'Turning fear into strength’: One woman’s struggle for justice and land rights in Sulawesi
by Febriana Firdaus
- Journalist Febriana Firdaus travelled across the country to meet grassroots female activists and delve into the stories behind their struggles.
- This article is part three of a series about her journey, which has also been made into a film, Our Mothers’ Land.
- Photos by Leo Plunkett, illustrations by Nadiyah Rizki.
It’s cloudy when my plane lands at the airport near Luwuk. The town feels remote and isolated. It falls toward the end of one of the four long peninsulas that form Sulawesi, an island the size of Florida in eastern Indonesia. Luwuk is hemmed into the sea, by hills that rise steeply around it.
I’ve come here to meet an activist in her early 40s named Eva Susanti Hanafi Bande. In 2010, Eva was convicted of incitement and jailed after organizing farmers against a palm oil company owned by a powerful local family. She made headlines four years later, when she was pardoned by Indonesia’s newly elected president, Joko Widodo.
It feels an opportune moment to reflect on Eva’s fate. Her clemency was a high-profile symbol of the president’s commitment to resolve the hundreds of conflicts between rural communities and investors eyeing their lands. But today, the hope of a new dawn for Indonesia’s farmers has not come to pass. This year, the government pushed through legislation many fear will entrench corporate power. Which means the task of pressing for agrarian reform once again falls on grassroots organizers, like Eva.
By the time she was freed from prison, her case had already attracted public support from activists across Indonesia and Southeast Asia. But for many years, Eva and the farmers had fought out here alone, with no internet connection and barely any phone signal, risking their freedom to confront a company whose operations were apparently protected by the military.
I want to find out how Eva grew into such a powerful leader, how she ended up behind bars, and what happened after she was freed. In 2018, Eva was the recipient of the prestigious Yap Thiam Hien Award, which recognizes human rights defenders in Indonesia. But I suspect that the struggle in her homeland is far from over.
When my filmmaker and I arrive at Eva’s house, she asks us to lower our camera. She’s deeply cautious; after her experience, it’s hard to blame her. We chat as we drive toward the village of Piondo, where she and the farmers have been working to reclaim land from a plantation company.
She explains that her home district of Banggai, of which Luwuk is the capital, and the districts around it have been heavily targeted by oil and gas, mining, and plantation firms, and that many farmers have lost their land as a result. “There’s a lot of resistance from the people here,” she says.
“This is my hometown, but whenever I return I always feel like I’m being watched,” she adds. “I’m viewed as someone who will disturb business security.”
Eva’s long history of activism suggests someone who is innately opposed to injustice, committed to standing up for those without power. As a student in the late 1990s, she co-founded the Central Sulawesi Struggle for Women’s Welfare Group, an organization dedicated to supporting survivors of sexual violence.
It was a dangerous time in Central Sulawesi, one of six provinces on the island. By 1998, the Suharto dictatorship had fallen, after decades of corrupt rule. As its vice-like control of the state receded, violence erupted along religious lines, pitting Christians against Muslims elsewhere in the province.
Suharto’s regime was replaced with the promise of a new era of democracy, auguring new hope for human rights and freedom of expression. But in Central Sulawesi, as in many other parts of Indonesia, the power vacuum left by Suharto was quickly filled by local elites, many of whom had firm connections to his regime.
Lian Gogali, a Sulawesi activist and longtime ally of Eva’s, has carried out research on the relationship between the intensified presence of the armed forces and private investment in Central Sulawesi in this period. In a 2007 paper, she described how the police and military were used to suppress communities resisting land grabs by extractive companies in eastern Sulawesi. In 2002, some 125 members of the Banggai police and military carried out a public training simulation, Lian noted, a display the district chief said demonstrated how they would deal with “provocateurs.”
More than a third of Banggai’s residents work as farmers, growing crops like maize, beans and cassava, according to government data. Many migrated from other islands as part of a state-sponsored program to move people from densely populated areas. But in many cases, neither they nor the local Indigenous peoples received formal title to the land that would prevent the government from later allocating it without their consent to corporate developers.
Through her role at the women’s welfare group, Eva began to hear reports that farmers’ lands were being taken over by companies. In 2008, when she learned that a village head in the subdistrict of Toili had been arrested for trying to prevent his land from being seized, she formed a team of activists who would spend a year investigating the case. Before long, two dozen more people would face prison, including Eva.
