Published: Jul 26, 2007


John Prior

Since October 2002, the district government in Manggarai, West Flores, has cleared thousands of hectares of the villagers’ coffee trees. It has been done in the name of preserving the fragile ecology of the forests. During 2002, 4000 hectares of coffee trees were chopped down. Meanwhile, a new clearance program commenced in January 2004. Families have lost their entire livelihoods and in many cases also their homes while business is winning lucrative government contracts to reforest the land. The church can assist the community and government to find a compromise between ecological and human rights concerns.

‘Dear God, we are not thieves. We inherited this coffee from our ancestors and from our own sweat and blood. Why is it being chopped down by the Bagul government?’ prayed an elderly woman in the village of Colol in Manggarai province. She was referring to the district head, or bupati. Her prayer conveys something of the confusion and incomprehension, resignation and resentment that is growing by the day in West Flores. And the resentment is feeding anger.

West Flores

West Flores is hilly and 15 per cent of the hills have inclines of more than 30 degrees. The people who live here use the land for wetland rice cultivation, shifting dry-land cultivation and for grazing water buffalos, goats and cattle. Almost 40 per cent of Manggarai is covered by forest. These forests contain the best hardwoods of the province of Nusa Tenggara Timur.

The clearance programme began on 14 October 2002 with Bupati Bagul himself present. The District Forestry Commissioner coordinated the 356 person joint team. The team included 80 soldiers, 50 police, three staff from the Public Prosecutor’s Office and 212 from the district government of Manggarai. Preman – paid gangsters – accompanied them. There was no negotiation with the villagers. It was a straightforward ‘Suharto-style’ action: a directive from above supported by intimidating force from below.

Before the clearance program the Untung family had an annual harvest of 40 sacks of coffee; they have been left with nothing. In the village of Tangkul around 1500 coffee trees were axed and burnt. Likewise, Colol village estimates it has lost 4000 tons from their annual harvest. The villagers have also lost their own food supplies, which were stolen by members of the joint team who cleared the forest. Fifty-one huts were destroyed, chicken runs were pulled down and the chickens taken, as were fish from the villagers’ ponds.

The military’s presence during the clearing meant that at first the people could do nothing but weep. ‘The government has axed our livelihood’, lamented a Colol villager. Father Apri, the Catholic priest in Colol, adds, ‘The people have not just lost their coffee trees and their livelihood; they have also lost their self-confidence and are in danger of losing their identity as they migrate to find work elsewhere’.

The reforestation program

Bupati Bagul claims — rightly — that the ecology of Manggarai has become critical. The people have encroached upon protected forest area in the mountains. Contemporary needs such as schooling, modern health care, housing and technology have been driving the villagers ever further into forestry areas over the past few decades. Streams once used for irrigation and village water supplies have been drying up.

The Bupati aims to clear all illegal coffee plantations to restore the forest and preserve the water supply. And true enough, some of the people’s coffee has been planted in protected areas. And yes, the ecology of Manggarai is extremely fragile. Some hamlets have lost their water supply due to the destruction of primal forest. On the face of it, Bupati Bagul is taking an unpopular but important step for Manggarai’s long-term survival. The local indigenous economy must not destroy the environment in the long-term.

The head of the District Forestry Department, Ferdinandus Pantas, is convinced that the reforestation programme is legal, and even that, ‘God’s law is on our side’.

There is also a salutary warning from central Flores. Tens of thousands of coconut plantations opened in the late nineteenth century have led to massive erosion in Sikka regency. Large-scale monoculture agriculture is destroying Flores’ fragile ecology . The steep uplands — half of which have inclines of over 60 per cent — need the massive variety of vegetation available in primal forests, to preserve the soil and catch the rain. Coconut and coffee trees do not have long roots that would prevent surface erosion, and farmers clear the dense undergrowth that could stop surface erosion.

Whose land?

However, all is not as it seems. One key question is: who owns the land on which the villagers’ coffee has been planted? The Dutch colonial authorities negotiated boundaries of protected forest with local customary leaders in 1937. However the present boundaries were unilaterally decided in the 1970s and 1980s. And the villagers have never accepted the one-sided changes made in Suharto’s time.

The term ‘state forest’ applies to all forests that have ‘no owner’. But almost all land in Flores, including mountainous forestry regions, belongs to indigenous communities. Areas designated by the district government as ‘state forests’ therefore include indigenous land.

