The recent killings of two activists in Indonesia’s North Sumatra province were the latest in a list of physical and legal attacks on local environmentalists, say human rights advocates and conservationists who demand that the central government stop such violence.
Police have arrested at least five suspects in the case. These include a palm oil executive who allegedly commissioned the murders of journalists-turned-activists Maraden Sianipar and Maratua Siregar, who were involved in a land dispute between residents and palm oil firms. Their bodies were found on Oct. 30 and 31 after they were fatally stabbed.
“[The government] does not seem to be serious in protecting the rights of citizens, including activists,” Andreas Harsono, an Indonesian researcher for Human Rights Watch (HRW), told BenarNews.
The killings of Maraden and Maratua stemmed from a dispute over 750 hectares of plantations controlled by a local businessman.
“There was resistance from the local people who feel they were entitled to it and who wanted to cultivate it. The problem is complicated,” Andreas said.
Physical and legal threats against environmental and land rights activists have been on the rise in recent years, according to Walhi, an environmental advocacy group also known as Friends of the Earth Indonesia.
Earlier this year, unidentified attackers torched the house of Murdani, Walhi’s director in West Nusa Tenggara province. The environmental group said it suspected the arson was related to the group’s work.
Walhi’s environmental campaigner, Dwi Sawung, said violence against activists during the rule of President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo – who last month took office for a second term – had been fueled by his government’s push for investment to shore up a sluggish economy.
“Investors have been given free reign by the government and security forces to do anything for the sake of investment. It’s investment at all cost,” Dwi told BenarNews.
Dwi said the government should prioritize environmental protection and human rights in its development push.
“Otherwise it will be a time bomb which could turn into bigger problems,” he said.
In Jakarta, presidential spokesman Fadjroel Rachman declined to comment.
Activists also find themselves being threatened by law enforcers, Walhi said.
In its 2018 annual report, the organization said that at least 32 activists were victims of “trumped up” charges, which included incitement, destruction of property and spreading communism.
Meanwhile, at least 555 cases of forest and plantation disputes were reported to the Presidential Office of Staff, but little action was taken to solve them.
Also last year, the Supreme Court sentenced environmentalist Hari Budiawan to four years in prison after finding him guilty of spreading communism during a 2017 anti-mining protest in Banyuwangi, a regency in East Java province. A lower court had sentenced him to 10 months in prison but the justices increased the jail term.
In October, activists criticized police in North Sumatra for dropping an investigation into the death of lawyer Golfrid Siregar, who had sued the local government on behalf of Walhi over a China-backed hydropower project.
Police said Golfrid died after he crashed his motorcycle while driving under the influence.
HRW’s Andreas said that cases of violence against environmental activists stemmed from conflicts linked to increased land grabs during the government of Jokowi’s predecessor, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono.
“[The government at that time] handed outs permits for land clearing easily, especially since 2004 at the onset of regional autonomy, which allows permits to be given at the regency level,” Andreas told BenarNews.
In 2017, more than 650 cases of land disputes affected 650,000 families, followed by 410 cases that affected 87,568 families the next year, according to Andreas. He cited data from the Agrarian Reform Consortium, an Indonesian NGO that works to promote prosperity for farmers and secure ownership, possession and use of agricultural resources for peasants, fishermen and indigenous people.
A 2015 joint study by NGO Transformation for Justice Indonesia and Profundo found that 5 million hectares (12.3 million acres) in Indonesia were controlled by 29 tycoons who owned 25 palm oil business groups.
In Jambi, another province on Sumatra island, members of the indigenous Orang Rimba community have been fighting for land taken over by a palm oil company with permission from a local government leader.
They were promised an area of 5,000 hectares (12,355 acres) by Jokowi in 2016, but instead the land was occupied by ethnic Malays.
Masinton Pasaribu, a lawmaker with the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle – Jokowi’s party – called on regional governments to listen to local people.
“They must not serve as tools of repression. Government institutions should act as intermediaries between the local communities and investors,” he told BenarNews.
Masinton condemned the killings of the North Sumatra activists as a blatant violation of human rights.
“If the company is involved, we demand that its owner be put on trial and the company be closed,” he said.
Ahmad Syamsudin in Jakarta contributed to this report.