A resident of Olak-Olak Kubu, a village in Indonesia’s West Kalimantan province, could not hold back tears while testifying this week about how police had surrounded her home.
“People said the police were looking for my husband. They besieged my house. I fled into the woods,” Renawati, 32, said Monday as she testified before the provincial chapter of the National Commission on Human Rights (Komnas HAM).
Renawati had traveled about 62 km (38 miles) to Pontianak, the capital of the province, to join about 300 fellow residents of Olak-Olak Kubu who had fled their homes after they said that police had arrested two locals and raided their homes.
The residents of the village in Kubu Raya regency, who have been caught up in a land-rights dispute with a powerful palm oil company, went before the commission this week to complain about alleged collusion in their case between the firm and local authorities.
Village leader Sunarno said tensions escalated on July 23 when about 400 villagers held a rally and occupied a concession area owned by P.T. Sintang Raya, one of region’s largest palm oil businesses.
The villagers wanted to set up camp and recite verses from the Quran, hoping that government officials would take notice and help them resolve their conflict with the company over property rights.
“As we were walking, scores of policemen blocked our way. They told us to dismiss ourselves, but we refused to do so and we ended up pushing and shoving with the police. A policeman fell to the ground and the police accused us of assaulting him, which we didn’t do at all,” Sunarno told BenarNews.
During the rally officers arrested a villager and, two days later, police arrested another resident of Olak-Olak Kubu, 47-year-old Katin, at his house, locals said.
“The way they arrested Katin was unusual, it was like arresting a terrorist,” Sunarno said.
Katin’s wife, Purwaningsih, said he was accused of assaulting one of the company’s employees during a rally in February.
“We begged for leniency on medical treatment grounds because he was sick, but they rejected us. My husband was arrested in front of our children,” she said.
Another village leader, Musri, said locals rallied six months ago to proclaim rights over land claimed by the company as well. The local government got involved in mediation, but it failed to produce any results.
“We demanded that police withdraw their colleagues that were prowling around our village because their presence was making us nervous. We also demanded a solution to our land conflict with the company,” Musri said.
Police deny allegations
Suhadi S.W., a spokesman for West Kalimantan police, defended the department against the villagers’ allegations, saying that officers went to Olak-Olak Kubu to keep the peace.
“Why would police take someone hostage? Police are state law enforcers authorized to probe people, goods, correspondence as well as to arrest and detain someone suspected to have committed a crime,” he told BenarNews.
Harlen Sitorus, a lawyer representing P.T. Sintang Raya, said the villagers had filed a lawsuit to revoke the company’s rights to 11,130 hectares (27,500 acres). A review by Indonesia’s Supreme Court had ordered the company to release 5 hectares (12.3 acres) for the villagers, he said.
“The land that we have to give up is only 5 hectares, not the entire property like the community perceived,” Harlen told BenarNews.
Meanwhile, after receiving the complaints from the villagers, Komnas HAM provincial chairman Kasful Anwar contacted police. He said police had guaranteed that the people of the village would be safe in their homes.
“I gave them my phone number in case they face intimidations, arrest or raids,” Kasful told BenarNews.
According to Anton P. Wijaya, who directs the local chapter of the Indonesian Forum for the Environment (Walhi), the conflict in Olak-Olak Kubu stems from the community’s farmlands being annexed by P.T. Sintang Raya without the company communicating with the villagers properly.
Along with squabbles over land rights, the region on Borneo island faces an onslaught of agricultural fires each year, including many that are set illegally to clear land for palm oil plantations. The recurring fires have been a source for a hazardous smog blanketing other parts of Indonesia and neighboring countries in Southeast Asia.
The Ministry of Environment and Forestry reported that 12 provinces suffered from forest fires in 2015, with West Kalimantan being badly affected by them. Forest fires in the province burned at least 900.20 hectares (2,225 acres), according to the ministry.
Suhadi, who serves as chairman of the West Kalimantan’ Forest Fire Countermeasures task force, stated that 35 cases of fires were investigated since last year. Four of the fires were allegedly started by corporations, and 31 by individuals.
Charges against four suspects – one corporation and three individuals – were dropped over lack of evidence, Suhadi told BenarNews, without releasing details about those involved.