Identities for sale

Sumatra and Papua are paradises for certain investors. The indigenous villages aren’t prepared for corporate deception strategies. Now that Sumatra’s rainforest is mainly destroyed, corporations have a go at Papua. Meet a village whose entire land has just been leased to the sugar industry. Or sold? No villager knows for nobody was able to read the contract.

published in May 2012 in the book “Peace with the Earth”; deutsche Version hier >>

  • Regengüsse haben die Straße nach K. fast unpassierbar gemacht Für die letzten 20 km brauchen wir 8 Stunden. In der Regenzeit ist K. weitgehend isoliert.
  • Die Besuchergruppe würde gerne mit den Dorfbewohnern sprechen; statt dessen muss sie dem CSR-Beauftragten lauschen.
  • Der CSR-Beauftragte hat das Wort. Der Schreiber schreibt, die Alten schweigen.
  • Müssen draußen bleiben, als es um ihre Zukunft geht: junge Leute in D.
  • Für sein Land bekam Matius ein Handy – ein Mobilfunknetz gibt es nicht.
  • Auf Schritt und Tritt dabei: zwei Mitarbeiter des indon. Geheimdienstes, Dorfsekretär (v.l.).
  • Rien ne va plus.

Matius recently got a mobile – and a bad conscience, too. Together with four other clan chiefs, the Papuan has leased a large part of his community land to the Rajawali sugar cane company. Or perhaps he has sold it; they don’t know exactly. In the end it was already dark on that March evening when they succumbed to the pressure from the firm.

Four thousand kilometres to the west, on the Indonesian island of Sumatra, Hotlan stretches his first skyward: “Hidup Petami!” Long live the farmers! His hand is missing a thumb. And no one in his village has been a farmer for a long time. Hotlan was never asked whether he wished to sell his land – PTPN IV palm oil company, which belongs to the presidential candidate Aburizal Bakrie, simply took it. Soon afterward, his house was set on fire by anonymous attackers, who also killed various villagers and left many critically injured. Yet the villagers remain here – where else would they go?

Land-grabbing has many faces. In Indonesia, as in other countries in the Global South, entire villages have been uprooted and exiled in order to make room for plans by domestic and foreign investors. Thirty-five delegates from Germany, Asian, and African churches and NGOs learned what this means for individuals when they visited Papua and Sumatra from 2 to 13 May. The workshop, entitled “Peace with the Earth”, was organised at the invitation of the United Evangelical Mission (UEM) with participation from Brot für die Welt and partner organisations (Lentera, Bakumsu, KSPPM).

Indonesia possesses one of the world’s largest rainforests, with one of the greatest varieties of species. But half the area of this rainforest has already been destroyed; forecasts from the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) indicate that if the clear-cutting continues at its present rate, 98% of the rainforests will have vanished or been degraded by 2022. Sonny Keraf, the former environmental minister of Indonesia, met with the delegates and left no doubt as to whom he holds responsible, criticising the government for “kissing the feet” of foreign investors. “It’s always the same story: political leaders need money for their next election campaign, business leaders help them out, and the politicians repay their generosity with land concessions.”

During his time in office (1999-2001), Keraf made a name for himself by introducing the “Law on Environmental Protection and Environmental Management”. He planned for environmental protection to be the first priority in any decision on investment – an action that was unique in the world. But local procedures are very different: “The state of Indonesian legislation is very good, but the local enforcement and implementation leave a lot to be desired”, he claimed. Keraf’s Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P) is currently the opposition.

In various groups, the workshop participants toured destroyed forests and a cellulose factory, palm oil plantations and local communities, encountered pit-diggers and a mining company. It became clear to them how the dense tangle of sociopolitical interests leads to the creation of monopolies and monocultures. The question of land ownership is already highly contested in Indonesia. From the point of view of the government, the land belongs to the state – unless someone can prove through a lease that they are the legal owner. But this practically never happens, since such documents were hardly ever issued in the past, and today the land authorities usually refuse to issue common-law leases retroactively. This way the government can lease the land to the highest-bidding investor at its own discretion. Such procedures are actually subject to the UN Declaration on the Protection of Indigenous Peoples, which stipulates that the “free, prior and informed consent” (FPIC) of indigenous peoples be obtained before their land is sold. The government simply does not acknowledge the native inhabitants of Indonesia as indigenous. But since local and regional laws can deviate from the Jakarta doctrine, many investors will conclude additional contracts with the local residents.

“I cannot understand how you could sell your land!” Namibian Pastor Petrus Khariseb, one of the UEM delegates, has jumped to his feet and is looking around the circle, shaking his head. Fifty Papuan men in tatty shirts and sandals, smoking. One of them looked like his father, says Khariseb later. “We in Namibia have been fighting for 100 years to get our land back. And you are simply giving it away. Land is the mother of life! You are giving away your land – and that of your children!” Khariseb grew up during apartheid; his parents were always working on other people’s farms for a pittance and could never save anything. For a moment the men look upset, regretting their decision. But the village secretary takes the floor: “We leased our land because we want a better life. The government has abandoned us; we never saw the money from the Special Autonomy Law.” He pauses: “But there is a new happiness in our life. Before 2010, we lived in the dark, but Rajawali brought us light.” And a villager who introduces himself as the CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) Manager for Rajawali adds that “Rajawali is like Moses.”

