Fri, 22 Aug 2003

Police detain 26, burn 49 houses in forest raid

Yuli Tri Suwarni, The Jakarta Post. Bandung

Villagers in the West Java regency of Garut have accused police of detaining families and burning down their houses during a raid on illegal settlers.

At least 26 farmers were detained by the Garut Police and 49 houses burned down during the police operation, the protesters said.

Dozens of local farmers were arrested during the raid on Aug. 12 to clear the forest in Garut of illegal settlers, who are being blamed for deforestation in the area.

The protesters, numbering in the hundreds, gathered at the West Java legislative council building in Bandung on Wednesday to seek assistance from councillors.

They asked the council to intervene and put an end to what they said was police brutality against them.

Susi Susilawati, a 40-year-old villager taking part in the protest, said she and her neighbors came to Bandung to convey their grievances.

She said the police raids were causing tension in her hamlet of Leuwipari in Segara village, Cibalong subdistrict, and that all of the men had gone into hiding to avoid officers.

"A group of police office stormed our hamlet on Aug. 12, burned down 49 houses and arrested the heads of families. All of the male villagers fled and still haven't returned home," Susi said during a meeting with members of the council's Commission A for land, government and legal affairs.

She said her husband, Ulloh Saefulloh, was among those detained by the Garut Police on charges of illegally occupying land belonging to state-owned forestry company Perum Perhutani.

Susi said she did not know who owned the land that she and other residents had settled on, adding that her husband was a fisherman anyway and not responsible for deforestation.

However, over the last 10 years Ulloh has grown rice and vegetables on a small plot of land to supplement his income from the sea, Susi said.

Asep Sirojudin, who chairs the Pasundan Farmers Union in Garut, said the land in the Sancang area used to be used for grazing bulls and that there were no large trees like in a forest.

Residents began to farm the land in 1987 after the bulls were all hunted out, he said, adding that the hunters included former vice presidents Adam Malik and Umar Wirahadikusumah, who often visited the area.

"We are asking the council to help stop the police operation because it has missed the target. The innocent residents have become the victims. Before the raids were launched, they should have been notified and told exactly where the borders of the forest were," Asep said.

He said the operation could spark instability in Garut if farmers retaliated against the police.

Commission A chairman Sutardi expressed concern over the incident and promised to speak with West Java Police chief Insp. Gen. Dadang Garnida about the problem.

Sutarni also vowed to summon the head of the West Java forestry office for questioning over his role in pushing for the so-called Wanalaga Operation.

Separately, Dadang said his officers conducted the raid in compliance with all procedures. "If there is something wrong, come talk to me. And if you are not satisfied, please sue the police. I am ready for that."

He said the operation was meant to halt the destruction of forests around Mount Papandayan, Mount Drajat, Mount Talagabodas and the Sancang area.

Garut Regent Dede Satibi recently said deforestation had affected 95,000 hectares, or about 30 percent of the forests in the regency.