The Multinational Monitor



Plantations v. People

by Robert Weissman

MANDAU, RIAU, INDONESIA Smoke fills the air, a few small fires can still be seen burning, and the whirr of chainsaws can be heard in the distance. The Indonesian company PT Adei has just cleared another vast tract of tropical rainforest. For as far as the eye can seen in one direction and for hundreds, of yards in every other direction, what was once dense forest is now nothing more than blackened land marked by stumps and charred logs.

Having first logged the most valuable trees in the forest, PT Adei is now burning the remaining small trees, shrubs and plants so that it can replant the area with palm oil trees. The company will add the replanted area to its growing plantation here in the central Sumatran province of Riau.

The company's ongoing replacement of the forest with rows and rows of palm oil trees is an ecological disaster, eradicating the biological diversity and productive anarchy of the jungle and destroying the habitat in which wildlife once thrived.

It is also a social nightmare. The company's appropriation and re-creation of the local landscape has had a devastating impact on the Sakai people, who rely on the forest for their subsistence. The Sakai are a small indigenous group consisting of about 35,000 people who are only weakly linked to the regional cash economy.

The Sakai economy and culture revolve around food production - through shifting cultivation, gathering of jungle fruits and vegetables, and hunting and fishing. Since its destruction of the forest undermines virtually every element of the Sakai's system of food production, PT Adei's project has struck hard at the foundation of the Sakai community.

Confused about what is happening to them, the Sakai have only been able to muster tepid opposition to the onslaught. Their primary response has been despair.

PT Adei's land grab

From the Sakai perspective, PT Adei has taken their traditional (adat) land. Although the company has offered compensation to some Sakai people, the Sakai insist that they do not want to sell their land, and that, even if they did, the company's prices are far too low. Those Sakai who have been compensated also complain that PT Adei has paid them less than it promised it would. "What we really want is our land," says one man. But if the company is going to take it, he pleads, "please pay."

Maintaining possession of the land is the central concern of the Sakai, who clear small sections of the forest for their rudimentary, shifting cultivation agriculture.

The Sakai's entreaties to the provincial or national government have fallen on deaf ears. The national government is actively promoting the development of export production plantations in an effort to bring foreign exchange into the country. PT Adei also maintains close ties with regional bureaucrats, which ensures that the military will defend the company's claims from the Sakai opposition.

When the Sakai succeeded in organizing a 200-person demonstration against PT Adei, the military told the people that their activity was subversive. Some Sakai leaders claim soldiers have threatened them, and local lawyers are allegedly so fearful that none will agree to represent the Sakai claim against PT Adei in court.

"This is a typical case in Indonesia, with a company, colluding with a state agency," says Indro Tjahjono, head of the Indonesian environmental organization Skephi.

PT Adei's position is further strengthened because it has a remotely valid claim to the land. Tjahjono explains that PT Adei has purchased or is renting the land from Caltex, the Asian joint venture of Chevron and Texaco. According to Tjahjono, Caltex bases its land claim on a more than half-century-old agreement it reached with a local indigenous leader, in which the multinational giant purported to buy the land from the individual alone.

Sakai leaders now battling PT Adei deny the legitimacy of Caltex's land claim. Not only do they challenge the right of the individual leader to transfer ownership of their land Without their knowledge, they assert that tile leader did not have control, or jurisdiction, over the land. They trace their claim to the land to a separate authority, a grant from a kingdom which ruled over the area during the period of Dutch colonial rule.

It is not clear how many, Sakai are aware of the complicated lineage of their historical claim to the land which PT Adei is converting into plantations. But every Sakai person certainly understands that the land has traditionally belonged to them, and that the only way of life they know is tied to the land.

Undermining subsistence

The Sakai also understand that their way of life is rapidly slipping away as PT Adei expands its plantation.

PT Adei's operations have ravaged the Sakai food supply. The company has taken the Sakai's roughly cultivated land away and burned it. By clearing the forest, the company is destroying the homes of wild animals, such as pigs and deer, which the Sakai hunt. And the Sakai cannot hunt or collect food from much of the forest that is still standing because PT Adei has posted warnings against trespassing. "We used to rely on the forest for food, but we no longer can," a Sakai man says.

The fish population is plummeting as well, due to the PT Adei's use of pesticides on its plantations, the Sakai allege. Pesticide run-off and empty pesticide barrels tossed by company workers into local waterways are polluting the rivers, says a Sakai leader. Water pollution is also harming the Sakai's health; they report getting diarrhea or becoming sick after drinking river water, conditions they blame on PT Adei's pesticide use.

The shrinkage of the Sakai food supply is taking its toll. Dr. Tabrani Rab, a medical doctor in the Riau provincial capital of Pekanbaru who treats many Sakai, reports that "there is an increase in malnutrition among the Sakai due to the loss of their hunting grounds, which can be traced to PT Adei." He notes that the Sakai's lowered protein intake has "decreased their immunity and increased their susceptibility to disease." As a result, he says, tuberculosis among the Sakai is on the rise.

PT Adei's plantation scheme is having an equally devastating effect on the Sakai's Cultural integrity. For the Sakai, the company's land grab is not only an injustice but a culturally and psychologically painful intrusion. "We feel so hurt because PT Adei took our land," says one man. Another, relatively rich man says that after the company burned his fields of cassava, "I could not go to the land any more because I was so hurt."

PT Adei has even threatened to encroach on the Sakai's traditional burial grounds. But the Sakai say they will never allow this to happen. "We would rather die than have them open up these graves," says one Sakai.

This assertive stance is unusual in the Sakai's response to their conflict with PT Adei. A substantial number of the Sakai feel both helpless and hopeless. Some say that, with their way of life destroyed, they see no alternative to committing suicide.

Many wonder aloud how they will manage to continue to exist as a people without their land. "What will the next generation do for the future?" asks one.

The sad answer to that question is that there may not be many more than one or two future generations of the Sakai. As a people, with a distinct way of life, they may simply cease to exist. Indeed, charges Tjahjono, PT Adei's appropriation of Sakai land and consequent weakening and penetration of the Sakai culture amounts to a form of genocide.

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