It is rare enough that a social movement resisting a development project actually achieves its aim, so when it does it is worth taking a look at that movement and learning from what it did right. The people of the Aru islands, in the far south-east of Maluku, have cause to celebrate. After a year of determined opposition to the Menara Group’s plan for a 500,000 hectare sugar-cane plantation, on April 10th 2014 the forestry minister stated that he would not sign the permit to release the land from the state forest estate, claiming it was not suitable for sugar-cane. This does not mean that the islands’ long term future is 100% secure, but it is an important step forward.
I spent a few weeks in Aru shortly before the minister announced his decision. As well as writing about the potential impact of the Menara Group’s plan, I was also interested in finding out more about the movement opposing it. From what I had read, it seemed that this was a creative and dynamic movement which operated at various levels, driven forward by the energy of the people involved, without being dependant on any particular institution, ready to use all the tools at their disposal, from bows and arrows to social media, to defend their land from the corporation.
This article is the result of conversations and interviews with people in Aru and in the provincial capital Ambon, an attempt to understand what made this movement special, and what made it successful. I have chosen not to refer to people by their names throughout, partly to respect the wishes of a few people who prefer to be low-profile, but also because this is an article about a movement, not about individuals.
Aru wakes up to the plantation threat.
The Menara Group had reportedly had its eyes on Aru since 2007, when it proposed a sweet potato plantation. By 2010, the planned crop had changed to sugar-cane and the company set about the process of getting the permits it needed, in the name of 28 subsidiary companies. The District Head was happy to oblige, and the provincial governor also gave his recommendation. The local council changed the land-use plan so that 500,000 hectares was classified as ‘production forest that can be converted’, the necessary designation for plantation permits to be given out.
It would be fair to say that these developments passed by the people of Aru without anyone stopping to take much notice. In 2011, one village, Marafenfen, which was already used to fighting for its rights ever since the Navy grabbed 400 hectares of their land for an airstrip in the 1990s, did write to the President to raise their concerns about the Menara Group’s plans. However, that initiative did not spark any wider action.
It was only in 2013 that the plantation issue became a point of conversation amongst people in Dobo. It was clear that the plan would drastically change life on Aru for ever. “Aru is only just over 600,000 hectares. So if they want to take 500,000 and 100,000 is protected forest, where do the Aru people get room to breathe? This will kill us! This is genocide!”, one woman told me.
“Once we were aware, then discussions started to emerge between the young people and the indigenous elders, and the people from the Indigenous People’s Association. Out of these discussions we agreed that we had to fight. we only have one aim – to fight so that the companies do not get to start operations”, related another local activist.
As a result of these conversations, an alliance was formed, the Coalition of Youth and Indigenous People. Some of the groups which joined in were the Young Generation of the Maluku Protestant Church (AMGPM), Indonesia Mosque Youth Communication Forum (BKPRMI), Catholic youth, women market traders, the Aru Indigenous People’s association (LMA) and the Aru Students Association (students studying in Tual, Ambon and Sorong).
Taking to the streets, and across the sea.
One of the tasks was to go around the villages, inform them of the situation, and find out their opinion. There are no roads to speak of in Aru, most villages can only be reached by boat. With no well-funded organisations involved, the volunteers who took this on had to rely on the widespread support they had from all sections of the community in Aru “If we go to villages to support the people there, normally we hitch a ride on someone’s boat, or we put money together, buy fuel and then go together with someone from the village who has transport. They also understand that no-one is paying for us”
“Our spirit is our main asset in this struggle to defend our identity as the Aru people, and to defend our livelihoods on Aru. This spirit is our main asset, not money. For example if we stage a demonstration, the women who sell vegetables in the market support us by buying bottled water. Each time we have demonstrated, they have been very supportive”
Several demonstrations were held in Dobo, the small town which is the capital of Aru, mostly in the first few months of the struggle, August and September 2013, and this played a part in making sure everyone in Aru was aware of what was planned, and let people vent their anger at the local officials who had allowed this to happen.
