The Brave Little Gecko


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I light up the woods with my presence. I am most marvellous. Where Marianto was a political insider, a mover and shaker in the logging game who soured on the man he once considered an ally, Nordin was a campaigner who hounded the palm oil companies ravaging Seruyan.

He also had strong connections to and within the district. His uncle had served as the regional secretary, the highest position in its civil service. He had managed to uncover most of the names involved, noting like Marianto that many of the addresses to which the companies were registered were either duds or owned by the bupati and his family. He was adamant that other people had been used in the same way. The story is, I use your name to make a permit to sell to someone else. The name Ambrin M Yusuf appeared as director of one of the companies.

We tracked him down to his house in Kuala Pembuang, where he had recently returned after serving a jail term for his role as a bag man delivering cash in a local bribery scandal. He admitted to being a political ally of Darwan, and said that intermediaries had asked him to put his name to the company. But he claimed, implausibly, that he had turned them down, and that the person named in the documents was another man with the same name.

Nordin and Marianto believed that other people whose names appeared were more complicit. They both pointed to a man named Khaeruddin Hamdat as a central figure. Khaeruddin appeared as director of three of the companies, though never a shareholder. It is a term commonly used in Indonesia for the person who serves variously as the advisor, right-hand man and fixer for important politicians. Known as Daeng, an affectionate term for a man from his home island of Sulawesi, Khaeruddin was only in his mids by the time the companies were formed.

Khaeruddin declined to comment for this article. Most of those involved in the scheme proved to be elusive or declined to comment when they got a sense of what we were asking questions about. But one of the few people we knew for sure where to find was Hamidhan Ijuh Biring. He had been jailed for yet another corruption scandal , and we tracked him down to a prison on a main boulevard in Palangkaraya, the provincial capital. He told us that he had set up the company and received a license from Darwan, but lacked the capital to develop a plantation.

Darwan encouraged him to sell the company to a political ally in Jakarta who also served as director of an existing plantation company in the district. After the deal went through, Hamidhan received one portion of the payment but the second, he later discovered, went directly to Darwan. Before his relationship with Darwan soured, Hamidhan was an insider, campaigning with him ahead of his re-election bid.

He said that whenever he met the bupati, Khaeruddin was there with him. The sequence of events after the shell companies were formed tells us two things. Firstly, that the intent was never for the founders to develop the plantations themselves. Between December and May , Darwan gave 16 of the companies permits for plantations. By the end of , at least nine of them had been sold on to major palm oil firms for hundreds of thousands of dollars. It seems implausible that a series of interconnected people, in many cases family members, would concurrently form companies only to decide that they lacked the capacity to run them.

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The sole explanation is that they were set up to be sold, endowed with assets from Darwan. Secondly, it tells us there was a strong degree of coordination in the ways they were both formed and sold. Most of the companies were established within a small window of time, many of them just days apart. Several were also sold within a small period of time some months later. Eight of the shell companies were bought by the Kuoks in late In the scheme of things, it was a pittance, a fraction of what the Kuoks would earn from the plantations if they were developed.

But in these deals, the shareholders linked to Darwan also kept a 5 percent stake in each of the companies, which could make each of them multi-millionaires in their own right. Wilmar was already attracting heat for a litany of illegalities and social and environmental abuses across its plantations.

The same year, a consortium of NGOs filed a complaint with the World Bank ombudsman, providing evidence, later upheld , that the institution had breached its own safeguards by financing the controversial firm.

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In an email responding to questions for this article, Wilmar told us that it had decided to mothball the companies issued by Darwan after engaging with NGOs. It declined to mention when the decision was made, and continued to list the companies in its annual reports as late as Triputra declined several requests for an interview, directed to Arif Rachmat, although they did respond to some questions via email.

By the end of , two of these companies had already begun clearing vast tracts of forest, peat soil and farmland. Triputra would emerge as one of the worst oil palm companies in Seruyan for people and the environment, in a crowded field. Marianto was certain that Darwan had betrayed his constituents. By the time he met the whistleblower in early , the plantation boom was fully underway, yet the average Seruyan resident remained worse off than in the era of logging.

