Pak Keuchik Jailani

Down to Earth No 64  2005

The well-known indigenous and environmental activist, Keuchik Jailani, was one of the victims of the quake-tsunami in Aceh. He did not come from a privileged background and had little formal education. He always described himself as an ordinary farmer. But Pak Keuchik - as he was always known - was not an ordinary man. He was a community leader who was chosen to be village head of Riseh Sawang and customary leader because he was an honest, hard-working, principled man who was a skilled negotiator and not afraid to speak out. Pak Keuchik was a good listener as well as a good public speaker. His sound advice and warm sense of humour were valued by all who met him. He was always willing to share his considerable knowledge of customary practices in Aceh and to learn from others. He was a close colleague of Bestari Raden (see DTE 62 & DTE 63).

After Pak Keuchik was selected as a member of AMAN's Council* in October 2003, he spent more time in Banda Aceh where he had a house with his third wife. The office of the local indigenous people's network, of which Pak Keuchik was also secretary, was next to that of the environmental NGO WALHI Aceh. A devout Muslim, he spent two days over Christmas in the office, writing up some information about palm oil plantations which were threatening indigenous communities in Aceh. The last that was heard of Pak Keuchik was early in the morning of December 26th when he was going for a swim on the beach. His death is a loss to the whole indigenous movement as well as to his extended family, his community and his many, many friends and colleagues.


Keuchik H. Jailani Hasan Riseh

This piece is an abridged translation from the Indonesia edition of Gaung AMAN, the newsletter of the indigenous peoples' movement in Indonesia.


Never-ending dedication

As the Indonesian saying goes "One step forward and don't budge an inch back": that was the approach to life of Keuchik H. Jailani Hasan, Co-ordinator of AMAN's Council and head of the network of indigenous peoples in Aceh (Jaringan Kerja Maysarakat Adat - JKMA).

The struggles of Aceh's indigenous peoples are a testimony to the determination of this man from Riseh Sawang in North Aceh. One of their successes was the suspension of 21 logging permits by the Indonesian government. Pak Keuchik put his life on the line to achieve this goal. He faced threats, intimidation and violence from agents sent by companies whose strong financial position allowed them to strip indigenous communities' forests with impunity. He literally stood in front of thugs employed by the company to stop them brutalising and evicting people who were holding onto land which the loggers said they had no right to. "If you want to hit someone, hit me, not them - I can take it", Pak Keuchik challenged the company's 'bully boys'.

Pak Keuchik never retreated, despite the threats, intimidation and other forms of violence which he faced. His consistency was founded on his firm belief in indigenous peoples' sovereignty over their natural resources and their traditional wisdom to manage them.

As an indigenous peoples' activist, Pak Keuchik realised that large-scale exploitation of the natural environment would bring about the destruction of ecosystems. This was obvious from the extent of forest granted as logging concessions: around 152,000 hectares in the districts of North, Central and South-East Aceh. He was particularly concerned as this area was part of the Leuser Ecosystem (the buffer zone for Gunung Leuser National Park).

In the long term, indigenous peoples would suffer directly from this ecological destruction. Their rights to manage the land had been superseded by investors whose prime concerns were financial and would strip natural resources. Once Aceh's forests had gone, so would supplies of water for farmers' crops. Even the infrastructure and irrigation provided by the government would have to be abandoned due to flood damage. Pak Keuchik predicted that the over-exploitation of nature would result in severe flooding in Aceh. "Companies, investors and rich people can stay in a hotel when it floods, but we ordinary people are left to swim," he joked.

On the issue of the 21 suspended logging concessions, Pak Keuchik said that local people should manage the land for farming. "Adat communities are using the land. I have told them that it is their duty to manage the land sustainably, even though they have no official certificate of ownership," he said.


Consistency in his ideals and his struggle

Pak Keuchik continued his fight with the authorities long after the logging licences were withdrawn. That was because the government had still not acknowledged indigenous peoples' rights.

In his work for the indigenous movement, Pak Keuchik faced a major obstacle once a state of military emergency was declared in the province of Aceh. This effectively prevented him from pursuing his goals. He admitted that the military situation made it difficult to go to the field to consolidate indigenous groups. When their gatherings were interrupted by members of the Aceh Freedom Movement (GAM) and the separatists asked what the meeting was for, they replied that they were discussing indigenous issues. The GAM members would say "There's no point. We will be free soon". The military would also come and ask the same question. "So it was hard for us to do anything there," said Pak Keucik.

Nevertheless, the state of military emergency in Aceh never made Pak Keuchik lose interest in the struggle for indigenous rights. As a customary leader who had been selected by the community by popular consent, he continued to bear the heavy responsibility of pressing for indigenous peoples' rights to their land, forests and other natural resources.

These are just a few memories of someone who made an important contribution to the indigenous and environmental movements and who struggled against all the odds for state recognition of indigenous peoples' customary rights. A man who dedicated his life to bringing about real change in Indonesia: changes which would bring an end to oppression, get democracy back on track and realise people's economic, social and political rights.

*AMAN is the Alliance of Indigenous Peoples of the Archipelago.