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Violence flares as Indonesian land dispute hots up

Indigenous community in Catholic majority province digs in heels as odds against them keeping their homes stack up

Ryan Dagur, Jakarta

Ryan Dagur, Jakarta

Published: October 21, 2020 12:00 PM GMT

Updated: October 22, 2020 01:38 AM GMT

Violence flares as Indonesian land dispute hots up

The Besipae indigenous community in East Nusa Tenggara province is living under tarpaulins or in tents after their houses were demolished by the government. (Photo supplied)

Shouting hysterically, several women from a Besipae indigenous group in Indonesia’s Catholic majority East Nusa Tenggara province tried to block police, soldiers, and thugs who came to evict them from land they said had been theirs for decades.

They were beaten, kicked, and dragged until some of them were left unconscious on the ground.

The violence on Oct. 15 was captured in a 2.5-minute video which later went viral.

Nikodemus Manao, a spokesman of the more than 100-strong indigenous community, told UCA News that the clash was inevitable because the authorities insisted on taking the disputed land in South Central Timor district to rear livestock.

“The violence they resorted to was excessive,” he said.

"Some women were half-strangled and are still feeling the effects,” he said, adding that they had lodged an official complaint against those who tried to evict them.

It was the latest in a series of recent incidents between the Besipae and local authorities.

In May, the women protested by stripping off their clothes when East Nusa Tenggara Governor Victor Bungtilu Laiskodat visited them to try and persuade them to vacate the land.

They also refused to leave when their homes were demolished in August, choosing instead to live in tents.

The dispute over the land started in 1982 when it became a cattle ranch, part of a partnership between the provincial government and the Australian government.

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Besipae people claimed that more than half the total 6,000 hectares of the ranch land was theirs and they moved in to occupy the land when the agreement between local authorities and Australia ended in 1987.

However, in 2012, the central government secretly issued a land title certificate for 3,780 hectares to the provincial government and claimed that the leaders of the indigenous community had handed the land over in 1985.

Marius Ardu Jelamu, a provincial government spokesman claimed the land belonged to the local authority which "wanted it to be optimized to overcome poverty.”

The Besipae, however, refuse to give up.

"There will be no surrender. We want the issue concerning our right to life resolved fairly," Manao said.

The indigenous community is being backed in their fight by various groups and activists.

"The government must take notice of these people’s claims and stop using authoritarian methods to get rid of them," said Umbu Wulang Tanaamahu Paranggi, director of the local branch of the Indonesian Forum for the Environment.

He told UCA News they had written to the authorities following the recent violence calling on them to respect indigenous people's rights.

Beka Ulung Hapsara, from the National Human Rights Commission, also condemned the violence and called on the provincial government to “stop and prevent violence by state officials against community groups."

Philip Situmorang, from the Communion of Churches in Indonesia said, "punishments need to be meted out against the thugs who attacked the Besipae people and against the officials who ignored them."

"We hope the provincial government and related agencies can resolve the problem in a more dignified manner, under the applicable law," he said.



Dark future 

According to advocacy groups fighting for indigenous people and agrarian rights, cases such as the Besipae dispute are almost certain to get worse, following the ratification of a controversial job-creation law earlier this month, which continues to generate protests across the country.

Critics say the law benefits businessmen at the expense of workers and local communities.

Rukka Sombolinggi, general secretary of the Indigenous Peoples Alliance of the Archipelago said the law will exacerbate land conflicts such as the one involving the Besipae because it uses the logic of facilitating access to investment and minimizing resistance from indigenous peoples.

"It makes it easier to annex land for plantations, forestry, mining, and other investments. More and more people will be displaced, to achieve investment targets,” she said.

The government's aim to create 30 million new jobs through the new law has the potential to wipe out the livelihoods of at least 20 million indigenous people and local communities.

Dewi Kartika, from the Consortium for Agrarian Reform said, the law will "give the owners of capital primary access to land rights and natural resources."

"Meanwhile, farmers, farm laborers, the poor and landless people will experience more hardship," she said.

"As a result, people are increasingly moving away from the ideals of agrarian reform. The inequality of the agrarian structure is getting worse,” she added.

Even though regulations such as this new law make it more difficult for them, the Besipae people say they will continue their struggle.

"We are ready to die here because we live off this land," said Demaris Tefa, a leading member of the community’s resistance movement.

"We are prepared to just live in tents or under tarpaulins if that’s what it takes to remain here, because we don't want to lose this land."


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