A Trip to Pandeglang

27 Dec

Pandeglang is actually a municipality, quite a large one from what I could tell, in the province of Banten, and the centre of another SPI branch.  It was a bit confusing for me because every time I went through a village I would ask Adi, my interpreter, what it’s name was and he would always say, “It’s called Pandeglang.” But we went through so many, that I began to realize that Pandeglang is the main town, or largish village, and that nearby are a number of little hamlets that probably do have names, but consider themselves part of Pandeglang.

         This journey also brought me through landscapes of extraordinary beauty, offering post-card scenes of curving steppes of bright green rice paddies against distant mountains coloured blue on the horizon. The houses we passed were also lovely, simple peak-roofed brick houses with wood-framed windows, and decorative patterns cut into the walls. A few were made of woven bamboo walls, often with geometric patterns as well, a kind of construction called bilik. Palm, breadfruit, and many other species of trees line the highway, which also served as a place to leave cloves to dry on large swatches of plastic before going to the cigarette manufacturing industry.

I was curious about the tall, narrow houses I also saw, with tiny holes instead of windows. These, I was told, were swallow barns, where the birds made nests which are collected and exported to China for birds-nest soup. And like everywhere I travelled in rural Indonesia I often saw the bulbous metal domes of village mosques, rising over the canopies of trees, glinting in the sun.

In Pandeglang, we met up with the local SPI rep, a young man named Oyo, along with two board members, Yassin and Saeful. But after spending a night here, we left early the next morning for a three-hour long motorcycle trip to a village near the coast of  east Java called Cibaliung (pronounced Chi-ba-li-ung). Here the peasants were also dealing with the heavy-handed practices of Perhum Perhutani (see entry below.)

Several years ago, Perhutani took away the farmland of these villagers, 3000 hectares that had belonged to 1500 families. Until then, average family income was the equivalent of about $800 a year, enough to live well and educate their children. Afterwards, however, the men of the village had nothing to turn to but journeyman farm labour, when they could find it, paying no more than $1 per day. In other words, government policy had created poverty where none had existed before. What’s more, that takeover had been violent: houses were burned down, crops and animals destroyed.

“It was like a war,” said Yusuf, a local SPI member, “a war against the people, against the peasant.” Accused by Perhutani of destroying forest, at least 57 men were arrested and given jail terms of a year, including Yusuf himself. Local police grabbed him one Friday morning when he was on his way to prayers, “so it was very inhuman,” he said, “very inhuman. After I was captured, I was stripped and thrown into a police car and taken away.” Perhutani charged Yusuf with destroying 100 hectares of forest, and taking tons of wood, “something that was quite impossible for someone like me,” he said.  “The evidence was only a small machete that we use to clean weeds or chop bushes. It’s irrational and certainly a lie, a very obvious lie. I believe I was imprisoned because I struggle for the rights of the people.”

A small wiry man with dark curly hair and an intense gaze,  Yusuf wore a tee-shirt with the words “Penjara Tidak Membuat Kami Jera” on it, which meant, he told me, “Even Though We have Been in Prison We Will Struggle.”

Yusuf was given an 18-month jail term. His wife, Khaeriyah and daughters, Yuhani and Siti Zuleha, found themselves in such dire circumstances that they had to go to the city of Bogor and live with Khaeriyah’s parents for two years. His experience, he said, was meant as an example, “a warning to other peasants from Perhutani and the government. If you try to fight us, this is what will happen to you.”

This action by Perhutani demonstrates the great reluctance on the part of not only this state-owned company but the state itself to cede control of Indonesia’s forests to the people who have always lived within them. Under Dutch rule, the nation’s forests were also considered state property; native Indonesians were required to provide the Dutch East India Company with compulsory labour by logging the forests for teak, and later to do this in lieu of paying land taxes. In 1873, as most of the native teak had disappeared into Holland’s shipbuilding and furniture industries, a restoration scheme began. Known as tumpang sari, it permitted peasants to cultivate food crops among teak seedlings for a maximum of two to three years.

         The current government has essentially copied this system. Perhutani was formed by the post-colonial government in 1961 to exploit some 2.5 million hectares  — almost 20 per cent of Java’s total land — of the island’s resources. It has today a monopoly on the marketing of teak, and dominates pine-resin production and trade. Indonesia also remains the world’s largest exporter of plywood – 6.3 billion cubic metres – followed by Malaysia, Brazil and China. But the government has yet to effectively deal with the fact that 70 per cent of the total harvest comes from illegal logging.

         In the worst case scenario, they harass and take land from forest peasants. In the best case scenario, they may use land for short periods of time to cultivate food, in return for looking after monoculture crops of teak, mahogany or pine. Perhutani – and the Indonesian government — calls this Community-Based Forest Management. Yet communities have no security of tenure, nowhere else to plant once seedling grow into trees and only a quarter share of the value once the timber is sold. They have no say over how many trees are planted, or which species. Who really controls and monopolizes the bounty of the forest is Perhutani, and of course its only goal is to turn a profit, over half of which goes to the government budget.

In contrast, there is the historical usage of the forest by millions of Indonesia’s forest peasants, one clearly dependent on sufficient acreages per family. This includes what Marda, president of the provincial SPI, described as “planting in one place and keeping another fallow. After a while, we move to the other part, so that former land will become a forest again. It’s like a pattern, that we have used for centuries.”

Instead of arriving at a beneficial arrangement of food production and tree planting, developed and managed by the peasant farmers themselves, Perhutani – certainly its top decision-makers – can’t let go of their control, perpetuating conflict and social upheaval. In the case of Cibaliung, Perhutani argued that the 3000 hectares they took was  actually part of the Laja Goa nature reserve in Cikeusik. And while, according to Marda,  maps clearly showed this was not the case, the village has not been supported by legal or any other kind of authority, only the SPI.

So what Yusuf and some 200 other peasant farmers have done is to go behind the company’s back, occupying and cultivating plots deep inside the forest. They walk for anywhere from two to four hours a day to reach them, sleeping there overnight during planting and harvest times. They take off a crop of dry rice once a year, then plant cloves for the cigarette industry. “Now we can harvest,” said Yusuf, “even if we have to do it quietly, way inside the forest. At least we have something to live on. At least we can survive. I believe this is an improvement, a step toward our success in the future.”



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