Attack on Land Defenders


Land and environmental defenders are people who take peaceful actions, either voluntarily or professionally, to protect land and environmental rights. They are often ordinary people who do not necessarily call themselves “defenders” (Global Witness, “Defenders of the Earth”; 2017).

Indigenous peoples defending land and the environment live around and within forest areas, rural areas and / or central governmental cities. They seek to protect their ancestral lands and livelihoods from infrastructure development projects, mining, logging, plantations, commercial tourism, and so forth.

Indigenous peoples defending land and the environment often experience harassment, death threats, and violent attacks before they are killed. Even if they are not physically silenced or imprisoned, their position is threatened in order to undermine their struggle.

And yet perpetrators of violence, murder, and intimidation against indigenous land and environmental defenders often escape the force of law. According to Global Witness (2017), only 10 out of 908 killers worldwide who were found guilty between 2002 and 2013. This impunity encourages perpetrators’ to continue threatening indigenous land and environmental defenders, including most recently, in one case in Papua.

On 29 – 30 July 2019, Yakob Sowe, Chief of the Sowe Clan in Ikana village, Kais Darat District, South Sorong Regency, suffered a violent attack on his home and property from a group of armed local residents. Yakob Sowe’s house and personal vehicles were severely damaged. Yakob Sowe himself was trapped in his house and the group of local residents broke its windowpanes, door, and window frames. They also threatened to kill Yakob Sowe.

Since 2015, Yakob Sowe, along with Onesimus Wetaku and other Ikanan residents, have been actively fighting for and demanding their rights to the lands, forests, and sources of subsistence taken from them and destroyed by the palm oil plantation company PT. Putera Manunggal Perkasa, a subsidiary of Austino Nusantara Jaya (ANJ) Group.

Yakob Sowe and Onesimus Wetaku also become targets of recrimination among people within their own communities. In March 2018, a group of local residents, including some known to be working as public relations officers for the aforementioned oil palm company, carried out an attack on Yakob and Ones. One of them attempted to attack Ones’ wife with a machete, but she managed to escape. As a result of their activities, Yakob and Ones have also endured repeated verbal violence and death threats.

“We are threatened with death and discredited. We are accused of killing without any proof,” said Ones Wetaku.

On Tuesday 30 July 2019, local villagers claimed that Yakob Sowe and Ones Wetaku had used black magic to kill one of their children in February 2019.

Meanwhile, another land and environmental defender, Petrus Kinggo, who lives in the Kali Kao hamlet of Asiki village in Jair District, Boven Digoel Regency, has also experienced pressure and threats of violence. At midnight on the second Sunday of June 2019, members of the Indonesian National Army (TNI) and three residents from a neighboring village visited Petrus Kinggo’s home. They knocked so hard on his door that the neighbors were alerted.

These individuals accused Petrus of having murdered residents living far away from the Kao River. Petrus rejected the accusation and said he did not know the deceased. The military threatened Petrus with potential criminalization.

The following Sunday, a Korindo oil palm company representative and police officers carrying pistols visited Petrus and forced him to attend a meeting to discuss land acquisition and use by oil palm company PT. Tunas Sawa Erma (TSE) POP E.

Since early 2018, Petrus Kinggo, leader of the Kinggo clan, along with several customary (adat) leaders in Kali Kao hamlet, have consistently rejected the development plans of palm oil plantation company PT. TSE POP E because these would deprive them of their customary forests. Previously, the local forest area had been exploited by the timber corporation PT. Bade Makmur Orissa (BMO), also a subsidiary of Korindo. The community rejected Korindo’s oil palm project because of the losses already suffered during the operations of PT. BMO.

In August 2018, photographs of Petrus had been distributed across several homes and in company camps, although it is unclear who disseminated these photographs and why. Petrus suspects that the aim was to intimidate him and put a stop to his resistance to oil palm development. Many defenders of land and environmental rights have become the targets of defamatory campaigns like this.

Petrus Kinggo said, “Corporations use various methods to get us to surrender our land to them. Yesterday (30 July 2019), the company’s public relations officer brought school supplies, notebooks, pencils and pens, which he said were for our children. We refused their assistance.”

The demand of corporations for an ever-growing land base has resulted in the unlawful seizure of land, the neglect of community rights and environmental sustainability, and increased pressure on land and environmental defenders.

The state should ensure that the lives and dignity of human rights, environmental, and land defenders are protected from threats and violence. It should take effective steps to resolve complaints brought forth by communities and land defenders. And it should pursue legal reform and law enforcement in order to adequately address and resolve the root causes of human rights violations.

Ank, August 2019