Tue, 10 Jun 2003

Village heads threaten to quit over pulp mill issue

Apriadi Gunawan, The Jakarta Post, Medan, North Sumatra

A total of 47 village heads from three districts of Toba-Samosir regency in North Sumatra province have threatened to quit in a protest against the central government, which has allowed the PT Toba Pulp Lestari (TPL) pulp mill to resume operations in the regency town of Porsea.

The village heads set out for Jakarta on Monday to bring their demands to the relevant authorities in line with increasing opposition to the pulp mill, which resumed operations earlier this year.

They said they were traveling to Jakarta to join forces with non-governmental and mass organizations to protest against the leadership of President Megawati, who they claimed had ignored the people's aspirations.

Sogar Manurung, head of Janji Matogu village, said they were disappointed with the present regime, which he claimed had made the wrong decision on the pulp mill.

"There is no point in us continuing to go about our everyday affairs if the government does not listen to the views of our people, who have consistently demanded a permanent closure of the pulp mill," he said.

Risman Manurung, chief of Lumban Kuala village, lambasted the Toba-Samosir regent, who had attempted to prohibit them from going to Jakarta, saying they were not appointed by the government but elected by the people, whose aspirations they would continue to fight for.

He said they would join up with mass organizations such as Nadhlatul Ulama, Muhammadiyah, the Indonesian Communion of Churches (PGI), and environmental NGOs to file their demands with the President, House of Representatives, National Commission on Human Rights, and the National Police.

TPL, the new name for PT Inti Indorayon Utama (IIU), was allowed to reopen in 2002 based on an agreement with the government that it would comply with environmental law, and conduct social and community development programs to empower local people and small-scale companies. Under the agreement, its environmental performance will be audited annually.

The operation of the pulp mill, which first commenced in 1989, had been suspended since October 1998, following strong protests from the people, student groups and churches in the province after the resignation of former president Suharto in May, 1998.

Located only six kilometers outside Porsea town, the mill sparked strong opposition among local people who alleged it was damaging the environment. Besides damaging the roads in the province, the pulp mill was also blamed for river and air pollution in the regency, the felling of forests around Lake Toba and decreasing water levels in the lake.

Dozens of people were killed in clashes with security personnel or put in jail for their protests against the mill.