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Indonesian court jails indigenous farmer in conflict with APP

JAKARTA (From news reports) -- Activists have condemned the conviction and jailing of an indigenous farmer in Sumatra whose community is embroiled in a long-standing land dispute with paper giant Asia Pulp & Paper (APP).

On May 18, a court in Bengkalis district, Riau province, sentenced 58-year-old Bongku, from the Sakai indigenous tribe, to one year in prison and ordered him to pay 200 million rupiah ($13,800) in fines for cutting down acacia and eucalyptus trees planted by PT Arara Abadi (AA), a subsidiary of APP.

While the company holds the concession to the land, the Sakai settled it decades earlier. AA's concession spans 292,262 hectares (722,195 acres), an area larger than Luxembourg; Bongku had cleared half a hectare (1.2 acres), chopping down 20 of the company's pulpwood trees near his home in Duluk Songkal village to plant sweet potatoes for his family.

"Bongku only planted a miniscule percentage of AA's concession, and the company took issue with that," said Rian Adelima Sibarani, head of operations at the Riau chapter of the Legal Aid Foundation (LBH Pekanbaru), which represented Bongku at trial. "If AA has a good intention to increase the welfare of people around its concession and respect the Sakai community, whose presence is also acknowledged by AA, then the company wouldn't have done that."

Bongku's supporters have taken issue with how prosecutors and judges handled the trial, starting with the indictment. In making their case, prosecutors charged Bongku under a 2013 forestry law that was drafted to tackle illegal logging by organized syndicates. Given that Bongku wasn't part of any syndicate and didn't profit from the trees felled, he should never have faced trial on those charges, said Asep Yunan Firdaus, the executive director of NGO Epistema Institute.

"In their verdict, the judges didn't elaborate on any link between Bongku and a forestry crime syndicate," Asep said. "It means that Bongku can't be prosecuted under the 2013 law."

LBH Pekanbaru director Andi Wijaya said the judges also ignored the fact that there's an ongoing conflict between the company and the Sakai tribe and that the land is contested.

"There's a tenurial conflict," he said "So the conflict has to be solved first through civil means. But this fact wasn't mentioned at all by the judges."

Andi said the prosecution then pivoted to a case of deforestation. But even that charge, under Indonesia's criminal code, should have been thrown out by the court because it may only be brought in cases of the public interest, Andi said. In this case, he added, the aggrieved party is a private company.

Prosecutors justified their use of the deforestation charge by arguing that Bongku's actions -- felling 20 trees out of tens of thousands belonging to AA -- would have materially impacted the company's revenue and hence the amount of tax it paid to the state, thereby making it a matter of public interest.

But the notion of lost tax revenue is ironic, given that AA and APP's parent company, Sinar Mas, has been accused by the Riau provincial legislature of avoiding taxes, Andi said.

In 2018, the group paid 84 billion rupiah ($5.8 million) in taxes to the province, but should have been liable for another 400 billion rupiah ($27.8 million), according to the legislators. They derived that figure from the production capacity that year of APP's giant paper mill, operated by subsidiary PT Indah Kiat Pulp and Paper.

Sinar Mas has denied allegations of tax avoidance, saying it has filed all taxes online since 2017 and thus is monitored by the tax agency.


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