Fidelis E. Satriastanti
Life was idyllic in the village of Muara Tae, in East Kalimantan’s West Kutai district — before palm oil companies moved in, Petrus Asuy says.
“Before then, we’d never experienced unrest,” the Muara Tae villager said in Jakarta on Friday. “But from 1995, when the first of the palm oil companies came in, things got worse because they didn’t respect our way of life. Without letting us know, they began clearing the forest as they saw fit.”
In 1996, he went on, the villagers had seen enough and began demonstrating against the deforestation. But the move backfired when several of the demonstrators were arrested and jailed for up to five months. Asuy only evaded arrest by hiding out in the jungle for three months.
“Because of the palm oil plantations, our water has become polluted and many of our springs have dried up,” he said. “We took our case to the local government, but they ignored us. We are completely against these companies because they have compromised our way of life. What hope is there now for our grandchildren?”
The Muara Tae villagers are currently in a standoff with the oil palm firm Munte Waniq Jaya Perkasa, which has begun bulldozing 683 hectares of forested land that the former have long considered their own.
The UK-based Environmental Investigation Agency said on Wednesday that the company, backed by police and other security personnel, had been clearing approximately five hectares a day for the past week.
“With the situation at crisis point, the EIA and its Indonesian partner Telapak fear the conflict could spill over into violence,” the group said on its Web site.
Asuy was adamant that the land belonged to the villagers. He said what happened was that a neighboring village, Muara Ponak, had sold the land to the company on the pretext that it belonged to them.
“But they never owned that land. That is land that we have always worked on, but they claimed it as theirs and sold it to the company,” he said, adding that the land in dispute was sold for just Rp 1 million ($110) a hectare.
“We are pleading for help for our situation and for this activity to stop.”
Abu Meridian, a forest campaigner with Telapak, the EIA’s Indonesian partner, said the Muara Tae case was just one of several thousand similar disputes playing out across the country.
“Muara Tae is a comprehensive object of study because it involves not just palm oil companies but also mining firms, so it’s a pretty complex case,” he said.
“To coin a phrase, they’re being eaten by a tiger, a crocodile and a snake at the same time.”
Abu called for greater focus on the case, arguing that if it was properly managed, the 11,000 hectares of ancestral forest in Muara Tae could be restored to primary forest, which would put it out of the reach of palm oil, mining or logging operations.