Plantations: fortune of misfortune?

Down to Earth No 63  November 2004

The case of Nyayat village, as told in a new Indonesian-language publication by Indonesian NGO, PENA. Summary translation by DTE.

Nyayat is a hamlet in Sambas district, West Kalimantan, of only 200 Dayak Bekati. To outside eyes, it looks much like any other small village in the province. Most of its inhabitants farm the land traditionally and tap native rubber. The striking difference is that these villagers have refused to accept oil palm plantations on their land. The cost of their resistance has been jail sentences for three people.

PT Rana Wastu Kencana (RWK) is a plantation company registered to Haji Aman Syafri from Pontianak, the provincial capital. The company originally applied for a permit to grow rubber and cacao on 5,000 hectares near the villages of Maribas and Seret Ayon, later changing their plan to oil palm. The local government granted PT RWK land use rights in 1995 for a 3,000 ha plantation on the grounds that the people of Maribas had given their consent. "But we knew nothing about this deal. No-one from the company ever met us to talk about their intentions for our land. It was the former village head who did the deal", said Manjud bin Sindir, the customary leader of the community.

In 1996, PT RWK got permission from the local land agency to extend the plantation to 9,500ha. The inhabitants of Nyayat watched these developments with growing concern. They did not take action against the land clearance which affected neighbouring communities, but clearly marked the boundaries of their customary lands where they practised agroforestry (tembawang). The company took no notice of the boundary markers and, in September 1998, cleared 1,400ha of fruit trees and other crops. A burial ground with 31 graves was also bulldozed.

The Nyayat community was furious by this lack of respect for their property and ancestors and demanded compensation and a halt to operations on their land. When PT RWK continued to ignore them, the villagers confiscated two company vehicles. This stirred the company into action and they proposed a meeting in West Java, but the local people refused. "We wanted them to come to our village for discussions - why should we go all that way? ", one of them explained.

PT RWK was more cunning. It invited a group of representatives from other, nearby communities to West Java together with two district officials where they did a deal in late 1999 - in the absence of anyone from Nyayat. The company agreed to restore the graveyard* , but compensated for the loss of agroforests by offering to plant fruit trees on 8ha of land outside the plantation. It also provided Rp66 million (US$6,000) for a traditional community hall at the village of Sungai Enau plus more than Rp9 million (US$900) for a traditional celebration. When the Nyayat people heard this decision they went out and cut branches off the oil palms planted on the disputed land, but the trees just grew more.

The Nyayat community continued to press for compensation, but was ignored by PT RWT. In mid-2000, some of the plantation was burned. Nyayat's customary leader was arrested and charged with arson. He denied the allegation, as he was 12km away when the incident occurred. "The police told me to plead guilty or the community would never get any compensation", said Manjud bin Sidir. Although he could not read or write, he put his name to a confession and was sentenced to 18 months probation.

PT RWT completely refused the community's compensation demands (Rp1.4bn - over US$100,000), so people from Nyayat made several attempts to persuade the base camp workers to leave the plantation. On Oct 15th 2001, they ransacked two buildings. Fifty armed police came to the village in November and took away 3 people, including the customary leader. All three were sentenced to one year's imprisonment by the district court at Singkawang in May 2002.

One of the imprisoned men explained why they had taken such drastic action. "I live here. What is there for me in life if my forest has been destroyed and we just suffer and get no benefit at all (from the plantation)? Once the forest has gone, where will our children and grandchildren go?", said Leobertus.

*RWK never did repair the damage to the graves. This was done by the community at a cost of over RP5.6 million (US$560).

PENA's Indonesian language book Bertani Sawit: Untung atau Buntung, by Erma Ranik, PENA, is available for USD15 including p&p (registered mail outside Indonesia).

Contact to order.