As the coalition spread the news of what the Menara Group was planning to do, they found that almost without exception the people of Aru supported the aims of the struggle. The reason behind this extraordinary level of unanimity is partly because it is very clear that a sugar-cane plantation would bring no benefit to Aru. Compared to many places in Indonesia, people there seemed reasonably economically secure. Abundant natural resources gave plenty of scope for making a fairly good living from the land or sea. In the villages, people’s economic activities varied with the seasons, but included farming coconuts for copra, collecting pearls or sea cucumbers, fishing, catching crabs in the mangroves, collecting birds’ nests from caves, fishing, hunting deer, selective logging for local needs, vegetable farming.
All these activities would be affected if the forest were replaced by a sugar-cane plantation. Villagers would be left to compete with migrants from other islands for jobs as labourers on the provincial minimum wage of 1.4 million rupiah per month. Obviously there is no way they would be better off. The situation could have been different if people were struggling to survive from the land, and the company’s promises could seem more attractive. But in a situation of relative plenty, why on earth would people want to let the forest be destroyed which also embodies their identity and history, and makes Aru an extraordinarily beautiful place to live?
“There is a strong connection between the Aru people and the natural environment. The Aru people live from the forest and the sea. The forest is our hunting ground, and there are certain traditional rituals that have to take place in the forest or at sea. If the forest is damaged then it will clearly disrupt what the Aru people’s livelihood depends on. That is more-or-less the simple reason which makes the whole Aru community state their opposition. There are no other factors.”
“Our strength is that the whole community supports us. Despite the fact that there will be much intimidation and pressure on us. However, the people know their rights, and what we always stress is that however big the threat is, for example 28 companies with other forces to back them up, if the people are united then this is a clear strength that cannot be breached by anyone. If we are together, united, we can surely tear down the wall.”
People felt that some proof of this united opposition was needed and so collected signed statements from village heads and clan chiefs around Aru, stating that they opposed the Menara Group and similar companies. At the time of my visit, most villages had already signed, making this a convincing declaration of popular opinion in Aru.
Activists in the coalition stressed the importance of not only opposing the Menara Group, but also all similar companies. Two other corporate groups, Buru Makmur and Nusa Ina, had also been promised large concessions by local leaders, but lost out to the Menara Group. Nusa Ina had still been lurking round Aru, waiting for its chance if the Menara Group’s plans should stumble. Pro-Menara Group factions tried to suggest that the opposition movement was in fact being funded by Nusa Ina. Although this was a ludicrous claim (as if the people didn’t have plenty good enough reasons of their own to reject plantations), the rumour did gain some traction and had to be refuted.
Now that the Menara Group seems to be out of the picture, attention will have to shift to Nusa Ina. Less than two weeks after the Forestry Minister rejected the Menara group, Nusa Ina boss Sihar Sitorus was reported to have flown to Aru. His company is playing a more subtle game than Menara Group, sponsoring indigenous people’s gatherings (the Menara Group just sponsored the Navy’s birthday party), and so may be tricky to confront. However the community strength built up in the resistance to Menara Group is a force to be reckoned with, and it would be a brave leader who would start handing out permits again at the moment.
The role of the church.
The majority of the Aru islanders are Protestant, also with size-able Muslim and Catholic minorities. The Maluku Protestant church has taken a firm stand with the people against the plantation companies. This has had a number of benefits for the campaign. Firstly because the church has an established network which reaches most villages in Aru, apart from a few which are exclusively Muslim. The clergy’s active participation has made the process of advocacy much easier. Secondly, because all priests are graduates and have received training from the church, they have the resources to effectively consolidate the people’s position.
