Evicted indigenous people in East Nusa Tenggara province live rough after their houses were demolished. (Photo supplied)
Defiant members of an indigenous community in Indonesia have vowed to stay put after security forces fired tear gas and demolished their homes on Aug. 18 in a bid to force them off disputed land.
Daud Selan, a member of the Besipae indigenous community in Catholic-majority East Nusa Tenggara province’s South Central Timor district, said more than 50 people, some of them children, were sleeping rough under trees.
“We’ve vowed to stay there until the land issue is resolved," he told UCA News. "We will not surrender and would rather die than move from our land."
As well as destroying their homes, police and soldiers also fired tear gas at people who resisted the eviction attempt, he said.
The move was part of a series of local government efforts to evict residents from the land, which it plans to develop for livestock.
When provincial governor Victor Bungtilu Laiskodat tried to talk to the residents in May, they staged a demonstration during which some women stripped off their clothes in front of him in protest.
Selan said 37 homes were destroyed in the Aug. 18 eviction and more could be flattened soon.
Ownership of the land has been disputed since 1982 when it became a cattle ranch, part of a partnership between the provincial authorities and the Australian government.
According to the Indonesian Forum for the Environment, indigenous people claimed that more than half the total 6,000 hectares of the ranch land was theirs.
They later moved in to occupy the land when the agreement between local authorities and the Australians ended in 1987.
Selan said community representatives had sought the help of rights groups in Jakarta, including the National Human Rights Commission.
However, in 2012, the central government secretly issued a land title certificate for 3,780 hectares to the provincial government.
"We are not sure now which part of the land belongs to us. We have children and grandchildren that will depend on this property,” he said.
Local authorities insisted the land belonged to them, saying leaders of the indigenous community handed the land over in 1985.
According to spokesman Marius Ardu Jelamu, the police and military action on Aug. 18 was intended to force residents into agreeing to be relocated.
“They have always blocked authorities attempts to remove them, so this time a tougher approach was used," he said.
He said an alternative site has been set aside where the families can build new houses.
Rukka Sibolinggi, general secretary of the Indigenous Peoples' Alliance of the Archipelago, said the eviction attempt had some irony because it occurred the day after Independence Day, during which President Joko Widodo wore a traditional costume worn by indigenous people from the district.
"It shows that both the central and local governments do not really respect the rights of indigenous people at all," she said.
Father Yohanes Kristoforus Tara, chairman of the Franciscan Justice, Peace and Integrity of Creation in Timor, said local authorities "must ensure that indigenous people have a place they can call their own, not just a place to live."
"Don't destroy people’s lives in the name of development," he added.
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