Now, the only option for many farmers was to earn a pitiful wage as a labourer on one of the estates. They were losing their farmland, the destruction of forests deprived them of food and other resources, and fishing grew increasingly difficult in polluted waters. Above all, the promise that the mega-plantations would be accompanied by smallholdings for the farmers, thereby cutting them in on the spoils, went undelivered. The leak confirmed that his motivations lay elsewhere. As drew to a close, delegates from around the world arrived on the Indonesian island of Bali for the 13th annual UN climate change conference.

But in the high rises of Jakarta a different game was afoot. Four days before the UN summit began, as Darwan Ali prepared to campaign for his first direct election, his son Ruswandi stepped into the Kadin Tower for his meeting with Arif Rachmat, to cut another deal with Triputra. After Suharto resigned there was optimism that the grand larceny of his regime would recede. It was hoped that the rapid decentralisation of authority would shift accountability for political decisions close to the people affected by them.

But by , the year of the first direct vote for bupati of Seruyan, it was increasingly clear that corruption had simply been moved down through the system. Elections were a cornerstone of this game. They had become hugely expensive affairs, with the cost proportionate to the amount of power over lucrative projects or natural resources the winner could dole out to supporters. For bupatis governing land- and forest-rich districts, they routinely ran into the millions of dollars.

Berenschot, Aspinall and other academics who have studied Indonesian elections over the past two decades have identified a uniform, systematic process by which candidates spend their money. First, they pay off officials in their political party to ensure their selection as a candidate. Then they provide cash for the success team to buy up the support of local powerbrokers — village chiefs, religious leaders and the heads of sports clubs who enjoy extensive influence in some places. These individuals in turn solicit the support of people within their own spheres of influence.

Candidates organise expensive rallies and concerts, paying for popular singers to perform and handing out free meals. This, Berenschot told us, is the costliest part for candidates. The funds come from local businesspeople and contractors, in the expectation of rewards if the candidate is successful. At the time, Hamidhan told us, he already believed that Darwan had ripped him off. But he still thought he could be rewarded if the incumbent retained his seat, and he was in on the winning ticket.

In February , Darwan won the election and resumed his position as bupati of Seruyan for a second five-year term. To celebrate, his brother Darlen organised a concert near the lake, featuring the singer Rhoma Irama, known as the King of Dangdut. He prevailed despite a brewing storm, as resentment of the plantations grew. The consequences of the land deals he presided over would soon become fully apparent to the people of his district. For two years he had nursed a small patch of oil palm east of Lake Sembuluh, and hundreds of saplings were now close to bearing fruit.

The police told Marjuansyah that they had come on company business. The cash would not last long, while the palms he had cultivated could provide him an income for the rest of his life, a security net as he entered old age. He did not want to sell, but felt uneasy about refusing a firm whose approach had been made through the police.

Hoping to put them off the trail, he later told them he could accept no less than twice what they were offering. Instead, he told us, Triputra found other people to stake a false claim to his land, and paid them for it. Pliant local officials vouched for the transaction. The company ran bulldozers over his farm — smallholder oil palm is typically inferior to corporate-grown trees — and demolished a cottage he had built. A similar fate befell many of the people of Seruyan as plantation firms advanced through their farmlands and the surrounding forests. It was not uncommon for the companies to offer some money for their land, presumably in the hope of heading off resistance.

But it was not, as Marjuansyah found, a negotiation, and there was little option to refuse. The farmers were at a disadvantage because the state did not recognise their land rights. As Marjuansyah also found, they could be forged or manipulated. Many land claims were overlapping, a situation that had not troubled village life when there was no commercial pressure on land, and they could be resolved through customary law. When the companies arrived, they ignited and exploited these disputes, buying land from whomever would sell it first.

The presence of the police in negotiating with Marjuansyah was not an isolated incident. His appeals to the company were ignored. Really, those people are the thieves. But the law is selective. Through the s and s it experimented with various models , involving both the state and private sector. Most commonly, firms were required to equip local farmers with smallholdings planted with oil palm.

Just a couple of hectares of mature trees could transform the lives of an impoverished family in rural Indonesia.


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The proportion of land that companies had to provide varied. Cede too much to the firms and the communities would not benefit; too little and the investment would be unappealing. By the prevailing regulation was ambiguous over how companies were to support local farmers, but clear that they had to do it. In the rules became more concrete, requiring companies to provide, plant and hand over an area of smallholdings equivalent to a fifth of their license. Every company greenlighted by Darwan was bound by these rules, but across the board they failed to comply. From the moment the Kuoks and Rachmats came into the district, in the early s, they had promised smallholdings.

