The debate over clans’ land in Bupul village as forest become an oil palm plantation

Land conflict for oil palm is still an issue in Merauke

Two children ran towards the forest. As they got closer to the trees that at first seemed to be a thick forest, a broad carpet of felled trees became visible.

The two could witness exactly how the green bulldozers were working to clear away the trees. From afar, the sound of falling trees could be heard clearly. Several times they pointed out the heavy machinery that was working off in the distance.

“That’s a beko – a beko is what we call a ‘dozer. Every day the bekos are working to clear our forest”, Agustinus shouted

Agustinus is slender, his friend Yupens is more sturdy. They are both in the 5th class of YPPK Santo Petrus primary school in Bupul village, Elikobel, Merauke Regency, Papua.

“Bro, this forest is where we play with bows and arrows, or spears, and go to look for birds. At the furthest point over there, there’s a river. After playing in the forest, we normally go swimming in the river.”, added Yupens

“Our teacher said that later if there’s an oil palm plantation and the waste goes into the river, we won’t be able to swim there any more.”


Yupens and Agustinus’ village, Bupul, isn’t far from the Trans-Papua road which connects Merauke Regency with Boven Digoel. Bupul can be reached from Merauke in about 3-4 hours. There are many military checkpoints along the road because the area is close to the Papua New Guinea border.

The majority of indigenous people in Bupul belong to the Yei ethnic group, which some people describe as a sub-ethnic group of the Marind. In general they are dependant on the forest to meet their needs.

The forest Agustinus and Yupens were pointing out is the ancestral forest of the Wonijai clan. The company has already paid the clan for this land, obtaining their consent both through polite persuasion and through use of state security forces. The company plied the people with promises of “a better life” until some of the local people agreed to release their ancestral land. The others, who opposed it, felt that these promises were motivated by nothing other than the company’s desire to take control of the Wonijai land.


One evening in 2015, a group of people paid a visit to Simon Wonijai’s house. They were company representatives. One of them was well built, seemingly a member of the police or military. They were trying to find Simon, but the 68 year old man was nowhere to be found.

“I avoided them on purpose”, said Simon Wonijai, when I met him at his home in mid-October. “They wanted to ask for my signature [on land release documents] as I’m the clan leader, and so they brought the plain-clothes policeman that night.”

The company that Simon was talking about is PT Agrinusa Persada Mulia, referred to locally as PT APM. This company is under the Agro Mandiri Semesta Group, otherwise known as Ganda Group. The owner is Ganda, brother of the founder of Wilmar International, Martua Sitorus [awasMIFEE note: in 2017, this group has started referring to itself as Gama Plantation, Gama being a combination of GA-nda and MA-rtua].

PT Agrinusa Persada Mulia was given its initial permit on 13th January 2010, based on the Merauke Bupati’s decree 4/2010. That permit covered 40,000 hectares in Muting sub-district.

Since 2013, the company has started to expand onto company land in Elikobel sub-district. The way it does this is to produce a land release contract and then give the local community compensation, which is referred to as “tali asih” [a vague term which suggests a friendly payment without commitment]

“In the end I was forced to sign the land release document”, Simon admitted.

He spoke about the various techniques the company has used to persuade people into giving up their land. He said that these techniques caused divisions within clans. “The person who sold the land and engaged in negotiations with the company was Ruben Wonigai,” said Simon. Ruben is still part of Simon’s family.

“The company managed to persuade Ruben, and then his task was to win over other clan members, including myself, to sign the land release contract”

Although he has already signed the document, Simon claims that he has still never received a copy of the contract. The company keeps hold of it. He cannot even say for sure the area of the land he has released.

“It’s about 900 hectares,”he estimates.

The company gives them a low price for their land, only around 300,000 Rupiah per hectare. The total amount the company paid for the Wonijai clan’s land was around 600 million Rupiah. From that amount, Simon claims that the share he received was 50 million Rupiah.

“When you hear it, 600 million sounds like a lot. But it has to be shared amongst the whole family, with different amounts. I got 50 million, and this had to be shared out further between my children and grandchildren. Actually, it isn’t fair.”


The process of how the company acquired land in Bupul appears never to have been transparent, always murky, and in the end this has made the community nervous.

A smartphone video filmed in October 2016 shows how an example letter appeared bearing the name of Simon Wonijai, asking PT APM for a loan.