In common with many churches in the East of Indonesia, the Maluku Protestant Church often takes up issues concerning the economic, social and cultural rights of its followers. However sometimes there are questions of why the church should take a partisan position. “As religious leaders we give XXXX support to our followers there. Actually I have been asked ‘why do the clergy have to get involved in this issue. A priest’s duty is to preach.” So I say ‘That’s true, our duty is to preach. But we preach for the people’s benefit. If our congregation is suffering, we will also suffer. When we talk about defending the peoples rights XXX, that’s the reason for it. And aside from being a religious leader, I am also from Aru, and I also have customary land rights on a large area here”
The issue was discussed in the annual meeting of the Church’s synod, with representatives from the whole of Maluku, and the Church declared its support for the Save Aru movement. As well as adding weight to the movement, this can be of practical benefit. For example, trainee priests with activist tendencies are sent to Aru. Also, priests from other parts of Maluku become aware of what is happening in Aru, and so if they hear of a plantation threat in their area, they are more likely to respond.
Several villages in Aru have used sasi, a traditional ritual which prohibits others from using the land. Sasi is a broad concept which might be used to prevent others harvesting coconuts before they are mature, or prohibit fishing in a river while the fish are still too young. In this case sasi bars the Menara Group from venturing onto the land. Dry coconut branches are tied to trees or planted in the ground at the boundaries between different clan’s ancestral land. Priests also come along and give their blessing.
Inspired by the struggle against Menara Group, some local activists decided to form a new group AMAN Aru – autonomous and unfunded, but affiliated with the Alliance of Indigenous Groups of the Archipelago (AMAN). That has provided a link to national networks, and the group has also been able to intervene in other issues affecting the Aru people – for example when police mobile brigade intervened in a fishing-rights dispute between two villages, shooting one man dead and injuring several more, AMAN Aru able to report the case to the National Human Rights Commission.
One activist described the struggle as a ‘layer cake’, with different groups fitting into the movement as they see fit. Young people, elders, priests and NGOs find their own path of action, with no one group aiming to dominate or control the movement.
The story of the movement in Ambon.
By mid-2013, demonstrations had already taken place in Aru, and students from Aru studying in the provincial capital Ambon approached the Research and Development Agency of the Maluku Protestant Church. The people which could be described as the ‘activist scene’ in Ambon – it is a small city and people who are involved in any kind of social movements tend to know each other – started getting together and discussing the issue.
Then in September 2013 a delegation of elders (tokoh adat) from Aru came to Ambon. After failing to get an audience with the Governor they came to ask the church for help. People in Ambon wanted to help but were confused about where to start or what they should do. This lasted for about a month before someone went to Aru to investigate. After that there was lots of information, and supporters in Ambon could start planning their strategy.
They decided on a campaign strategy with two strands, offline and online, but both aimed at making the Aru people’s struggle more visible. Offline this mainly meant cultural action, and many artists and performers were keen to get involved. News of what was happening in Aru was brought to the public through the trotoart events, which took place monthly or thereabouts, with music, poetry, theatre on the street. Banners and leaflets gave these events a Save Aru theme. Around 3000 leaflets would be given out each time – people who had organizations or office jobs would each photocopy as many as they could to save printing costs. There was also a flashmob on a Sunday morning when the city is crowded with people coming to exercise on the weekly car-free day.
Several different musicians recorded songs, and local hip-hop musicians made a video. Poetry that had been gathered from Ambon and sent by people who had read about the issue online was compiled into two anthologies, “Revolusi Cenderawasih” and “Mata Aru”. In Ambon these were distributed as pdf only, but in Aru they were printed out and distributed to let people know about the solidarity from afar. Similarly, when Save Aru benefit gigs were held in Ambon, they were recorded by mobile phone and played live over the radio in Dobo. Save Aru T-shirts with a silhouette of a black cockatoo were sold to raise money and consciousness.
The online strategy involved a website, twitter and facebook. The date for launching the website was set a few weeks in advance, and people gathered data and articles, prepared images and infographics. That meant when D-day came a webpage could be launched that would really make an impact.
