Dec 16, 2018 Last Updated 7:39 AM, Dec 10, 2018

Contested land claims


Adam Tyson

Of all the diverse scenery on the winding road north from Makassar, South Sulawesi, most unusual of all is the view as you approach the small mining town of Soroako. The night sky is perpetually alight in a haze of red and orange, giving the impression of a blazing fire. The red haze is emitted by PT Inco, in its relentless endeavours to produce greater quantities of primary nickel.

PT Inco, a profitable multinational corporation, is firmly rooted, with approximately 118,387 hectares of land in the newly-formed district of East Luwu. The recent renewal of the company’s work contract has led to increasingly vocal criticism, specifically on environmental issues and indigenous rights.

Since 1998, activism has been increasing in the region, and previously marginalised actors are reasserting their claims for compensation. They are not alone in this struggle, as networks of NGOs are blossoming and district authorities are empowered to take a more active role in negotiations.

Open for business

PT Inco’s first work contract allowed mining to begin in Sulawesi in 1968, during highly controversial times. In the aftermath of the regional rebellion in Sulawesi led by Kahar Muzakkar in the 1950s, Soroako was largely deserted. Much of the indigenous population had fled to neighbouring provinces. Once stability was restored, the Suharto government seized the opportunity to sell off large tracts of vacant land as mining concessions to PT Inco. This was done before the original inhabitants could return and restore their normal way of life, thus avoiding the burden of negotiating with local communities and stakeholders. PT Inco’s first work contract allowed mining to begin in Sulawesi in 1968, during highly controversial times. In the aftermath of the regional rebellion in Sulawesi led by Kahar Muzakkar in the 1950s, Soroako was largely deserted. Much of the indigenous population had fled to neighbouring provinces. Once stability was restored, the Suharto government seized the opportunity to sell off large tracts of vacant land as mining concessions to PT Inco. This was done before the original inhabitants could return and restore their normal way of life, thus avoiding the burden of negotiating with local communities and stakeholders.

As recent events have illustrated, this was a strategic error. The policy of decentralisation implemented in Indonesia in 2001 has encouraged greater local autonomy, which in turn has made the local communities bolder. Following an initial round of negotiations in the 1970s, local people have again begun reclaiming land and are forming activist alliances. Two ‘indigenous’ local ethnic groups are currently engaged in negotiations for land compensation: the Soroako and the Karongsi’e Dongi. This suggests that the first round of negotiations in the 1970s wasn’t conducted properly, or that the next generation of claimants are becoming more politicised. The sale of the land to PT Inco and the failure to finalise compensation at the early stages of PT Inco’s operations in Soroako has created a legacy of unrest and dissent.

The turning point seems to have occurred in 2000 when NGOs and activists converged on Soroako, setting the stage for a new wave of public protest. During the next four years the land compensation movement was characterised by demonstrations and reprisals, producing limited results. However, this changed in 2004 with the appointment of some new representatives in PT Inco’s Department of External Relations, as well as with the election of a new mayor in East Luwu.

Members of the Soroako community are represented by an organisation called KWAS (Soroako Indigenous Union). KWAS consults with community members then submits proposals for development programs to PT Inco. As a result of these negotiations, the original citizens now receive full healthcare courtesy of PT Inco.

However, walking around Old Soroako, I did not get the impression that infrastructure is well-developed or that the community is by any means affluent. Common signs of hardship persist, and many people said they felt that they weren’t able to participate fully in the consultative process. But a large number said they would prefer this process to continue, rather than endure more direct confrontation and violence.However, walking around Old Soroako, I did not get the impression that infrastructure is well-developed or that the community is by any means affluent. Common signs of hardship persist, and many people said they felt that they weren’t able to participate fully in the consultative process. But a large number said they would prefer this process to continue, rather than endure more direct confrontation and violence.

Unresolved matters

Many members of the Karongsi’e Dongi community still feel aggrieved. They felt excluded from the original compensation package offered by PT Inco. As a result of the turbulence in the 1950s, Dongi families fled to various parts of Sulawesi, such as Palu and Poso in Central Sulawesi; Manado in North Sulawesi; and Lele and Bahudopi in Southeast Sulawesi. Not everyone could afford to return to Soroako immediately, so families returned gradually.