There are many grey legal areas because national law — decided in Jakarta — does not take into consideration customary law in the outer islands. To clarify the legal ambiguity there needs to be a detailed study of the systems of indigenous land-use (periodic division of land, rights of primal forest) and a study of local systems of acknowledging ownership (more accurately ‘holder-ship’) of ancestral lands.

No compromise

Compromises have been suggested to buy time for the villagers. They are encouraged to work with non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and government ministries on alternative, ecologically friendly farming and forestry.

Coffee has been planted in Manggarai at least since the 1930s. Indeed, the people of Colol still proudly keep the flag they won as first prize in the Manggarai coffee competition of 1937. Because the coffee trees have been planted in areas now declared restricted and therefore illegal, there is no compensation. The government has no plans for alternative employment except to suggest transmigration.

A compromise that almost succeeded was for 60 per cent of the villagers’ trees be declared ‘government property’ and chopped down, while 40 per cent be left for the villagers on condition they were not replaced or extended. After negotiations facilitated by the Catholic Diocese of Ruteng, the people rejected this compromise because it implied that their ancestral lands were no longer theirs, but belonged to the government. Another proposed compromise was to leave existing coffee trees alone, but forbid villagers to clear undergrowth. This would allow them to harvest their coffee until it gradually disappeared under the naturally recovering forest. Systematic reforestation could be undertaken on unused hillsides. This time the government rejected the compromise.

A hidden agenda?

The district government’s reforestation program will replace the villagers’ coffee with teak, mahogany and sandalwood. It is working closely with hardwood businesses and has signed six permits for forestry business in ‘protected areas’. Furthermore the police and army have an economic interest in the outcome. There are also strong suspicions that land is being cleared and declared state land because it holds mineral deposits including mangan and gold.

So while the politics of conservation are opening the door to outside investment, they are sidelining the local economy. The people’s customary rights are being ignored. Local villagers suspect that coffee trees are being cleared not only in protected areas but also in sites to be later designated as ‘project areas’. A locally engendered coffee economy will be replaced by timber concerns owned and controlled by government, outside business and the military. Ironically, teak also has short roots and sucks up water from the soil rather than maintaining water in the ground. Teak is no answer to the ecological crisis.

The villagers have not been involved in the government’s reforestation program. They have no stake in its future success. Indeed, they have been declared ‘the enemy’. However, any solution which ignores the rights of the local population and in which they have no economic stake is doomed from the start. A basic premise of customary law is: ‘That which touches all must be approved by all’. Another is: ‘That which touches me and I am not consulted about, I will sabotage’.

The alternative to state forestry management enforced from above is community management. This would involve recognising the position of the indigenous leaders and the community’s customary rights. The legitimate economic needs of the people would be considered together with the demands of the fragile ecology. However, in practice, permission to use the forest areas cleared of coffee has been given to outside businesses for teak, mahogany and sandalwood. Not to the local villagers who have protected its ecology for centuries.

Grassroots, church and state

Land disputes in Flores are an expression of the rejection of the repressive, authoritarian political culture of the state. They are testimony to a move towards a more autonomous ethical culture. They are expressions of the frustration and the hopes of the villagers.

Almost all the parties concerned in this dispute belong to the Catholic Church, yet the church itself is divided. The diocese, represented by Bishop Eduardus Sangsun, strongly supports Bupati Bagul. Meanwhile non-diocesan bodies like the Justice and Peacý Commissions of the Fransiscans (OFM) and the Divine Word Missionaries (SVD), working with the Bishops’ Conference in Jakarta, give equal weight to ecological and human rights concerns. They advocate an ecological solution that supports the villagers through community management.

While diocesan support of the government is stretching the credibility of the official church, the ongoing advocacy by international religious orders such as the Franciscans suggests that a ‘popular church’ is emerging from the grassroots. Networking with NGOs is already taking place. Nevertheless, this movement has yet to integrate its struggle into a holistic understanding of the cultural renaissance that is taking place. Indigenous communities remain largely regressive (reclaiming lost rights) rather than progressive (repositioning themselves locally and globally).

My dream is that land disputes in Flores present the church with the possibility of de-coupling its leadership from elitist politics, which is destroying the fragile ecology and disinheriting its people from their land. The church could then re-root itself in the politics of conscience and make land reform its own — a decisive moral movement of the disenfranchised.

John Prior (johnotomo46@hotmail.com) is a Divine Word Missionary who has worked in Flores since 1973. He is a staff member of Candraditya Research Centre for the Study of Religion and Culture, Maumere.

Inside Indonesia 78: Apr - Jun 2004