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UCA News Catholic Dioceses in Asia
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The trials and tribulations of Indonesian tribals

Case against indigenous man who cut trees on disputed land highlights the obstacles tribals face in defending their rights

Mission in Asia | Make a Contribution
Mission in Asia | Make a Contribution
The trials and tribulations of Indonesian tribals

Bongku, from the indigenous Sakai community in Riau province, is seen here in court custody before being jailed for breaking a forest protection law on May 18. (Photo supplied)

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Convicted of cutting down trees to plant sweet potatoes on land claimed by a paper company, Bongku, a 58-year-old indigenous man from Indonesia’s Riau Islands, is now hoping an appeal will spare him having to serve a prison sentence.

He claims he did nothing wrong as the land was his to clear in the first place.

His lawyers are preparing the appeal against a one-year prison sentence and a 200 million rupiah (US$4,200) fine handed down on May 18 by the Bengkalis district court.

Bongku is a member of the Sakai indigenous community in Riau, which according to the Archipelago Indigenous Peoples Alliance is an endangered indigenous group.

He was arrested on Nov. 3 last year by guards belonging to PT Arara Abadi (AA), a subsidiary of paper giant Asia Pulp & Paper (APP), for allegedly cutting down 200 acacia and eucalyptus trees on 5,000 square meters of land the company has claimed ownership of.

The father of four was planning to plant sweet potatoes, said Eko Pambudi, coordinator of the Indigenous Rights Defenders Coalition, which was formed specifically to help Bongku.

Bongku, who like many Indonesians only goes by one name, was charged with illegal logging.

The land Bongku is accused of desecrating is part of more than 7,000 hectares claimed by the company and the Sakai people.

The dispute has raged since the company began operating in 1990 despite attempts at mediation by the government.

In a statement posted on its website, the company acknowledged there were problems with the indigenous community, but claimed it respected their rights and obeyed the law.

"APP respects the rights of the local people and defers to the judgment of the proper authorities any matter that cannot be resolved through direct negotiation and mediation," it said.

However, the Bongku case has generated widespread support for the Sakai people.

Erasmus Cahyadi from the Archipelago Indigenous Community Alliance said the case was one among hundreds of similar cases.

At least 248 indigenous people have been arrested and thrown in front of courts in the last several years for defending what they claimed was their land.

A study by the Agrarian Reform Consortium revealed that between 2015 and 2019, there were 2,308 agrarian conflicts involving indigenous people or rural communities.

"Such cases arise because of weak legal protection for indigenous peoples,” Cahyadi says. “Even a proposed bill to protect indigenous peoples remains unclear.”

The Catholic activist said there were some local regulations in Riau protecting customary rights but they were not being implemented.

He blamed the continuing setbacks being suffered by tribal communities on the failure of Indonesian authorities to finalize the indigenous peoples' bill that was first touted in 2008.

Cahyadi also blamed authorities for using a forest protection law to silence tribesmen such as Bongku and others who wanted to “protect their land.”

“The law was initially introduced to deal with structured and systematic crimes in the forestry sector, but the reality is different,” he said.

Instead, the law brings to court indigenous people who are not what many would call systematic or structured, nor having commercial motives, he said.

He called on the government to be assertive in monitoring companies that violate such laws and people’s rights.

Riau provincial legislators declared in 2016 that 190 plantation companies in the province did not have necessary permits or pay taxes, potentially costing US$1 billion in lost revenue

Last year the Corruption Eradication Commission said one million hectares of agricultural land in Riau was being occupied by firms without a permit.However, no legal action has been taken against them.

Cahyadi said the criminalization of indigenous peoples will continue to occur as long as the government refuses to make a clear stand.

"There is a lack of political will on efforts to recognize and protect indigenous peoples," he said. "The goal is very clear — to dominate natural resources in territories occupied by indigenous communities.” 

Sacred Heart Father Anselmus Amo, an activist priest in Merauke Archdiocese, bemoans what he says is a lack of respect and protection for tribal groups.

"Generally, as soon as a company has acquired land for concessions, it starts to marginalize the people,” he said.

He pointed to the death of Marius Batera, an indigenous man who died last month after being beaten by a policeman closely linked to a plantation company. He was beaten because he had refused to be evicted from his banana farm.

Without a serious commitment from the government, similar cases will continue to occur, the priest says.

Rian Sibarani, one of Bongku’s lawyers, said he hoped his client’s case would spur ongoing efforts to protect the rights of indigenous peoples who are the real victims in such disputes.

"He still has to support his four children but cannot because he is languishing in prison," he said.

"Hopefully this case will provide some important lessons for the government and society whereby they will learn indigenous peoples need protecting." 

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