This loan was supposedly to pay for the medical care of someone who was ill and the costs of care during childbirth. It mentioned that the payment would be taken off from the company’s tali asih payment. The strange thing was that Simon Wonijai’s signature wasn’t on the letter.

Because of this letter, in early 2017, Simon got in trouble with the state. He was picked up by two police officers while attending church in Bupul village. He was asked to sign the letter, but he managed to resist and didn’t sign.

Father Anselmus Amo, the director of SKP KAME Merauke – the humanitarian arm of the Merauke Catholic Diocese – talked about the problem. He had witnessed how the police had approached Simon while he was in the church.

“If [as they say] there was a letter from Simon to borrow money to be used for the costs of medical treatment and giving birth, we should go back and question this. I am convinced that Simon did not want to sign, and would only have signed if he was trapped or forced into it. The company uses various techniques, even making use of police to get signatures”, Amo said

He believes that the company has used many different strategies to get the land, including creating conflicts between clans and individuals. He gave the example of the Mandaljai clan, only one person signed away the land rights without the knowledge of the clan chief.

“Rafael Mandaljai, the clan chief, did not agree to release the land. However the company based the land release on the signature of his brother, Thomas Mandaljai. In the end Thomas fled to Papua New Guinea because he has released the land to PT APM”, Amo explained.

He also said that the company did not pay attention to places of high conservation value on the ancestral land. The company’s land clearing was also contaminating local rivers.

On another occasion, Kanisius Wonijai, son of Simon Wonijai, told of the company’s attempts to cajole them with enticing promises. This included scholarships for the clan’s children, building places of worship, building a school and help with medical care for the sick. The company also promised an outboard motor which people could use on the river.

“But since they first arrived in 2013, not a single one of these promises has been carried out, up until now.”

Kanisius has now taken on the role of Bupul village secretary. He is 40 years old. He was previously one of the members of the Wonijai clan that was most vocal in his opposition to releasing ancestral land to the company.

In 2015, he protested to the company. The issue was that people felt the company had cleared land outside the agreed area. He protested by placing a wooden pole to mark their ancestral land which had been cleared by the company and converted into plantation blocks. As a result he was confronted by company employees.

“If anyone dares to clear this land, I will kill him!” screamed Kanisius, repeating his words at the time.

Out of fear, company employees were not brave enough to work on this land, which in practice meant no work took place there for one year.

“But the company came back again [this time] with intel and the military. They showed the land release document which had been signed by Ruben Wonijai. Feeling weak, there was nothing more I could do,” he said slowly.

I tried to meet with Ruben Wonijai, who Simon and Kanisius had talked about, but he was nowhere to be found. It seemed as if he had already left the village. Ruben disappeared because he had problems with several people as a result of having sold the land.

“Ruben fled with his wife. He’s got lots of problems. Not only with us, because he took matters into his own hands and sold land to the company, but also with other outsiders,” said Kanisius.

Kanisus hopes that their attempts at resistance will be supported by other clans. But he knows the chances are slim. Some people are scared because the company often shows up with police or military. The people are intimidated, or otherwise they have been fooled by the company’s persuasiveness.

“Actually, not all the clan members were in agreement that we should sell our land. Unfortunately the letter we signed was never given to us. The company said it would make photocopies and share them with us, but this has still not happened,” said Markus Dambujai, another local resident. He claims that he is one of the people for whom the land release issue is still not fully settled.

“The company keeps coming and trying to convince us, until now. Hopefully our clan won’t succumb to the temptation of the company’s attempts to talk us round,” said Ricardus Mekiuw, 40 years old, another resident


Back on 28th February 2013, when the company was making its first approaches in Bupul village, according to information on awasMIFEE, PT APM gave ‘tali asih’ money to villagers. This meeting took place at the Elikobel sub-district office, located on the Trans-Papua road, and was witnessed by the District Military Commander at the time, Lt. Col. INF Dedi Hardono, commander of infantry battalion 726/TML Major Setyono, First Assistant to the Merauke District Secretary Recky Teurupin, PT APM’s boss Gazali Arief, heads of local government agencies and community leaders.

It was said at the time that money was paid as cash to three clans, Keyijai, Wonijai and Kewamijai. Kewamijai got 10,174,500 Rupiah, Wonijai 53,620,000 Rupiah and Keyijai 620.921.000.

