War and food security in Aceh

Down to Earth No 58  August 2003

Aceh's civilian population is being worst affected by the war in Aceh. The threat of famine looms as food security is severely undermined by the conflict.

Indonesia launched its all-out war in Aceh after declaring martial law on May 19th, following the breakdown of the most promising peace initiative for many years. With 50,000 troops due to be sent to the territory, this is Indonesia's biggest military operation in Aceh - and its biggest operation anywhere since the invasion of East Timor in 1974. In just under two months of fighting, Indonesia's military (TNI) claimed that 432 members of GAM, the Free Aceh Movement, and 31 soldiers had been killed. Human rights defenders say that civilians are bearing the brunt of the offensive and the GAM label is being liberally applied to civilians who are anti-violence. Any opponents of the TNI and martial law, including human rights defenders, are being rounded up. The political space for opposition to war is being closed down.

At least 170 civilians are thought to have been killed so far, but exact figures are hard to verify because of the military stranglehold over information flows and the climate of fear created by the clamp-down on civil society. According to the Aceh chapter of Kontras, the Commission for Involuntary Disappearances and Victims of Violence, 110 civilians were summarily killed, 103 were ill-treated, 46 were arbitrarily arrested and 10 disappeared during June alone.


Food security

The impact of the war on Aceh's ability to grow, harvest, trade and transport food crops is becoming severe. Many villages and surrounding fields have been abandoned as people try to escape fighting and military 'sweepings'. An estimated 46,000 people had been displaced by early July, according to UN data. They will be joined by many more if the military puts into practice plans to move as many as 200,000 people from their rural villages into camps.

According to a study by the Jesuit Refugee Service, which documents the IDP situation in 2002, 72% per cent of IDPs in Acehnese camps then had been farmers before being displaced. By being moved they were no longer able to maintain their farmland and harvest crops. The current IDPs are facing food shortages in some of the camps, as well as various physical and mental health problems.

The Acehnese still living in their villages face different problems. Farmers traditionally own irrigated rice fields and fields for other crops like chillies close to their homes, as well as land further away to grow crops such as cacao and fruits. These distant fields are not being tended because farmers do not feel secure away from their homes. Other farming jobs which take villagers out of the immediate village area - like maintaining the complex irrigation systems fed by mountain water catchment areas - are not being carried out. While they can harvest limited amounts of produce from their fields, farmers are not able to sell these and buy other daily necessities with the proceeds because of the almost total disruption of transport and local markets.

The UN Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) reported in June that foodstocks were low in three subdistricts in Pidie district, due to fuel shortages and the worsening security situation along the main road. In May, the Jakarta Post reported that famine had become a real possibility as staple foods were running out in several parts of Aceh. A man from Jeumpa subdistrict, Bireuen, said local people had started to skip meals because food was becoming scarce. He was disappointed that TNI troops were failing to protect the food supply. The reporter also saw smashed irrigation channels along the road connecting Bireuen and Banda Aceh, the provincial capital.

In coastal areas, fishing communities have been hard hit by a martial law requirement that they report to the local navy post before putting out to sea. This has resulted in many fishermen deciding not to fish since reporting to the navy usually means paying an illegal fee, while failing to report is tantamount to confessing to be a weapons smuggler or GAM supporter.

In the cities, food has also become scarce, and the situation may be worse than in some rural areas where at least a limited local food source is available. In the urban centres, the price of staple foods has rocketed as food deliveries from neighbouring North Sumatra province dwindle. Fuel supplies are also short, with police and military guarding petrol stations in Banda Aceh.

These problems are compounded by an Indonesian government ruling which has had the effect of preventing almost all international relief agencies from distributing food and other humanitarian supplies.

According to one Acehnese activist, undermining food security may be a deliberate policy on the part of the TNI. Food shortages pave the way for the recruitment of militias, in IDP camps and elsewhere. And joining a militia entitles recruits to receive food - a strong motivation when supplies are short. These militias, backed by the TNI, are being formed to stir up trouble - horizontal conflict - between Acehnese and to create situations where military intervention is justified. The same process is going on in West Papua.

"Martial law has affected the economics of grassroots communities. Generally people live in villages and rural areas. They are mostly farmers and fishermen. Because of the escalation in military operations, virtually none of the villages' activities is possible..."

(Kontras Aceh, 2003-2003 report, 4/Jul/04)


Forests and floods

A further impact on local livelihoods and food security arises from the destruction of Aceh's forests, already severely depleted by years of logging. Deforestation has been linked to fatal floods and landslide disasters for many years, and NGOs are predicting that the massive increase in the military presence in Aceh will make things worse.