Twitter was the main social media tool. Facebook was also used but people felt it didn’t have the same potential for information to go viral. Some of the people involved were experienced in using twitter effectively. Not only the @savearuisland account was used, within the community they had access to several different accounts and groups that have can reach a wider readership, such as @malukubaronda which focusses on tourism in Maluku – that account could tweet about the impacts of Menara Group on tourism to Aru for example, and @malukupedia, with general information about maluku.
In Ambon itself, social media is not so effective, partly because the internet connection there is exasperatingly slow. Offline activities proved more effective in spreading the message within that city.
In Aru it is almost impossible to use the internet, but a huge banner was made with pictures of support from around the world sent in, also as inspiration for people on the ground in Aru.
“We are so grateful that after we started resisting the company togther here, there was an amazing level of support from all corners of the Earth, not only Maluku or Indonesia, but from all around the world. And this gave us great strength which pushed us forward to unite and defend our right as the indigenous people of Aru.”
One of the main common reactions received through social media was “this is such a crazy plan”. A major reason for this was an infographic which was produced, showing how much of the Aru islands would become plantation. Even people who were too lazy to read an article could see for themselves just how devastating the Menara Group’s plantation would be.
Based on links made online, groups in other cities have held events in solidarity with Aru, including Kupang, Salatiga, Jogja, Jakarta and Surabaya.
Asked about why so many people got involved, even if they had never been to Maluku, activists admit that partly it was a trend at the time. After more than half a year and no instant victory, the amount of activities has dropped off somewhat in the last 2 months. But that is not seen as a problem – people feel that there is no need to push people to contribute more than they want to, and are also sure that if the need arises, participation will increase once again.
Meanwhile, people who had been involved with or inspired by Save Aru brought the issue far and wide. One person attending the Internet Governance Forum, an international conference in Bali, set up a stand about the struggle in Aru. Church representatives made sure it was discussed in the World Council of Churches in Korea. AMAN (allience of Indigenous People’s of the Archipelago) made it one of their highlighted struggles when they led a demonstration of around 1000 people through Jakarta on World Indigenous People’s Day.
Study Groups and Legal Advocacy.
Once the campaign in Ambon had got going, meetings were held in the Ambon’s largest campus, the Pattimura University. Some people had seen the pictures that people from other universities around Indonesia had tweeted and felt it was time that their university got involved. This also provoked an animated debate because some of the academics had been involved in the commission which approved the Menara Group’s Environmental Impact Assessment. This weighty document contained hardly any evidence of field research, information about the company’s plans or the effect on the local population, and clearly should not have been allowed to pass. Later some academics from Pattimura took an active role in the campaign, compiling data on ecology and social anthropology.
Alongside the campaign team this study group became the second of three teams operating out of Ambon. A third was the legal team, which focussed on the many irregularities in the process of giving permits to the Menara Group, and examining possible legal challenges. One of the main cases they were preparing was a class action case, although aware that this had to be seen as a second-line defence, because such cases can take years to resolve. AMAN was involved with co-ordinating this group, along with the environmental NGO Kalisang.
NGOs are involved in the struggle, but both in Aru itself and in Ambon, the movement first coalesced around a network of individuals first, and NGOs only got involved at a later stage. A number of people I spoke to agreed that this was positive for the struggle. It meant that the people themselves took responsibility to stop the plantation – and didn’t build up a relationship where the people were dependent on any NGO, or an NGO convinces people to let it become a mediator between them and the company. Such patterns are common elsewhere in Indonesia, and tend to lead to a decrease in participation by ordinary people, and sometimes unnecessary compromises with the companies involved.
Instead the NGOs and other organisations which did get involved were able to enter a framework that was already strong, and were able to use the benefit of their experience and networks in a way that complemented the volunteer-based actions, rather than dominating them.
Notes about the mainstream media.