“As far as I know, the clans that have sold their ancestral land to PT APM are Keyijai, Wonijai, Kewamijai and Mandaljai. Then there are other clans that have sold their land to a different company, PT Internusa Jaya Sejahtera – Dambujai, Mjai and some small sub-clans of Dambujai,” said Pasificus Anggojai, the head of Bupul village.

Apart from PT APM, according to Yayasan Pusaka’s reports, PT IJS was given a location permit to plant 18587 hectares of oil palm in Merauke in 2013. The parent company is the Indonusa Agromulia Group which owns plantations in Sumatra. This company also has obtained permits for oil palm concessions in South Sorong regency.

Although the money seems to be a lot to go around, Pasificus Anggojai says that it won’t last for ever. There are more disadvantages than benefits. Offers to release land in exchange for money have caused divisions within clans. Clan members who have already been enticed by the company’s offers then become “public relations”, which means their duty is to persuade others to sell their land.

He says that in most transactions, the company has come to meet directly with the customary rights holders, and then set out its promises. One of these was that it would give work to local residents, but in practice that has been limited to unskilled labour.

“And then the money people got from selling their land to the company is shared out and is all gone very quickly. Now there are people who regret releasing their land.”


I also tried to get confirmation of what happened from the company side. They gave very different answers. Mulyadi, a representative of PT APM, explained that the community’s land was not being bought, but instead what could be described as being borrowed, or given compensation for plants growing there.

This means that the community’s land was being leased for a 30 year period in accordance with the duration of the company’s cultivation rights title (HGU), and 20% of the land would be for the community anyway as it would become smallholder estates.

“The community also signed in front of a notary and local government representatives”, said Mulyadi. “You can check for yourself with the public relations guys in the plantation who are in contact with the community”.

The “public relations guys” Mulyadi referred to are people from the village that have already agreed to the company’s plans, including customary landowners and their children. He also said that if there were any accusations that the company had sown divisions in the community, they weren’t true.

“I was responsible for public relations previously, but now I work on permits for the company. Our principle is to only clear land if it is in accordance with the Regency’s spatial plan and is Clean and Clear. This means we only will clear land if the community agrees to this,” he said.

Mulyadi said that actually PT APM had paid more for land than other plantation companies in the area, such as Korindo, IJS or Bio Inti Agrindo (a subsidiary of the Posco Daewoo group).

“We have a standard price. Our land is the highest, 500,000 Rupiah per hectare. Others are still only paying 287,000 or 400,000 per hectare”, Mulyadi said.

Regarding Corporate Social Responsibility, he says it has to be done in stages “It’s not possible that a company that has only been operating for only one year can put everything in place straight away. We do things in stages. We’ve started by helping with educational scholarships, to high school for example. There’s also lots of aid we’ve given.”

Father Amo said the opposite. Regarding the company’s claims to provide CSR aid, he said that actually lots of children drop out of school, especially in the lands of the clans which have already become oil palm, such as the Keyijai, Kewamijai, Wonijai and Mandaljai clans’ land.

“I just got back from Bupul village where I found out that lots of children have dropped out of school and are just getting drunk instead”, said Amo. He said the company should publish the data of how many children’s education it had supported through scholarships.

The head of the Environmental Management Agency for Papua Province, Noak Kapisa, when asked for confirmation, said that all the information circulating needed to be checked out on the ground, including whether or not the company was carrying out its environmental responsibilities as mandated.

“Also, if the community wants to complain, they should tell us their complaints. I’ve never received a single complaint”, said Noak

According to him, there are no problems with the company’s permits, because they followed a tight process which also involved the community. He also said that the company makes periodic reports about developments on the ground.

“If the community feels it has been disadvantaged, it should make a written report, including the accusation that the company is considered to have sown division in the community.”


Yupens is one of the smarter kids in his class – recently he took second place. He understands that a significant change has taken place in his village, one that will affect his generation. He is a living witness to the moment the forest landscape was turned into a monoculture plantation.

Making jokes as they throw dead branches at one another, Yupens and Agustinus also run around, as if welcoming the fate already sketched out that will determine their future. Whether they like it or not, they and friends their age in the village will have to live alongside that notorious agribusiness commodity:oil palm.

Source: Mongabay Indonesia

Author: Christopel Paino

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