

At a meeting held in November 2000 between the NSPU, the refugees, the human rights NGO, Kontras Medan, and the North Sumatra Workers Solidarity Union (SBSU - Serikat Buruh Sumatera Utara), it was agreed that 84 families (416 individuals) would be relocated.

The indigenous people will use customary (adat) law to hand over the land to the refugees, namely pago-pago which refers to permission to use land with the consent of the elders, or dalihan natolu. The adat elders will hand over of the letter of permission to use land with the knowledge of the village head. Then each of the refugee families will be given a clan name and subsequently relocated with a full adat celebration, including the gondang sembilan (nine drums) and the spilling of buffalo blood on the soil.

Funding for the relocation is through the Community Recovery Programme, headed by Emil Salim, with the possibility of help from the Provincial Government of North Sumatra. This co-operation will begin in August 2001with the preparation of homes, 2ha of land per family, a co-operative for managing funding, the building of a road, farming education, counselling, technical assistance, pre-harvest livelihood guarantee, a burial ground, meeting hall, football ground etc. The relocation will be carried out according to groups, and so each group will work the land collectively. The NSPU will pay close attention to gender equality during the relocation. The husband and wife will both have rights over 1 ha of land each. Men and women will also have similar responsibilities for the co-operative. For example, the husbands will be responsible for the agricultural produce unit and the wives will be responsible for the nine basic necessities (sembako) unit as well as the savings and credit scheme. Each family will receive 0.25 ha of land for their home, which will be owned equally.

The status of the land will remain as communal (ulayat) land belonging to the indigenous peoples of Parsombahan, where the 144 relocated families will only have the right to work the land as long as they there and cultivate it. This accords with local adat (customary) law, which says that the land they will occupy can never be bought and sold. The land can only be passed on from generation to generation as long as the descendants stay on the land and do not move to another location. This is known in the local language as rape-rape.

The NSPU as a movement for agrarian reform

As part of the peasant farmers' movement officially declared on 3 June 1994, the NSPU is struggling for genuine agrarian reform. One part of the strategy is to reoccupy disputed and unused land in order to return or redistribute land to the NSPU members.

NSPU membership is currently drawn from six districts (South Tapanuli, Labuhan Batu, Deli Serdang, Langkat, Asahan and North Tapanuli). There are 37,800 individual members with a 'strategic mass' of around 126,000 people. The total land worked by NSPU members is 109,435 ha.

The NSPU owns 11 ha of collective land in South Tapanuli, Batu and Langkat and receives dues totalling Rp.6,300,000 per month. Additional financial and other assistance comes from organisations including HIVOS from the Netherlands.

The various programmes run by the NSPU spring directly from the real needs of its membership. These relate to the very negative impact of the politically-motivated policies of the Green Revolution. As an organisation which struggles on behalf of the peasant farmers, the NSPU campaigns hard and implements various training programmes so that its membership is able to escape or avoid the trap of the Green Revolution and globalisation. At the Second Congress of the North Sumatra Peasants Union held in October 2000, the NSPU members agreed on a Sustainable Agriculture programme designed to withstand and oppose the forces of Globalisation, such as the onslaught of GMOs (genetically modified organisms). The NSPU has established a Global Trends Monitoring Team and a distribution network for Environmentally Friendly and Organic produce (rice in particular). It has also established a micro credit scheme known as the Peasant Farmers Finance Foundation (LKP - Lembaga Keuangan Petani) which, it is hoped, will act as the first stage towards the establishment of a Peasant Farmers Bank. The NSPU is also setting up is own rice mill to guarantee the quality of the organic rice produced.

The refugee programme developed by the NSPU is part of the NSPU strategy to raise the profile of the organisation - and of civil society in general - and its response to such situations. Genuine agrarian reform, which includes the assertion and respect of the communal land rights of indigenous peoples, is clearly a means to revitalise the people of Indonesia and the peasant farmers in particular. Problems faced by peasant farmers are much easier to address if the farmers organise collectively.

The trust and confidence in the NSPU shown by the indigenous people of Persombahan indicates the role and position of the NSPU in a society which has already been permeated by globalisation. At the same time, communal/customary ownership of land offers a guarantee to those who do not own land.