Postcard from Indonesia

Saturday 1 November 2003, by Alex HILL

Waiting in the lobby of Jakarta’s World Trade Centre (WTC - pronounced Way-Tay-Say in Jakarta), the building that houses the Canadian Embassy to Indonesia, I heard jeers and chanting outside the front doors. A small but vocal group of protesters from rural villages on the island of Sulawesi and members of environmental NGOs had gathered to protest the actions of Canadian nickel mining giant INCO.

The event was part of an international series of protests referred to as "INCO Days", a name mockingly derived from INCO’s own annual celebration for its employees. The goal was to draw attention to the negative environmental impacts of INCO mining operations, the Canadian government’s efforts to pressure the Indonesian government to open protected areas to INCO mining, and the use of the Indonesian military force to remove local communities from INCO’s concession areas.

While the reference here to the WTC and Indonesia will no doubt trigger the reader’s well-imprinted terrorism and state-security mental feedback loops, it is not these fashionable allusions that brought the protest to the foot of the Canadian embassy. Instead these protesters demand another kind of security - personal security, through upholding human, environmental, and land tenure rights. These are the issues at the heart of grassroots political debate in Indonesia.

The vast majority of Indonesian families still rely on farming as their primary source of income and thus the most prominent threats facing most Indonesians have little to do with C-4 or box cutters, but are tied to the land upon which they rely. Fearing the loss of their land rights, or the destruction of the environment by unchecked logging, mining, and oil and gas extraction, communities are rising up to voice their disapproval of the current system of land tenure.

For hundreds of years land tenure and use have been the cornerstones of political debate in Indonesia. Currently the government claims ultimate ownership over all lands, routinely appropriating land from small farmers, then selling it to international resources extraction interests, or to key domestic private and government interests. Whether a small-holder rice farmer in Java, a migrant cocoa-farmer in Sulawesi, or a tribal forest-dweller in Papua, each fears waking up one day to find that their right to their traditional lands has been stripped by the government, most often without compensation, as has happened to millions of Indonesians in the past.

In reaction to these criticisms the government of Indonesian holds up state security to justify its attack on local human and land rights. Citing separatism in Papua and Aceh, the government supports ongoing military campaigns that not only target indigenous communities, but also increase military presence, and thus its involvement in illegal logging and racketeering around resource industries.

In Sulawesi, where the majority of INCO operations are based, government sponsored migration programs, competition for shrinking resources and security campaigns have torn apart the community, fuelling ongoing violence. Thousands have died, and many more have fled their land in the face of the conflict. The military, who receive direct support from INCO, support the violence to justify their presence in the area, and then occupy profitable businesses such as cocoa plantations, after their owners have fled.

While many would have us believe that support for military and international trade are the keys to global security, the people of Sulawesi see terrorism in a different light. And it was the message that "terror thy name be INCO" that they brought to the Canadian embassy last week.


The author is project officer for Indonesia at Alternatives.

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