“Returning here brings back strong memories,” she says, as our driver brings us closer to Toili. “I have a lot of friends here. People who were very afraid, and then rose up to fight for their lands.”
Piondo is a three-hour drive from Luwuk. Its residents are mainly people from Java, Bali and Sumatra who came here in the mid-1970s. As a Javanese, I can easily recognize my own people.
As we arrive, a group of men riding motorcycles welcome me. Eva introduces them as farmers who were arrested along with her a decade ago. They smile as Eva tells how they confronted the company’s bulldozers.
We walk to a community garden that borders the plantation. From the top of a hill, where the farmers’ huts sit among their cocoa, copra, corn and spice crops, I can see that the rest of the land is mostly occupied by the company’s oil palm trees.
“This is where we came head-to-head with the military,” Eva says.
The trouble began in 2008, when Piondo villagers found that their land was being taken over by a palm oil company called PT Kurnia Luwuk Sejati. The company was owned by Murad Husain, a powerful local man with extensive interests spanning business and politics. He had plantations, a construction firm, had served as a member of national parliament in the early 2000s and as a treasurer for the political party Golkar — for decades Suharto’s electoral vehicle.
The people felt powerless, Eva tells me. “Everyone was afraid, and they didn’t know how to defend their rights.” The fear was heightened by what she calls the “grim conduct” of the company. After the village head complained that the company had damaged a riverbank, he found himself arrested. If an authority figure with the right to stand up against misconduct could face that fate, what would happen to the “ordinary people”?
They decided to come together and “fight collectively and not individually,” Eva says. “We learned that by being united, we can rid ourselves of fear,” she says. “If we fight alone, we’ll never make it. We need to have everyone sheltered under a social movement organization based in our village.”
They announced the formation of the Piondo Farmers Union. Its mandate: to fight against land grabs and “struggle for land rights, justice and equality.” They began to reclaim their land by occupying it, planting the land they knew was coveted by the company. Farming as a form of defense, as Eva describes it.
Their suspicions grew when the company dug up a road during the harvest season, preventing the farmers from accessing their crops. It triggered an outbreak of anger and protests, during which an excavator and the company’s camp were set on fire. The act would have ramifications for the farmers for years to come.
During the night, some two dozen farmers were arrested. “You can imagine the fear of the people, including many women, many mothers, many children, when early in the morning they are still asleep, and their men are arrested.”
Duripa, now in her mid-30s, was six months pregnant when her husband was swept up in the pre-dawn raids, a few days after the excavator was burned.
“As he was falling asleep, he asked me to take care of the baby if he was arrested,” she says. She couldn’t sleep that night. At around 3:30 in the morning, someone knocked on the door.
The police forced her to sign a piece of paper. “I didn’t even have time to read it,” Duripa says. As soon as she signed it, the police took her husband away in a car.
“After that it grew worse because the company wouldn’t accept it,” she says. As they farmed the land, they faced off against military, police and “thugs” who came to intimidate them. “It was an effort to terrorize the people,” Eva tells me. Still they didn’t stand down.
The situation escalated dramatically in 2010 when hundreds of soldiers were brought into the area, Eva says. They were ostensibly there to carry out training exercises. But Eva and her allies viewed it as a pretext, with the real intention being to intimidate the farmers. It was precisely the kind of method foreshadowed in Lian Gogali’s 2007 paper.
“I couldn’t sleep thinking about my husband,” she says. “I didn’t have any relatives, parents, it was just me and my husband here.
“I didn’t know how to continue my life, who would earn money to buy food. What would happen to my son. His father was gone.”
To demand the release of her husband and the other farmers, Duripa decided to join the protest. She was about nine months pregnant by then. “I was just crying, I couldn’t say anything. I only followed the crowd. I was so tired because I was still pregnant,” she says.
Another farmer, named Suparmi, shakes at the memory of seeing her son Nuril arrested after he joined the protests. She and her sick husband were still in bed when the police knocked on the door at 4 a.m. “I didn’t have a chance to hug him before the police took him away,” she tells me.
When her husband was in pain, he would call out for Nuril. He died a few months after Nuril was released from prison.
I ask Eva if she still remembers the charge laid against her.
