Ruteng Natural Park on Catholic-majority Flores Island a bone of contention between locals and the government
Mikael Ane was found guilty of building a house on a site claimed by the government as part of the Ruteng Natural Tourism Park. (Photo supplied)
A court in Indonesia's East Nusa Tenggara province has jailed a Catholic farmer for annexing a controversial tourism park to build a house in the Christian-majority province.
In its verdict on Sept. 5, the Ruteng District Court in Manggarai Regency sentenced Mikael Ane, who belongs to the Ngkiong indigenous community, to one year and six months in jail.
He is also required to pay a fine of 300 million rupiah (US$19,593) to get a commutation of six months in prison.
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Ane, 57, was found guilty of building a house on a site claimed by the government as part of the Ruteng Natural Tourism Park, a 32,248-hectare mountainous rainforest area that straddles two districts in the western part of the Catholic-majority Flores Island.
Marselinus Suliman, Ane's lawyer, said they disputed the verdict as Ane and his ancestors "existed and lived in the forest area before the Ruteng Natural Tourism Park was formed in 1991.”
He said Ane was arrested on March 28, two years after he built the house.
Suliman also questioned the court order which was delivered based on a law that the Constitutional Court, the highest court that deals primarily with constitutional law, had declared no longer valid, namely Law Number 11 of 2020 which was replaced by Law Number 6 in 2023.
In a circular in 2014, the Supreme Court, the top court in the country, said that a defendant is released from all charges if he/she is charged with articles that are no longer valid.
"In the view of the judges, these articles are still valid and relevant, so our arguments were countered," Suliman noted.
We will appeal against the verdict in the high court, he added.
In 2012, the Indigenous Peoples Bill was submitted to recognize the local communities’ customary rights. But the bill has not yet been voted on as it faces opposition from major parties, including President Joko Widodo’s party.
Ane’s case adds to the long list of cases between indigenous people and the government regarding the tourism park, whose boundaries are still a bone of contention.
In 2004, the conflict caused bloodshed when indigenous people protested against the government's move to cut down their coffee plants, citing encroachment.
Police shot dead four people and seven others were seriously injured and were rendered permanently disabled.
Syamsul Alam Agus from the Association of Defenders of Indigenous Peoples of the Archipelago said that the verdict against Ane will fuel the conflict.
He said the verdict was a serious threat to the existence of indigenous people around the tourism park.
There are 60 traditional villages whose locations overlap with the natural park. These villages house nearly 50,000 inhabitants, Agus added.
The Ruteng Conservation and Natural Resources Agency, the custodian of the nature tourism park, could not be reached for its comments.
In 2013, the agency formulated the "Three Pillars Concept" -- involving the Catholic Church, Indigenous people and the government. However, it did not make any headway.
Tadeus Dosen, a leader from the Ngkiong indigenous community who attended Ane's trial, said, “Don't make the indigenous people a victim. We are fighting for the integrity of our own customary territories. This is really unfair.”
“We will continue to fight for Ane because it concerns our dignity as owners of our customary land," Dosen stressed.
Fransiskus Nom, another member from the Ngkiong community, said, "We feel disadvantaged by this verdict. Small communities are always blamed and the law is really blunt on the top," he said.
Nom said they would continue to fight for their customary land.
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