A tough blow for the resident church, with its years of effort on behalf of the village. “The churches should beat the firms to it and offer the congregations an economic alternative”, suggests the Papua team in its concluding report, giving the example that a pastor could open the first congregant plantation or the first kiosk before a firm does.
Matius’s village is only the beginning. Kristina Neubauer, coordinator of the West Papua Network (WPN) and the Faith-Based Network on West Papua (FBN), estimates that in ten years, Papua will look just like North Sumatra does now. In August 2010, the Indonesian agricultural ministry started the agricultural megaproject of MIFEE (Merauke Integrated Food and Energy Estate), which is intended to transform 1.2 million hectares of land around the South Papua area of Merauke into megaplantations. By 2011, 36 investors had already received concessions to cultivate wood, sugar cane, maize, and soya beans.

Most villages are left to their own devices when making the decision, unprepared for the tricks of corporations. “The churches should make it clear to their congregations how the firms operate”, suggests the Papua team. Again and again, in both Papua and Sumatra, the UEM delegates observed the same pattern, regardless of whether there were mining corporations, agricultural concerns, or paper factories involved: the company would address targeted, influential members of the congregation and use them to convince the rest. A Batak Christian from Sumatra recounted how they had promised him an expensive car if he could be persuaded. And under the mantle of “corporate social responsibility” (CSR), Rajawali paid a Papuan villager to convince his own people of the advantages of selling their land.

The corporations are also trying to win over the churches, for example by making donations to the congregation or gifts to individual church leaders. One pastor was not willing to meet with one of the UEM groups because he had already taken the side of a mining company. The corporations say nothing about the negative consequences of agrobusiness. They often make themselves popular by taking up cultural traditions. For example, the leader of a mining company adopted a child from a neighbouring village in Sumatra, and Rajawali donated a complete Christmas feast to a Papuan village before the village chief agreed to the contract.

The decisions often demand too much of the villages, who have neither experience with land contracts nor an idea of how the plantation economy will completely transform their lives and their land. The contracts often lack transparency and often are not stapled together, so that the corporation can easily add in additional pages afterward. The villagers are often dazzled by large sums of money – money that, once it has been distributed among all the residents, over the agreed time period and divided through the large piece of land – turns out to be very little. The sums are only paid once; there is no other form of compensation given, such as alternative land or houses. The frequent promises to carry out social programmes in the communities are often later withdrawn by the corporation, with the argument that they must first recoup their investment. Some of the mistaken decisions could possibly be prevented if the affected villagers could exchange ideas with one another. This is why the Papua team suggested to the churches that they make a lawyer available to affected communities and promote dialogue among communities that are exposed to corporate interests.

The reaction of church congregations to the threat of destruction varies as much as the personalities of the respective pastors and bishops. UEM member Jadasri Saragih himself works as a pastor in a city that is surrounded by palm oil plantations in all directions. “I hate palm oil!” bursts from him when he says hello. In front of every congregation on his path, he gives blazing sermons against the sale of land – just as he does in his own church. But other church leaders own plantations themselves, or benefit from donations by raw materials companies. When asked about the most urgent matter in his church, one bishop from a region that is dramatically affected by land-grabbing replies: “Our spiritual life.”

In their closing statements, the delegates encouraged the churches to take more political responsibility. They appealed to churches all over the world to advocate for those who face threats from land-grabbing and the destruction of their livelihoods. “When our brothers and sisters suffer under an unjust economic situation, we are called upon to liberate them and make them stronger”, said Tanzanian Bishop Stephen Ismail Munga in his closing sermon. The end of apartheid showed that a critical mass can change the world, he noted, “I saw and heard people who were oppressed by their own government. Their cries were not heard because personal advantages were worth more to the government than the lives of their voters. Their cries are God’s call to us to help them get their property and their dignity back.”

At a meeting with Indonesian church leaders, the participants also directed a critical message to the churches that in many countries themselves maintain relations with controversial corporations – Germany included. “Churches should not accept any donations from companies that violate human rights”, said Petrus Sugito, the General Secretary of the GKJTU church in Indonesian Java. Sugito, together with the other delegates, called for an appropriate code of conduct.

“If things continue as they are, within a few years our forests will have become paper and plantations, the water will be polluted, and the small farmers will have no land”, concluded Rannieh Mercado, the director of the UEM Asia Office, at the end of the three-day tour. “Then our children will ask us: What did the church do in this situation?”

(read about the background of this article and see more photos here here >>)

IMG_1582_klpublished in: Peace with the Earth. Documentation of the UEM International Team Visits to Papua and Sumatra, Indonesia, May 2012, edited by Jochen Motte and Theodor Rathgeber, 2012. pp. 34-37.