Families which did return quickly discovered that Soroako had changed. Former village land on the lakeside had been converted to housing units for expatriate workers and managers. Interior lands once used for housing and cultivation were now corporate property, and the Soroako Golf Course now stood on the site of ancestral lands.

After decades of frustration there seems to be a more conciliatory approach to the Dongi dilemma. PT Inco’s Department of External Relations is working directly with both the district government and the Team of Five community representatives appointed by the local government to represent the Dongi community. Weekly meetings are now held between the parties in an effort to resolve long-standing problems about land entitlement and compensation.

A formal offer has been issued by the district government, led by the mayor and supported by the relevant agencies. PT Inco has accepted district legislation (SK Bupati 166/2004), which stipulates that 57 Dongi family heads (mostly men representing a household) have been recognised as legitimate claimants and are thus eligible for compensation. A relocation settlement has been approved, and there is hope that the Dongi can build a new village. According to a map produced in 2005 by the District Agency of Mining, Energy and Environment in East Luwu, the site is located in a village called Ledu-Ledu in the sub-district of Wasuponda. The total size of this plot of land is approximately 6835 hectares.

Each family will be allotted a plot of land measuring 20 by 30 metres, where it can build its own house, and it will be issued ownership certificates. The plan also includes provision of all necessary facilities, including roads, water supply, electricity, a school, places of worship and a customary house (rumah adat). The surrounding lands are semi-cultivated, making food production possible. More importantly, the villagers already living in the area are not hostile to the idea of a new Dongi village. So what is preventing a resolution to this dilemma?

Internally, only three out of the original 57  family heads are still alive, and now it is the responsibility of the second generation of Dongi (at least 214 descendents) to sort out who will accept the offer. This has led to sibling rivalry and domestic disputes. There are complex political interventions going on within the small Dongi community. On the one hand, the ‘Dongi Diaspora’ has been mobilised and now wants to return to Soroako, either for reunification or to avoid losing out on the prospect of compensation from PT Inco. These new arrivals are complicating efforts to determine who should be negotiated with, and which of the claimants are legitimate.

There are also external players. Domestic NGOs determined to oppose PT Inco sporadically arrive and use the Dongi community as a platform for this opposition. They have introduced arguments about customary (adat) rights, and these now feature prominently in the current dilemma. This intervention may be motivated by good intentions, but it has certainly complicated the process of negotiation and caused some resentment.

One of the early external interventions by activists in 2000 involved securing various ‘point of leverage’ that could be used to bolster the bargaining position of the community. For example, an activist with networks in Jakarta led eight families to a contested site called Kuratelawa, located within the PT Inco concession zone. She encouraged them to build homes there because it was considered ancestral land.

According to customary (adat) law, ownership is determined by those who first cultivate land, after which ownership is inherited by the next generation. This link was severed because of the regional rebellion, a crisis forcing communities to relocate. Advocates of indigenous rights argue that this does not mean customary ownership was nullified, and thus they reject the validity of PT Inco’s concession rights because people were forced off the land. This is the reasoning behind the relocation of the eight families mentioned. However, the residents of Kuratelawa who I met did not want to discuss the political situation, preferring to defer to their representatives in the city.

Internally, the Dongi community is divided, which hinders their negotiations with PT Inco and tests the patience of the district government. One member of the Team of Five stated that 85 per cent of the Dongi community are prepared to accept the proposal for Dongi relocation. An official from the Office of the Mayor put the percentage at 90. Other activists completely reject these figures and are determined to continue to struggle for more concessions. For the sake of the ordinary Dongi citizens bearing the brunt of this protracted and politicised struggle, hopefully a positive and neutral mediator can assist in mediating between the conflicting parties. It is important that this conflict is resolved before the funds and political will are exhausted, and the relocation proposal is shelved.

Adam Tyson (ipi2at@yahoo.co.uk ) is a PhD student in the School of Politics and International Relations, University of Leeds;UK.


Inside Indonesia 89: Jan-Mar 2007

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