Save Aru is fairly well known around Indonesia and internationally. It is safe to say that this is almost entirely due to the website and social media strategy, because there have been very few articles in the national or international media about this issue and even locally it has only become a hot issue within the last couple of months.The exception was Maluku online, a citizen media outlet, which had been supportive and actively involved since the beginning.
Activists explain that in the beginning mainstream media in Maluku was not interested at all. What’s more, usually if you want the media at your press conference you have to pay them to attend! Save Aru activists were not interested in that, and anyway, they judged that between their online and offline strategies they would reach a much wider audience anyway. They figured they could afford to wait until the issue was too big for the media to ignore.
In Maluku that happened in about February 2014, when news broke of a secret meeting in the south of Aru attended by caretaker governor Saut Situmorang, Menara Group Boss Chairul Anhar and the Commander of the Papua Naval Base. Media started to suspect that there might be some big story about improcedural granting of permits, and since then it has become a major story in Maluku’s press, with its own momentum – now the media come looking for the story.
All of this contributed to the impression that Save Aru was a major international campaign. Petitions started on change.org and Avaaz.org are also seen as having had a major contribution to this. Activists in Aru have spoken of how the knowledge that people around the world knew of their struggle as a major strength:
“Kita bersyukur bahwa setelah kita melakukan penolakan secara bersama-sama, ada dukungan yang luar biasa mengalir dari seluruh belahan dunia, bukan hanya di Maluku, di Indonesia, tapi di seluruh belahan dunia. Dan in menjadi kekuatan besar yang selalu mendorong kami bersama-sama memperjuangkan apa yang menjadi hak kami masyarakat adat di Aru.”
A quote from the media, highlights the potential impact of this publicity: an anonymous member of the UKP4 reportedly sait: “Kami lagi mendapat tugas khusus di Unit Kerja Presiden untuk menelusurinya. Karena itu, saya ingin mendapatkan informasi netral terhadap masalah itu. Apalagi, masalah ini sudah mendapat sorotan Dunia Internasiona,”
According to that report, Menara Group’s permits were being investigated because the case had become a global concern, but if this is the case then it is only because of the efforts of people in Ambon to create alternative media. http://www.kabartimur.co.id/index.php/utama/item/1482-unit-kerja-presiden-telusuri-investasi-menara-grup
Hopefully Aru has seen the last of the Menara Group, but when the news came through, most people involved were still very cautious. Some people had been confident for some time that the Menara Group’s plan would eventually fail, but know that Aru is still at risk from other companies, including the Nusa Ina Group. Now the idea of plantations has been floated, and the status of the land changed to ‘production forest available for conversion’, it is certain that more and more companies will be attracted to the area.
On the other hand, the community opposing plantations is in a position of strength right now. Feeling in Aru is still very strong about the plantations, as could be seen in the recent legislative elections, where it reportedly dominated people’s choices of who to vote for. Any company will need to win some popular support if they are to move in, and that may be an uphill battle for them.
Clearly, longer term protection for Aru has to be the next goal. Forest Watch Indonesia recently suggested a few strategies: Pushing to get the land recognised as primary forest and therefore covered by Indonesia’s Moratorium on new deforestation permits, new legislation on protecting forest ecosystems on small islands, and regional implementation of Constitutional Court ruling 35/2012 which states that indigenous forests are not state forests. http://fwi.or.id/publikasi/president-must-intervene-forest-ecosystem-in-aru-islands/
Aside from that, it is hoped that Aru’s successful struggle will be an inspiration to other areas facing plantation threats. Some people in Ambon who were involved in the solidarity campaign with the people of Aru are looking to Seram Island, where several companies are planning big plantations. However, they are aware that the first move has to come from the affected communities themselves – if a movement springs up from the villages there, then they can expect support. Priests and others who have travelled more widely can nudge a little, provide information about the likely effects of plantations. But people know not to push too hard, any movement initiated dominated by outside activists will never be able to achieve the strength and momentum that grew in Aru.
Written by Selwyn.-