In the village of Tewah, in the heart of Indonesian Borneo, stands a wooden church named Immanuel. When the church was founded by German missionaries more than a century ago, Tewah would have been a very different place, surrounded by impenetrable rainforest, and accessible only via the Kahayan, a giant river flowing down from the mountains in the centre of the island. Today, Tewah is connected to surrounding villages by deeply rutted roads that cut through increasingly fragmented forests. Its narrow streets are dotted with shops that buy and sell gold, dredged up from the riverbeds by young indigenous men.
The current custodian of the church is Mariyady, a charismatic priest with a young family and a Cheshire Cat smile. We heard about Mariyady in the nearby village of Sare Rangan, whose residents were navigating the complexities of a rapidly changing life, after discovering that their land had been licensed to a plantation firm to grow oil palms on a massive scale. The license was one of five issued by then district chief Hambit Bintih in 2012. These licenses were the subject of a 16-month investigation by Mongabay and The Gecko Project, in which we revealed how Hambit had used land deals to bankroll a corrupt election campaign in the district of Gunung Mas.
The scheme worked like this: Hambit used his protégé, Cornelis Nalau Antun, to set up a series of shell companies. Then Hambit issued the shell companies with permits for vast areas of land encompassing dozens of villages, including Sare Rangan. Finally the shell companies were sold on to a Malaysian firm called CB Industrial Product. The villagers of Gunung Mas knew nothing of the way their land was being casually traded for millions of dollars — until stakes were planted to demarcate the companies’ concessions.
When we met Dinur, the chief of Sare Rangan, he was dealing with the fallout of Hambit’s permit trading. It was an uphill battle; as is the case with most indigenous communities in Indonesia, the territorial rights of the Sare Rangan community were not recognized by law. Dinur and other village leaders were engaged in a complex process of determining how to manage their society and resources, in the face of the greatest potential change they had ever faced. Some villagers had decided to relinquish their land to the company for meagre compensation, though it was unclear what right, if any, they had to refuse.
As rain poured down amid the fading light one afternoon in 2017, Dinur explained how the villagers had initially sought to oppose the plantation project. But then some of them gave in to the company’s entreaties, and bulldozers steadily began to move into their farms and the rainforest surrounding the village. Dinur said he didn’t know why they had dealt with the company. “I’m afraid,” he told us. “If the people sell their land, there will be no places to farm anymore. The land will be gone.”
Dinur said his record of the contracts signed between villagers and the company, now a subsidiary of CB Industrial Product, had been taken by Mariyady, who was investigating the deals. We found Mariyady in his small wooden home next to Immanuel church on the banks of the Kahayan. He told us that, a decade earlier, he had been stationed in Sare Rangan as a young priest.
“It was still pristine,” Mariyady said. “There was clean drinking water, a lot of forest. I would climb into the hills, into the forests that people said were sacred, haunted — because the trees were so large.”
After two years in Sare Rangan, Mariyady was transferred to another community. He returned in 2016 to lead the church across the subdistrict, from his perch in Tewah. But when he returned to Sare Rangan, he found the forest had been destroyed. His fear for the fate of the villagers was compounded by his experience in other areas in which plantations had taken hold, where clean drinking water was hard to come by, and conflicts simmered between large companies and local people.
Mariyady began researching the contracts between the villagers and the company in Sare Rangan. He said the villagers were being ripped off by the compensation they were paid — he described it as “murder”. They would lose their rights to the land passed down to them through generations, which they relied upon for their livelihoods and sustenance, for at least 35 years. It was not yet clear what, if anything, they would receive in return.
“For the community in Sare Rangan, there has been no contribution [from palm oil],” Mariyady said. “The forest was cut, the water is polluted. Now the land has been sold to investors, people won’t get it back for seven generations. There will be nowhere else for them to develop.”
Mariyady blamed the district government for failing to protect the villages from exploitative land acquisitions. “The people are not to blame because they lack knowledge and education,” he said. “The real sinners are those in office.”
Our investigation showed the blame was well-placed. Hambit Bintih’s 2013 election campaign ended with an attempt to bribe the chief justice of the Constitutional Court, with money that appears to have come from the Gunung Mas land deals. The licenses nevertheless remain in place to this day. As the scandal faded from the public eye, community leaders like Mariyady were left to deal with the fallout, as companies took over indigenous lands and bulldozed their way through some of the world’s most ancient forests.
Mariyady began using what he had learned, and his position, to urge villagers to resist the companies. But his was one of few voices in the face of a powerful nexus of corporate and political interests.
Though Hambit Bintih was imprisoned (he later died while serving his sentence) the political establishment in Gunung Mas has scarcely changed. Hambit’s deputy took over his position, despite being his running mate in the corrupt 2013 election. On June 27 this year, some five years on from Hambit’s arrest, the district will return to the polls. Of the three candidates, one is Hambit’s son-in-law, while another is a businessman with a massive oil palm estate of his own.
“These investors are killing the rights of the Dayak people,” Mariyady said, using a catchall term for the indigenous peoples of inner Borneo. “People who have been left behind. This is why I’m challenging this. But I have no right to make demands. All I can do is try to build the mentality of the community.”