Land rights conflicts in Boven Digoel – Military members intimidate indigenous land rights holders

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Human rights defenders documented another case of intimidation in the Boven Digoel Regency. On 4 February 2021, around 11.30 am, indigenous woman Kornelia Ninggan and several of her relatives collected firewood at the side of Baru Statistik Road, near Tanahmerah, the largest town in Boven Digoel. A car stopped, two military members in plainclothes (see image, source: screenshot taken from video recording) approached Kornelia and reprimanded her for chopping timber in this area. Kornelia and her relatives belong to the clan owning the land rights in the site, so she began an argument with the military members. Relatives recorded parts of the discussion with their cell phone cameras.

Kornelia and her relatives understood this as an act of intimidation. They also mention in the video that the military members allegedly threatened them. They urged the military members to leave and said they would share the video with the superiors if the military members would intimidate them again.

Boven Digoel has become an area of interest for investors, particularly those operating in the field of agriculture. By February 2019, the Government already approved plantation permits for 14 companies with a total area of 417.251 hectares in Boven Digoel, most palm oil companies.

The conversion of large forest areas to acreages has inevitably led to competition for resources and conflicts over land between companies and the indigenous land rights holders. Many companies are protected by security force members who consider the plantation companies vital assets, creating important revenues for the state. They often represent the interests of investors instead of taking a neutral position in land rights conflicts.

The lack of impartiality among security forces has resulted in multiple human rights violations, including two extra-judicial killings in 2020. A police officer tortured Marius Betera after he complained about his garden's clearing by excavators of PT. Tunas Sawa Erma POP Block A palm oil company in Boven Digoel Regency on 16 May 2020. Marius Betera died shortly after the torture inside the company’s clinic at Camp.

On 25 July 2020, members of the 561 Caraka Yudha Kodam Brawijaya border control arrested Oktavianus Warip Betere, 16, at the Asiki Market, Boven Digoel Regency. They detained him at a nearby military post where Oktavianus was tortured. The military members admitted him to a local health centre (Puskesmas) where Oktavianus died shortly after the admission.