“Very clearly. If I was asleep and you asked me I’d still remember it,” she replies. “Article 160 — the article on incitement.”
Article 160 of the Criminal Code makes it illegal to “incite … a violent action against the public authority or any other disobedience.”
So organizing people, I observe, constitutes “incitement.”
“For us, that’s our identity,” Eva responds. “To raise up the people to resist.”
During her trial, the prosecution painted a picture of Eva rousing and marshalling an increasingly angry mob, demanding that the company reopen the road. Some of the farmers stacked wood around the excavator, pulled down the walls of a company building and set fire to both, according to the state’s case.
Witnesses described Eva imploring them not to burn a camp that was occupied by company staff. She maintains she was seeking to mediate between the company and farmers and sought to de-escalate the tensions. But she was convicted and sentenced to four years in prison. The kind of sentence bestowed on corrupt politicians, she observes.
“They showed so much understanding at such a young age that I knew God had given me extraordinary children,” she says. “From that point I put my faith in God, that the truth will prevail.”
In December 2014, President Joko Widodo, who had recently won election on the back of a campaign that promised, among other things, to help small farmers, granted Eva clemency. It was formally announced at a ceremony she attended at the presidential palace in Jakarta.
Eva tells me she saw herself as a “symbolic token” for the Widodo administration, a gesture to demonstrate his commitment to agrarian reform. But countless other Indonesians had been arrested, she says, fighting for agrarian reform. The true test of the regime would be whether such reforms would be implemented. The people want certificates that legally recognize their land rights, a government that will respect and protect those rights, and an end to conflicts with companies.
“He has to prove that agrarian reform can take place in different conflicted areas within the next four years,” Eva says of Widodo. “Conflict resolution between communities and companies is the core of agrarian reform.”
Though Eva maintains hope, in the time since her release, the Widodo administration has not curtailed the power of the local forces that led to her imprisonment. Murad Husain’s plantation that led to the uprising remains in place. The same year that Eva was arrested, Murad Husain was reportedly named by police as a suspect after his company allegedly cleared part of a wildlife reserve. But the case went nowhere.
Murad’s family remains active in local politics; his son, Sulianti Murad, is standing for election to become district head of Banggai this month. (Murad Husain did not respond to a request for comment).
A decade after they first began their struggle, Eva and other villagers still lack state-recognized rights to their land. But they have pursued an alternative vision for the local economy rooted in solidarity and farming, just as Eva always wanted.
They have set up a cooperative in Piondo that supports small local enterprises, like marketing locally produced powdered ginger. Most of the active members are women: young people, housewives, and widows. Duripa is among them. She tells me the community helped her earn money, so she doesn’t have to rely on her husband.
She remains unrepentant. Her life’s work has been to press for justice, not for compliance with unfair rules. “Unjust laws are not to be obeyed,” she tells me wryly.
Up to that point, she says, other women within the community had been peripheral to the movement. But after she and 23 farmers were jailed, they began to play more of a leading role. Their visits to the men “transferred such strength” to those in prison and motivated the women to “push harder” as they agitated for the farmers to be released and for their land to be given back.
Eva was released before the end of 2010, as she appealed her case to the Supreme Court. But the conviction was upheld in April 2013 and she was rearrested and returned to prison.
I ask her what she told her children. When they were young, still in kindergarten, she says, she had to explain it to them in ways they could understand. She told them she was teaching in a school. But she soon discovered they had figured it out — schools don’t have so many iron bars. She expresses pride that they didn’t confront her over the deception she’d deployed to protect them.
Another member, Titik Kastiah, received a Female Food Hero Award in 2018. The award recognizes women who make significant contributions to building and maintaining local agricultural systems.
I can’t help thinking how different their collective work is to the palm oil company that looms on the horizon: collective, sensitive to their land and society.
Eva continues her fight for agrarian reform: for land rights, equality and justice. So many years on, she maintains a belief in the power of such struggles as a source of unity, bringing people together and empowering them.
“The authorities hit us hard with all their instruments of power, which usually demoralizes movements,” she tells me. “But I’m very grateful that our people can stand their ground to fight off the power. I always believe in this one slogan: turn our fear into force.
“Any of us can be afraid. But we can convert those fears into a massive power for the movement. I’ve seen it happen right before my own eyes.”