Thousands protest reopening of Indorayon pulp plant

Down to Earth No 56  February 2003

Large-scale protests against the planned re-opening of PT Toba Pulp Lestari's pulp mill in North Sumatra - formerly PT Inti Indorayon Utama - have recently resulted in violence, damage to a local government office and many arrests. The plant is now working again.

Thousands of people have demonstrated in and around Porsea (Toba Samosir district), almost stopping timber supplies to the pulp plant. A week-long protest in mid-November 2002 was eventually broken up by police backed by Brimob (mobile brigade police) and soldiers. Eighteen people were detained, including two church ministers, and only two were later released. Hundreds of people fled the area fearing intimidation. Catholic and protestant church leaders, local NGO KSPPM and the North Sumatra branch of environmental group WALHI are supporting the protestors. Local groups set up a crisis centre and kitchen in the neighbouring town of Tarutung to help victims of the conflict.

A Porsea man in hiding in Jakarta said: "The government does not care about the environment - about the damage Indorayon has caused - or about what the local people want. The government takes the company's side, but 90% of the community don't want Indorayon here."


Prolonged conflict

Indonesia's first paper pulp and rayon fibre project has a long history of conflict, dating back to the initial permit from the Suharto regime. The feeder plantation was the focus of land disputes. Air and water pollution is blamed for an increase in respiratory and skin diseases among local villagers since the plant began operations in 1989. Fisheries in the River Asahan have been poisoned and crop productivity reduced. Indorayon's 'community development programme' did little to meet local needs.

Production was suspended in 1998 following confrontation between thousands of protestors and the security forces. Blockades stopped timber deliveries. The company, renamed PT Toba Pulp Lestari (TPL) by its new management, was unable to re-start operations due to intense and sustained local opposition. The conflict between the community, security forces and local government has cost at least two lives and many livelihoods. Many of Indorayon's skilled workers were outsiders from the provincial capital, Medan, and further afield, but some local villagers depended on lowly jobs in the factory complex and seedling nursery.

Mass protests have continued on and off over the last four years. The crossroads at Sirait Uruk have been the location of the main confrontations between demonstrators and police. Typically, the violence starts when trucks carrying logs to the factory try to force their way through crowds of protestors. Armed police and thugs paid as security guards travel on these trucks. Some stones are thrown ('provocateurs' are blamed for this) and the security forces lash out at people with truncheons and thick bamboo canes. The crowd usually disperses in panic - taking refuge in schools and churches before military reinforcements arrive.

Whenever and wherever the protests subside, TPL stockpiles logs. Trucks slip inside the plant complex while the protestors are blockading other routes. In this way, the pulp factory got sufficient timber supplies to resume limited operations early in the New Year. The company calls this 'test production', but local people fear it is the thin end of the wedge.

National newspapers report that the number of protestors is gradually decreasing and that only a small hard core of opposition remains in the community. But, on November 20th, over 700 women went to plead with the sub-district head (camat) that TPL should remain closed. Local activists say that demonstrations usually attract at least 3,000 people. Schools had to be closed in Porsea in late January 2003 when 10,000 demonstrators took to the streets.


Sitting on the fence

Both local and central governments have long avoided the political 'hot potato' of a final decision on reopening the Porsea plant for fear of provoking a furious response from local opponents or overseas. Foreign investors could demand compensation amounting to US$600 million or file lawsuits through international arbitrators. TPL was formerly listed on the Jakarta Stock Exchange, Surabaya Stock Exchange and New York Stock Exchange.

(Then) environment minister Sony Keraf recommended, in January 2000, that pulp production - but not rayon - could continue. Renewed production was conditional on the company improving its pollution record and implementing a proper community development programme. A special team, set up by North Sumatra's Provincial Assembly, responded that the central government should decide what to do based on a full independent audit of the pulp plant and its operations. This never took place.

Head of the province's environment impact agency (Bapedalda), Suangkupon Siregar, rejected accusations that the factory had a bad impact on the environment. He claims that a study by 100 experts in Prapat district concluded that TPL could resume activities 'under a new concept'.

Lured by potential revenues, local authorities have been trying to wear down opponents to the pulp plant by repeated promises of employment and community development, while clamping down on the leaders of the protests. A pro-company spokesman told local reporters that: "With the decision not to produce rayon anymore, pollution will be sharply reduced. TPL is the only economic opportunity for the Toba Samosir area, where most people live in poverty, … if we can manage it properly." He estimates that TPL could generate Rp150 billion (US$16.6 million) per year and employ about 1,800 people. "We should now fight to get the 80 percent of the taxes paid by the company, which have, so far, gone to the central government," he said.

Saur Situmorang, from KSPPM said: "It's not that we are anti-development, but that the area should be developed in a way that promotes the well-being and prosperity of the Tobasa community.


Intimidation of opponents

Late last year, Jakarta gave the green light for the company to resume production but did not give a fixed date or lay down clear terms. A cabinet meeting on 9th January decided to send yet another team - headed by trade and industry minister Rini M.S. Suwandi - to do an immediate investigation in and around Porsea. Jakarta-based groups, calling themselves 'Solidarity for Indorayon', protested outside the presidential palace while the cabinet met. Security forces jostled the protesters, but there were no arrests.

It was also agreed that employment minister, Jacob Nuwa Wea, should try to persuade the community of the advantages of keeping the plant open. When Nuwa Wea visited Porsea on November 30th, five activists from a nearby 'crisis centre' were detained by police from early morning until after the minister had left. The official convoy sped past the main demonstration at high speed. Instead, the minister addressed a quiet crowd of 1,000 people, many of whom were government employees, youth groups and other outsiders specially bussed in for the event. He appealed to the community to give TPL an opportunity to show its commitment to improve.

Local groups say that police are targeting leaders of the protests, despite official denials. Police maintain that they have restored security and order and only arrested suspects for smashing up the sub-district office at Sirait Uruk. But many of the people held had nothing to do with that incident. They include 76-year old Musa Gurning, a prominent figure in the community, who was returning from discussions with the local Bupati (district head)about the TPL problem when police took him for questioning in Tarutung. Police officials are still looking for a number of protestors. "Those who are still on the run were possibly involved in earlier cases. We are ready to disclose 32 cases at this time," said intelligence police chief Sr. Comr. T.P.H. Manurung in December 2002.

Sixteen people, including the husband and wife church ministers, were held in custody over the Muslim New Year and Christmas. They are to be prosecuted for incitement to violence, damaging property and disturbing public order. The Indonesian Legal Aid and Human Rights Association (PBHI) and WALHI have set up a team of lawyers to defend those arrested. Lawyer and human rights activist Johnson Panjaitan said "What is taking place in Porsea smacks of the New Order (former president Suharto's rule) with state terrorism returning to the stage."

Environmental groups, led by WALHI, say that the pulp plant should never have been located in such a populated area, and that the company did not stick to the conditions set down by the environment and technology ministers in 1986. In a letter to the president in January 2003, signed by 150 NGOs, they say that to reopen the plant would violate Indonesia's constitution which guarantees all citizens the right to a clean, healthy environment (UUD 1945, Amendment 2). They called on the government to shut down the pulp plant for good and to release the 16 detainees. The groups said that police action had violated human rights and urged the government not to take any decision which would further enflame the tense situation in the area.

Sources: Walhi 18/Nov/02, 9/Jan/03; AFP 24/Nov/02; Jakarta Post 26/Nov02, 2/Dec/02, 19/Dec/02, 3/Jan/03; 28/Jan/03; 29/Jan/03; Analisa 19/Dec/02; K 6/Jan/03; Bisnis Indonesia 10/Jan/03 and other sources.