Saturday, 13 March 2010

Democrats in N. Sumatra Accused of Stealing Land

March 08, 2010 The Jakarta Globe
Markus Junianto Sihaloho

Democrats in N. Sumatra Accused of Stealing Land, Bullying Residents Activists on Monday called on the president to firmly sanction a cadre of his Democratic Party that heads a district in North Sumatra, accusing the officials of injustice, intimidation and destruction of the environment.

Residents of Sirandourung, Central Tapanuli district, have alleged that district authorities illegally seized their land and gave it to a palm oil company. They and their supporters plan to demonstrate in Jakarta today.

Chalid Muhammad, who chairs the Indonesian Green Institute, said the North Sumatra case will be a litmus test of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s commitment to climate change and human rights.

“The district chief, who is in dispute with the local villagers, comes from the ruling party,” Chalid said. “If no tough action is taken against the victimization of villagers by the local administration there, then I am in a real doubt of SBY’s commitment to justice,” he said, referring to the president by his initials.

Rantinus Manalu, a Catholic priest and spokesman for about 900 families in Sirandourung, said at the same press conference that PT Nauli Sawit began to plant the area with oil palm trees without consulting the government or its inhabitants in 2004. The residents had cultivated 1,143 hectares of land there since 1983 under the government’s long-running transmigration program.

He said the company started work after Tuani Lumbantobing, the district chief, issued the company a location permit in December 2004, even though more licenses were required.

“The company’s operation is breaking the law, because to run a plantation, companies must have several permits, not just a location permit,” Rantinus said.

Tuani is a former member of the Yudhoyono’s campaign in North Sumatra.
The president’s Democratic Party had backed Tuani’s re-election as district chief in 2008.

Nauli Sawit is believed to be owned by Adelin Lis, who has been linked to illegal logging in the province and is wanted on suspicion of money laundering.

Rantinus said that since 2004, local villagers had been intimidated and some even tortured by the company and the local governments for protesting the forced takeover of their land.

In December 2005, villager Partahian Simanungkalit died after allegedly being tortured by company workers. Ten residents were also ordered jailed for years for allegedly setting fire to the company’s office in 2008, even though prosecutors could not present any evidence.

Sodikin Lubis, a religious leader who also acts as a spokesman for the villagers, added that the local government, under Tuani’s leadership, was also involved in persecuting residents.

“We have received many complaints that the local government had threatened to punish any civil servant who dared to help the villagers,” he said.

“And none of the poor villagers received the government’s direct cash assistance package [BLT] and health care assistance, although they really need it.”

Amir Syamsuddin, secretary general of the Democratic Party, said he had not been briefed on the case and referred questions to law-enforcement agencies.

Chalid, citing a 2009 report of the Sawit Watch, an NGO monitoring palm oil plantations, said the Central Tapanuli case was not unique, saying 630 similar cases had been identified across the country.

Chalid said that the government had issued permits for the opening of more than 25.7 million hectares of palm oil plantations, which activists point to as a major contributor to climate change.

Despite the international convention on pesticides and herbicides, at least 50 million liters of such chemicals are annually used by plantation firms here, he said.

“The government chooses to defend international pesticide and herbicide manufacturers, rather than its own people.”

Sahad Tarida from the Indonesian Forum for the Environment (Walhi) of North Sumatra, said about 1,000 activists would rally today in front of the State Palace, the National Police headquarters and the National Human Rights Commission (Komnas HAM) to protest the alleged wrongdoing in Central Tapanuli.