If the early land grabs were a cold hard shock, the dearth of smallholdings was a sting that lingered. The villagers had lost their farms, the rivers had become polluted, the best jobs on the plantations went to outsiders seen as more skilled, and day labour picking fruit paid too little to live with dignity. When Triputra sparked alarm with a plan to build a processing facility upstream of Lake Sembuluh, residents who complained were met with threats from the bupati himself.

Yet he soon came to the view that it was futile to try to change the system from within. We never imagined it would be like this. I think he saw being bupati as his chance to make as much money as possible. As the futility of opposition through the state — village institutions, police, parliament, and bupati — dawned on the farmers of Seruyan, they began to take direct action. A man named Sadarsyah who claimed his land was grabbed by Triputra became a symbol of the unresolved conflicts in early , prompting villagers to block a company road for days.

Triputra accused him of fraud and reported the protesters to the police. The bupati controlled the parliament. Meanwhile in a Wilmar subsidiary, hundreds of villagers shut down a main road into the concession, where mill effluents continued to pollute local water supplies. Anti-riot police had by then become a frequent sight in the plantation. The prospect of a prosecution by the KPK hovered over Darwan. They searched government offices for data over several trips to Kuala Pembuang, the seaside district capital, according to Marianto.

He said he received a threat against his children, sent to his phone. Toward the end of July , tensions in Seruyan came to a head. The protesters represented 27 villages, and had come to air the twin grievances of land grabs and the failure to provide smallholdings. They were accompanied by sympathetic members of the local parliament, including Budiardi. The people unfurled their banners, set up a general kitchen and declared their intent to stay put until Darwan came to meet them. Days later, Darwan finally emerged from the door of the parliament building.

Stepping out onto a raised veranda, he looked down upon the protesters surrounding it. He had deep jowls and a lopsided smile that gave him a sardonic expression. He was accompanied by an entourage of aides and other government figures, including the chief of the local police. James Watt and other protest leaders used a megaphone to recite their demands. They wanted the bupati to use his authority to push the companies to resolve land conflicts, and force them to provide a fifth of their land for community plantations. Darwan listened, and replied that he welcomed the arrival of the people and would try to convey their aspirations to the companies.

But he said it would be impossible for companies to provide smallholdings from within their plantations as they were not legally required to do so. They shouted him down, yelling at him that he was a liar, as James remembers it. Darwan raised his hand to try to quiet them. They kept on shouting. The protest took place during a sharp escalation of conflicts over land across Indonesia. The following month, a murky conflict in Mesuji, southern Sumatra, became the centre of national attention after a retired general screened a video at a parliamentary hearing in Jakarta, purportedly showing evidence that the security guards of an oil palm company had beheaded farmers.

A few months later, hundreds of villagers occupied a port on Sumbawa island in defiance of a mining permit issued to an Australian firm. After five days, riot police opened fire on the blockade, killing two teenagers.


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  • The same month, 28 farmers from an island off the Sumatran coast sewed their mouths shut to protest a plantation license that covered more than a third of their island. Budiardi, the local parliament member from Seruyan, saw it differently. Fed up after years of petitioning the company, they used a truck and rope and ripped out several of its palm trees by the root. Everyone who participated was imprisoned for several months. Ignoring the summons, Budiardi travelled to Jakarta with a delegation of Hanau residents for a hearing at the national parliament.

    He was tried and sentenced to four months in prison. Upon completing his prison term and returning home, he emptied out his file cabinet, took copies of permits Darwan had issued and other documents behind his house, and set them on fire. By the time of the election in Seruyan, in April , the post-Suharto era was buckling under the weight of local leaders who had honed the manipulation of democracy into a fine craft. Entire clans swept into the halls of government, as district chiefs sought to continue their reign beyond term limits, installing their spouses, siblings, cousins and children into political office.

    Based on the usual rules of the game, Ruswandi looked like a shoo-in. Every one of the 12 parties with a seat in the local parliament had taken its place behind him. His main challenger had been forced out of the race when one of the parties withdrew its support and backed Ruswandi at the final hour. The head of its chapter in Seruyan expressed confusion at the decision, which had been made at the provincial level.

    Underneath, the machine is the same.

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