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Police beat up Indonesian villagers protesting thermal plant

Dozens of people on the predominantly Catholic Island of Flores were on a two-day stir against upcoming project
Residents in Poco Leok in Christian-majority East Nusa Tenggara province stage a stir against a geothermal project

Residents in Poco Leok in Christian-majority East Nusa Tenggara province stage a stir against a geothermal project. (Photo: supplied)

Published: June 22, 2023 12:36 PM GMT

Villagers in a Christian-majority province in Indonesia say police violently beat them up as they protested an upcoming geothermal project near their customary land.

“Three of them [protesters] were seriously injured. Some others suffered minor injuries,” said Servasius Masyudi Onggal, a villager on the predominantly Catholic Island of Flores in the southernmost East Nusa Tenggara province. 

Two people are currently being treated at the local clinic, while a seriously injured man was hospitalized, Onggal told UCA News on June 22.

Police beat up dozens of villagers from Poco Leok in Manggarai Regency when they started a two-day stir on June 20 against a geothermal project spearheaded by state-owned PT State Electricity Company (PT PLN).

The project is funded by Germany’s Kreditanstalt für Wiederaufbau (KfW) bank as part of the Ulumbu power plant expansion.

Onggal is in possession of a number of videos, showing villagers, including women, screaming when they tried to stop a PT PLN team from measuring their customary land under heavy police and military presence.

Onggal said residents have been on guard since June 9 when the team first staked claims on their lands.

"In the last few days, tensions have been escalating, with more security forces deployed,” he said.

A woman protester, Paulina Imbut, said the deployment has made them "feel insecure.”

“Each time we wanted to go to the garden to work, we canceled it" seeing the forces, she said.

Onggal said the villagers rejected the project because its drilling points were close to their customary land and houses.

Marsianus Gampu, an activist with the Indonesia Catholic Students’ Association, criticized the repressive police action.

“Security forces should act as a mediator between those who are pro and against the project,” and not support one of the parties, Gampu, associated with the Ruteng unit of the students’ wing, said.

Manggarai district police chief AKBP Edwin Saleh justified the police action on Flores Island, a designated geothermal island since 2017.

“It is a state project, not in the private sector. In this case, the police have the duty and responsibility to secure the implementation of the project," he told reporters on June 22.

He also claimed that the police did not take repressive measures, but only carried out the necessary safeguards.

Father Marthen Jenarut, head of Ruteng diocese which covers the area, said although geothermal is claimed to be environmental-friendly and sustainable, the government and investors will have to "respect the basic rights of the local community."

"The people have the basic right to life, the right to a comfortable living space, the right to welfare, the right to maintain their cultural identity as an indigenous community entity with all its authority and the right to justice," he told UCA News.

The Ulumbu power plant, about three kilometers to the west of Poco Leok on Flores Island, is undergoing expansion to hike capacity to 40 megawatts from the current 10 megawatts.

Siswo Hariyono, head of the National Land Agency in Manggarai Regency, said that the measurement of land for the project will continue, claiming it was a national strategic project.

"This project will continue. We can't wait for all the problems to be resolved," Hariyono said.

According to the Ministry of Energy and Mineral Resources, Flores Island has a total geothermal potential of 902 megawatts, or 65 percent of the total capacity in East Nusa Tenggara province. 

Amidst protests from villagers, the authorities have identified 16 project points along the island. However, one of them in Mataloko in Ngada Regency was abandoned, while its former drilling hole continues to emit hot mud up to 500 meters to 1 kilometer which has damaged agricultural land.

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