Indonesia: The IRC helps divided communities overcome land disputes

By Peter Biro

Lisabata/Wakolo, Maluku, Indonesia 11 May 2007 - The people in the villages of Lisabata and Wakolo in Indonesia's Maluku province used to live in peace. But years after a bitter conflict ripped these and hundreds of similar hamlets apart, divisions remain. Now a unique project, run by the International Rescue Committee and its partners in the CARDI aid consortium, is helping villagers come together and solve a long-running and bitter land dispute.

The two villages are no more than a couple of hundred meters from each other but the border is clearly visible: a small post manned with police from Indonesia's paramilitary Brimob unit. Even though a peace agreement was signed in 2002, a bitter land dispute continues to simmer here and mutual suspicion runs high.

The feud between predominantly Christian Wakolo and Muslim Lisabata began in 1999 after full-scale conflict broke out across Maluku province, the southern part of Indonesia's far-flung Maluku archipelago. Fueled by underlying political and economic tensions, initial clashes between Muslim and Christian youth in the provincial capital Ambon quickly took on religious undertones and sparked a wave of violence throughout the province. Thousands of people were killed and up to one third of Maluku's population of 1.4 million were displaced.

On October 11, 1999, the violence also spread to this rural pocket on the lush island of Seram. Both sides agree on one thing: after violent clashes between the two villages, Wakolo's entire population of 300 left to live in another Christian village, only to return five years later. But versions differ radically in terms of who started the fight and why Wakolo's population actually fled.

"The people from Lisabata overran our village and torched all the houses with Molotov cocktails. We were afraid and had to run away," says Viktor Hahuri, a youth leader in Wakolo.

Behind his simple wooden house, rebuilt by the Indonesian government, ostrich-like birds, known locally as kasuari, run around in a coop.

"When we came back, they had taken over our land and refused to let us grow crops," he continues. "Instead they had already started to plant peanuts on our land."

Across the divide, in a small office overlooking the local mosque, Lisabata's village chief Dani Keisuku shakes his head.

"No, it was the people of Wakolo who attacked us," he exclaims. "They attacked us with machetes, spears and slingshots early in the morning. They torched crops worth over 400 million rupiah (US$ 4,000). And when the government came to investigate this, the whole village fled. When they eventually came back, the Indonesian government built houses for them, but we never received any compensation for the crops that were destroyed."

"This has always been our land and the people in Wakolo only arrived here in the 1930s," Dani Keisuku continues. "We have always allowed them to pick coconuts and have some small plantations, but after the conflict they just grabbed the land, claiming it as theirs."

Official land registration policy hasn't really taken hold in many of these rural areas and has often contributed to communal conflicts in recent years. Sensitive land rights issues are only reluctantly addressed by authorities here. CARDI's field coordinator Eddie Melatunan who oversees the land rights project, says that property conflicts were rare here in the past. Unlike on the island of Java for instance, people in less dense areas like Seram simply never bothered to mark their property in great detail. No land certificates nor legal arrangements exist.

"There was enough land for everyone, so this wasn't such a big problem in the past," Melatunan says. "But over the past decade land prices have gone up and the communal conflicts have also made people less inclined to share."

"The people here have diametrically opposing versions of events and there's been a complete stalemate for a long time," he adds. "Sporadic violence has continued to disturb the peace here. It is important that land issues are solved across Maluku before they ignite more violence."

To help the communities solve their disputes, CARDI is gathering historical data from municipal offices and surrounding villages to find out who owns what land. The next step is to bring people together to discuss the findings and register the land with the local authorities.

"Our objective is to help the villagers register their land and link them up with the National Land Agency, which has the responsibility for formulating policies on land affairs, so that they can be provided with land certificates. In the long term we are also trying to work with local authorities and communities to identify ways that were used to solve land disputes in the past. Based on what we find out, we want to help establish some sort of mechanism that will prevent future disputes."

One idea is to help reactivate the Customary Council, a body of regional traditional leaders that used to solve disputes like these in the past. But until things are solved, the people in Lisabata and Wakolo will continue to live in their separate worlds, divided by the police post. As the sun slowly sets, the crackling loudspeaker at Lisabata's mosque begins its call to prayer. In his office across the street, village chief Dani Keisuku sighs.

"We used to live in peace," he says. "We want to get back to normal and leave all this behind."