Stop human rights violations against peasant farmers!

Down to Earth No. 52, February 2002

The pattern of human rights violations arising from land conflicts during the Suharto era still persists today, more than three years since the dictator was forced to resign.

The high incidence of land conflicts and the persistent pattern of violence against peasants and activists defending peasants' rights shows that there has been little change in the way the government handles land conflicts since the Suharto days. Successive post-Suharto governments have failed to devise new policies and have instead ignored appeals and warnings from civil society organisations on the urgent need to address the land crisis. These are the findings of the Consortium for Agrarian Renewal (KPA) - an Indonesian NGO working with peasants organisation for agrarian reform and resolution of land conflicts.

The KPA data, drawn from media reports and information from member organisations in 19 provinces, show that since mid-1998:

  • At least 479 peasants and activists defending peasants' rights were tortured in 41 conflicts;
  • At least 12 were killed in 14 cases;
  • At least 134 were shot in 21 cases;
  • At least 25 were abducted in 7 cases;
  • At least 936 were arrested in 77 cases;
  • At least 284 houses or huts were burned down or destroyed in 25 cases;
  • No less than 307,954 hectares of peasants' land was affected by crop damage, destruction and burning;
  • No less than 1,901 peasants and activists were terrorised in 157 cases;
  • No less than 1,809 were intimidated in 202 cases;
  • Other forms of violence include rape (1 case recorded) and disappearances, which affected peasants and activists in 88 cases.

Fourteen people were still missing when the report was published in 2001.

Many recent land conflicts have been sparked by the "re-occupations" staged by villagers who were dispossessed of land and resources by large-scale plantation companies during the Suharto period. Longstanding unresolved disputes resurfaced during the more fluid political situation immediately following the ousting of Suharto in 1998. The new political optimism, combined with desperation caused by the economic crisis, prompted people to organise actions to reclaim their land.*

They often faced competition from other landless people organised in gangs and paid by local entrepreneurs or corrupt government and military officials to raid forests and cash-crop plantations.

The appropriation of land for commercial projects is continuing. While investment in many sectors requiring land has fallen off dramatically as a result of the economic crisis, it has not stopped altogether. In West Papua investors are being encouraged to take advantage of the territory's land, timber and mineral wealth. In Kalimantan and Sumatra communities are losing lands to oil palm developments. Forest peoples are losing out in agreements with entrepreneurs who buy up community rights over forests at minimal prices so that they can get at the timber. The medium-scale exploitation of coal and gold continuing in some parts of Sulawesi and Kalimantan is putting more pressure on peasant and indigenous communities as well as poisoning the lands and water courses.

(Source: Kertas Posisi KPA 9&10/2001. A table [Indonesian language] with information on different land use statistics and numbers of land conflicts by province is available on KPA's website "info wilayah" in the "lain-lain" box).

* See DTE 48 for a report on one such case in Sukabumi, West Java. See also 'Land for the people' on a land re-occupation in South Malang, East Java, in the January-March 2002 edition of Inside Indonesia.


Sosa land conflict highlighted at UN

Sosa sub-district in North Sumatra has seen more than its fair share of land conflicts since the area was opened to oil palm development in the 1980s. Adat(customary) land belonging to indigenous villagers has been grabbed by state and private plantation companies backed by corrupt local government officials and the security forces. For the local population this has meant loss of livelihood, arbitrary violence, intimidation, arrests and human rights abuses. In one particularly bloody incident in August 2000, one youth was killed and six others wounded when mobile brigade police (Brimob) fired into a crowd of villagers. They had gathered outside the headquarters of oil palm company PT PHS after news of a kidnap attempt against a community leader (see DTE 47 for a full report on this case).

The Sosa case was raised by Amnesty International at November's session of the UN's Committee Against Torture. Amnesty was commenting on Indonesia's first report to the Committee since signing the UN Convention Against Torture in 1998. The commentary describes how fifteen people arrested after the August 2000 shooting incident were not permitted access to lawyers for 3 days. When they did meet the lawyers, the presence of police officers prevented the detainees speaking out.

"According to the lawyers, some of the detainees had visible injuries consistent with having been beaten with rattan sticks. However, when they asked how the injuries had been sustained they were told by the detainees that they resulted from falls. One of the detainees, Atar Pasaribu, had injuries resulting from being shot with a plastic bullet in the thigh …The lawyers reported that they dared not ask Atar Pasaribu about his injuries in front of the police."

(AI Commentary on Indonesia's first report to the UN Committee against Torture, November 2001)

Twelve of the fifteen were sentenced to jail terms of between one year and fifteen months. The other three (who had chosen not to be represented by a lawyer) were sentenced to one year terms, but were released without serving the sentence.

Back in Sosa, the situation remains desperate for villagers. The North Sumatra Peasants Union (SPSU) which has campaigned to defend the Sosa people's rights, reported recently that all plantation companies operating in the area employ Brimob to patrol their sites. In Ujung Batu village, local people have been denied access to lands promised to them by two plantation companies PT DNS and PT VAL. (PT DNS is a subsidiary of PT PHS - the company involved in the August 2000 shooting incident). The villagers were supposed to get three hectares of land under the nucleus estate / smallholder (PIR) plantation scheme - a much-criticised model applied throughout Indonesia. The farmers are not being allowed to harvest the crop on this land, but, with no other land to support them, have no other choice, even though this means risking arrest and jail terms. In November, SPSU published a list of 25 farmers - the youngest was only 16 - who had been arrested for 'theft' and then tried in Padangsidempuan court. One 60-year old man had died in detention.

The SPSU sees the human rights violations at Sosa and the lack of action against those responsible as a clear illustration of the lack of political attention paid to human rights abuses against farmers. "It is as if violations against peasants are not considered to be as serious as violations against other groups," says the SPSU. According to SPSU press officer Ifwardi, the fact that the Sosa case had to be raised at an international level also reflects badly on Indonesia's government and its national commission on human rights, Komnas HAM. Komnas HAM has carried out an investigation into the case, but its report has not been made public and no action has been taken as a result.

The SPSU is calling on the Indonesian government to:

  • immediately ratify the UN Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights;
  • stop human rights abuses against peasants;
  • bring violators before human rights courts and
  • resolve conflicts between peasants and companies by prioritising the interests of the victims of abuse.

The SPSU has also published a list of the ten companies operating in North Sumatra with the worst records on abuse of farmers. They are: PT Damai Nusa Sekawan (DNS) PT PN IV (state-owned plantation company); PT Antari Raya (Hari Sawit Jaya); PT Viktoria Alam Lestari (VAL); PT Torganda; PT Naga Mas; PT Paya Pinang; PT Sinar Mas; PT Bakrie Sumatera Plantation. The companies have been involved in cases of deception, theft of ancestral land, eviction, intimidation, violence towards farmers and destruction of crops. Also on the list is PT Monagro /Monsanto for pushing pesticides and GM crops, deception and creating dependency.

(Source: SPSU press release 10/Dec/01; SPSU info: 23/Nov/01; Waspada 28/Nov/01)