Kebumen, Central Java. The subdistrict of Buluspesantren in Kebumen on the southern coast of Central Java was at one time plagued by thieves, carjackers and hoodlums, local farmer Seniman recalls.
This all changed 20 years ago when villagers took to learning farming methods in order to grow crops in the beach sand.
The beaches in Kebumen are blessed with high concentrations of iron, enriching them with nutrients and allowing for bountiful harvests all year round.
“Chilies, tomatoes, watermelons, dragon fruit — all of these are grown here and are of premium quality,” Seniman, head of the Forum for South Kebumen Farmers (FPPKS) told the Jakarta Globe, as he cut open a ripe watermelon.
He said that during harvest time, locals could easily earn up to Rp 8 million ($930) in profit.
“Farming in sandy beaches in the area brought welfare to locals who were previously impoverished,” he said.
The business has become so successful that crime rates have plummeted. Local youths who once had to look for work in the big cities have chosen to stay home.
But the huge iron concentration that acts as a natural crop fertilizer has also attracted large mining companies eager to extract the valuable resource from the sand.
According to documents from the Kebumen district administration obtained by the Globe, district head Mohammad Nashiruddin Al Mansyur revised the district’s spatial master plan to this effect last year.
In a letter to the Central Java Environmental Office, Nashiruddin states that adjustment to the master plan was needed to accommodate a mining site to be operated by Jakarta-based Mitra Niagatama Cemerlang, or MNG, In another document, the Kebumen administration gave MNG permission to conduct iron sand mining in six villages across the subdistrict of Mirit.
The future mining area, the document says, would be expanded more than seven kilometers in length along Kebumen’s southeast coastline, encroaching on the villagers’ fields.
According to MNG’s investment offering letter, the company estimates that the area contains more than 11 million metric tons of iron reserves.
Haris Azhar, coordinator of the Commission for Missing Persons and Victims of Violence (Kontras), suspects that the Indonesian Army collaborated with iron sand mining investors to put a stop to mounting public criticism over MNG’s plans.
“There are indications that elements of the Army were seeking to get involved in the mining business in Kebumen’s coastal area,” Haris said. “We have documents that strengthen these indications, but we still need to analyze them before reaching any conclusions.”
Army spokesman Brig. Gen. Wiryantoro has denied the allegations of collusion.
“We can’t comment on the iron ore issue, because the military has nothing to do with business as stipulated by the law,” he said.
However, according to a document obtained by the Globe, Maj. Gen. Haryadi Soetanto, then chief of the Diponegoro Military Command, which oversees Army operations in the province, sent a letter to MNG director Imam Mudzakir on Sept. 25, 2008, providing consent to the company’s request to mine the area.
The letter states that former Army Chief of Staff Agsutadi Sasongko gave the Diponegoro Military Command approval for the proposal on Aug. 27, 2008. The letter also states that the military command itself had “no objection” to MNG’s use of the land.
It is not known how much, if any, the Army would be compensated by the company for the use of the land. The bigger question is whether the military actually has the rights to it. Some of the farmers have protested the claim, with bloody results.
Since Dutch colonial rule, Kebumen’s southern coast has been used as an infantry training ground. After Indonesia gained its independence in 1945, the newly established Indonesian Military used the area for testing strategic weaponry, particularly surface-to-surface missiles.
The Army argues that the state granted the land in question to the military in 1949.
“We have the complete documents ready to trump any other documents belonging to anyone else,” said Lt. Col. Zaenal Muttaqien, a spokesman for the Diponegoro Military Command. He denied any knowledge of deals with the mining company.
But local farmer Aris Panji said the military was conducting its yearly exercises on land that rightfully belonged to locals.
“In the early years after the Indonesian Military was established, they used to ask for locals’ permission to conduct their training. After a while the military began to believe the land was theirs,” Aris said.
“Locals pay land taxes for property used by the military, even since the Dutch era,” he added. “Locals who live inside the [training] site all have land certificates. What kind of certificate does [the military] have? All I know is that they own a plot of land used for storage and it is rightfully owned by them, but that is all.”
FPPKS chairman Seniman said the land dispute between locals and the military began in 2006 when the military asked to be compensated by the government during the construction of the South Java highway that runs through the area.
“We were enraged. How could the military ask for compensation over something that isn’t theirs?” Seniman said.
But rather than settling the dispute, Aris said the military instead expanded their training area and began to encroach onto existing farmland.
“The training site is originally around 250 hectares in Ambal [subdistrict] with another 500 meters from that area serving as a safe zone. But eventually the safe zone became the outer marker for the training area and they added another 500 meters to that area,” Aris said.
“Eventually they gained control over land stretching from Mirit subdistrict in the east to Buluspesantren subdistrict in the west.”
Kabul Supriyadhie, from the National Commission for Human Rights (Komnas HAM), said that its studies found that military claims over the properties could not be substantiated.
“A lot of land that the military claims does not have a clear status. According to our records, only 16 percent of hundreds of hectares of land claimed to be owned by the military has certificates,” Kabul said.
The dispute in Kebumen prompted a demonstration on April 11, just prior to the start of the military’s yearly exercises. Locals erected makeshift roadblocks shutting off access to the area.
But the protest boiled over five days later when military officers opened fire on a group of protesters in Setrojenar, Buluspesantren. Fourteen farmers were injured.
Witnesses claimed that those shot were not involved in the demonstration and said that the troops were targeting local figures like Seniman and Aris. Seniman sustained a gunshot wound after a shot grazed the top of his head while Aris was hit repeatedly with the butt of an automatic rifle.
Kontras’s Haris said there were indications that the military used live ammunition. The Army says it used rubber bullets.
Teguh Purnomo, a Kebumen-based lawyer representing the farmers, challenged the military to settle the dispute in court.
“The fact is that most of the farmers in the area have government-issued certificates and land deeds,” Teguh said. “The Army must acknowledge that it has conducted business deals with mining companies, which is violating its pledge to reform itself by not conducting business.”
Conditions in Setrojenar and other nearby villages are still tense, with locals stepping up neighborhood watches and staying alert for strangers.
“It is now clear that there is big money behind the military’s violent actions toward us,” Seniman said. “This is our land. We will defend it even if we are up against bullets and guns.
( x the JG)