"Military rule could lead to more deforestation because it could trigger more corruption among officials," local environmental group WALHI Aceh told the Jakarta Post just after martial law was declared in May. The military also have access to trucks and fuel to transport illegally felled timber.

Since the TNI derives as much as 70 - 75% of its funding from its own enterprises, it is unlikely that officers stationed near the forests will pass up opportunities to raise funds from the timber business. Indeed, local activists believe that the war against GAM is a convenient cover for stepping up the plunder of Aceh's natural resources and that the war will be perpetuated as long as there are profits to be had. These resources include valuable timber from the protected forests of the Leuser Ecosystem in the southern part of Aceh and North Sumatra. This 2.6 million hectare area is one of the world's richest tropical rainforests and provides 'ecological services' worth an estimated US$200 million per year by protecting watersheds, providing clean water and freshwater fisheries. A planned network of roads - called Ladia Galaska - to connect East and West Aceh will slice through this protected area and make it easier for the military to penetrate remote forested areas and open up more opportunities for military-controlled timber-felling.

"We are worried about the army going in to the forest, stealing the timber and endangered species as they are doing now in Papua, " said Hasjrul Junaid of the Jakarta-based environmental NGO, SKEPHI. He predicted that Aceh's governor, Abdullah Puteh, would continue to push the road project, despite opposition from the forestry and environment ministries in Jakarta, because "it's a way to ransack state coffers."

(See DTE 55 for more background on the Ladia Galaska issue).


Knock-on effects in West Papua and elsewhere

The war on Aceh is a depressing signal that the TNI has gained the upper hand in Indonesian politics. The military leaders never agreed with the civilian-led peace process in Aceh, preferring the option that puts the military centre-stage and which allows it to present itself as 'safeguarding' Indonesia as a unitary state (NKRI) against the 'threat of separatism'.

The possible knock-on effects are alarming, both for West Papua - where there is a strong independence movement - and for communities in Indonesia whose struggle to defend their livelihood pits them against military interests.

In West Papua, rumours are circulating that the military will launch an Aceh-style military operation to root out the independence movement, with large numbers of troops being sent to the territory.

Action has already been stepped up against independence activists and human rights defenders over past months. Since April a brutal military operation has been going in the mountain villages around Wamena in which at least 18 people have died. In July, a flag-raiser was fatally wounded in Wamena. Human rights defenders are under siege, with the most prominent organisation, ELSHAM, subject of a military lawsuit over its exposure of military involvement in the August 2002 killings of three employees of the Freeport/Rio Tinto mine.

These are all signs of the military's growing confidence that it can act with impunity and stifle the demands of civil society. The tension is heightened by the government's failure to implement Special Autonomy for West Papua, choosing instead to revive a 1999 law which splits West Papua into three provinces - a move which has been rejected by Papuans.

The military's increasing dominance makes the likelihood of 'best practice' in human rights protection in the resource industry sector - as promised by BP at its Tangguh gas project - even less likely (See DTE 57 for more on Tangguh).

For a full account of events in Aceh see Tapol Bulletin 171/172, June/July 2003. For more background to natural resources issues in Aceh, see DTE 47.

(Sources: Deutsche Presse-Agentur 22/May/03; Anywhere but War, Internal Displacement and Armed Conflict in Aceh, Cynthia Buiza & Gary Risser, JRS. Jakarta Post 25/May/03; 7/Jul/03; Amnesty International: Indonesia: Protecting the protectors:human rights defenders and humanitarian workers in Nanggroe Aceh Darussalam 3/Jun/03 and Indonesia: protecting rights in Nanggroe Aceh Darussalam during the military emergency, 23/May/03; UN office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) May, June and July updates; Call for international military sanctions against Indonesia, Tapol, June 2003; additional information from Kontras Aceh.)

Arms Embargo campaign

Tapol, the UK-based Indonesian human rights campaign, has launched a campaign for an international arms embargo against Indonesia. Tapol and London-based Campaign Against Arms Trade have focused British public attention on the use of UK-supplied weapons by Indonesian military forces in Aceh. These include Hawk jets and Scorpion tanks. When Indonesia bought these weapons it gave the British government assurances that it would not use these weapons for internal repression. Their deployment in Aceh is a clear violation of this agreement and makes a mockery of such assurances.

"Military equipment supplied by other countries - especially the US, the UK, Germany and France - is now being used by the TNI in Aceh and has been used extensively in Papua and East Timor in the past. We hold those countries complicit in any attacks with such equipment on civilians and regard those countries as accessories to consequent breaches of human rights and international humanitarian law," says Tapol.

For more information on this campaign see Tapol's website tapol.gn.apc.org/