It’s a good thing RAN’s forest campaigner, Lafcadio Cortesi, speaks Bahasa Indonesian so well. Otherwise I almost certainly would have gotten in the car with the undercover intelligence agent who told me to come with him because he “wanted to practice his English.”
We had just arrived in the small village of Siabu, in the Kampar region of east central Sumatra. Our plan was to meet up with a group of displaced villagers and participate in a land reclamation and planting party. The villagers are engaged in a land conflict with a subsidiary of pulp and paper giant APP, and their plan was to plant crops on their traditional lands and prevent the company from further establishing a pulpwood plantation in the disputed area.
Of the dozens of men milling about when we got out of the car, the first to approach me began asking questions about who I was with, what I was doing there, and the like. It quickly became apparent that the whole group was loading onto their motor bikes and moving to a less public location and we were to follow. We were all meant to meet up at the same place, so I was contemplating jumping in with my gregarious new friend, but Lafcadio said, curtly, “No. Travel with us.”
Not generally a curt fellow, Laf explained when we got in the car that our hosts were concerned the mystery guy was there to gather intelligence, though for whom he was gathering it was not quite clear. This was the first of many lessons and insights I gained that day into just how deeply dark and deranged the situation here has become.
Getting to the designated meeting place required hours of travel on a labyrinth of dirt roads through a 250,000 acre acacia plantation that stretched across the land like an infestation of neatly ordered rows of scrawny twigs. We were made to pass through several check points staffed by security personnel who sported the SOS corporate logo of their employer on a patch on one shoulder and a police badge on the other — a fitting display of the cozy relationship between the security state and the corporations whose interests they serve.
At the second security post we picked up the Tokoh Adat, or customary elder of the local village, a man called Pak Datuk. The armed guards took the identification cards of our driver and Pak Datuk for safe keeping — and so they’d have leverage over the drive and Pak Datuk if anything untoward were to occur beyond the gate.
The gathering place was a promontory at the edge of the plantation overlooking a post-apocalyptic landscape cleared of all vegetation and scarred by a maze of roads leading nowhere. Later we would learn this spot was chosen because it is within the villagers’ ancestral territory, and is an area they hope to reclaim. It had been decided no planting would occur this day, but a meeting would proceed to discuss community goals and next steps.
About a hundred people had gathered, and our arrival created quite a stir. Half of the group surrounded us and jockeyed with one another to shake our hands and have their pictures taken with us, after which it was insisted that we eat. The group included pockets of animated young men smoking clove cigarettes and blaring pop music from mobile phones, elderly women wearing headscarves, and lots of adult men wearing the weathered look of hard-working farmers whose fortune had not come easily.
In the tense environment of present day rural Sumatran society, the simple act of gathering together on disputed territory is an act of resistance, and the day’s meeting did not go unnoticed. In addition to the undercover character we had met earlier, a group of armed law enforcement personnel — including private security, police officers, and at least one quasi-military looking gentleman — had amassed on the outskirts of the villagers’ assembly.
When Pak Datuk stood to speak, everyone circled and fell silent. He spoke with the elegance and authority of a strong and self-assured leader. From the bits whispered to me in translation I understood that he began by stating that his people are bound by three laws. In order, they are God, custom, and then the government. He said the goal of his people is to take action to reclaim their land rights and ancestral territory.
He said his people were given rights by their ancestors and that it is their duty to protect those rights so they can be passed on to their children before they are lost. He said they are bound to be peaceful, to be safe and not to use violence. He said it is crucial they maintain their unity in the face of those who would divide them. He finished each series of pronouncements with the question “Ingat?” (Remember?) or Mengar ti? (Do you understand?) to which the crowd in unison responded “Ingat!” or “Mengar ti!”
When he was finished speaking, other village leaders spoke and details were discussed about what to plant and how to collect and distribute funds to make the provocative planting project possible. When the group disbanded, we drove away with an older, well-dressed village member named Pak Sudirman who guided us to the site a few miles away where their original village stood.
As we passed through a sea of sterile oil palm plantations, crudely dug canals and dry, exposed earth, he told us how rich this land had once been, not so long ago. Before his people were forcibly evicted by the military in the late 1980’s, their riverside territory had been habitat for elephants and monkeys, and his village practiced a sustainable form of mixed agroforestry that included crops like rubber trees, cassava, banana, chile, papaya, durien, mango, rambutan, jack fruit and a variety of vegetables.
In a darkly ironic twist, the only natural forest still standing in the area was saved because it was made part of a military bombing range. Entering this verdant forest felt like a full sensory massage. The sight of the towering trees, the feel of the moist air, the smell of dank richness, the sound of birdsong and the buzz of insects stood in stark contrast to the vacuous devastation just outside.
Back at the village where the day began, we shared smokes with the village’s men in the home of the traditional village chief. Pak Datuk told us in clear and passionate terms what the demands of his people are for APP, the company behind their conflict. He said the company never asked for their permission to use the land that belongs to them and they have never received any benefit. His demand is for APP to return the land to the community. He followed by asking that customers of APP stop buying products that come from their lands until the important issues of their traditional rights are resolved.
The stories of these people and this place are a microcosm of what’s happening all over Sumatra and in Borneo and the rest of Indonesia and Malaysia. People are displaced, forests are cleared, ecosystems are destroyed. Repeat. And until APP and their ilk among the all-powerful logging behemoths are convinced that business as usual is not in their own or Indonesia’s interest, these injustices will continue. Our meetings this week with allies and community leaders are a piece in the growth of a larger movement that is gaining momentum here and at home in the US. Companies like APP can no longer expect to act with impunity.