Rempang Eco-City: ‘We will not leave’, say the islanders fighting eviction

Amlah, 105 years old
Image caption,Amlah, 105, is the oldest person in her village

Amlah, or Grandma Cuh as the 105-year-old is fondly known, has been living on the Indonesian island of Rempang all her life.

The oldest resident of this fishing village, she has married twice, given birth to eight children, and buried four of them. When her time comes, she says, she wants to be laid to rest alongside her parents and late husbands.

“I want my children to have this land when I pass,” she says, but worries that will not happen.

The fate of the island, home to some 7,500 people, has become the subject of a fierce debate after the government hastened plans to turn it into an economic hub. Islanders, who were told they would be relocated to live elsewhere, protested and clashes ensued between locals and authorities in September. The strength of the opposition forced some compromises from the government. But Rempang remains divided.

The road to an “eco-city”

This is not Jakarta’s first attempt to transform Rempang. Plans in 2004 to build a sprawling casino hub were shelved following strong local opposition.

But they were renewed after President Joko Widodo’s visit to Beijing in July, where he secured Chinese investment, part of a wider goal to boost foreign funding in Indonesia’s economy. A month later, the government announced Rempang Eco-City, which will take up 7,000 of the island’s 17,000 hectares – the remaining 10,000 hectares will be protected forest cover.

It was designated a “national strategic project”, giving authorities greater-than-usual powers to clear the land, including evicting residents. The eco-city, officials said, will become an economic and tourist centre, creating 35,000 jobs. The project includes a $11.6 billion factory by a top Chinese glass manufacturer, Xinyi. That alone will be the size of nearly 3,800 football fields.

These ambitious plans required everyone who calls Rempang their home to leave. Many of them belong to seafaring indigenous communities who have lived here for more then two centuries. But these are also remote fishing villages that don’t have legal documents that support their right to live in Rempang.

The majority of residents in Rempang Island are fishermen
Image caption,The majority of Rempang’s inhabitants are fishermen

Angry locals said they had never been involved in the decision-making and only learnt of the plans in the news.

“We should not allow the information gap to persist as it has in the past,” said Mayor Muhammad Rudi – who administers Rempang and the neighbouring island of Batam. “Moving forward, we aim to come together, establish good relations, and reach a common understanding.”

He did not say whether villagers were informed of evictions plans beforehand.

Residents also complained of intimidation. Legal aid workers who are advising them told the BBC that residents had alleged that they had “received letters from the police accusing them of breaking the law”. Police denied this, but said “individual police officers” may have done so.

Tension spilled over in September when hundreds took to the streets and clashed with security forces, who responded with tear gas and water cannons. More than 40 people were arrested.

One of the protesters, 34-year-old Ardiansyah has been in custody since mid-September and is facing up to five years in prison.

“People say we have to stand up together to preserve Rempang,” says his sister, Juliana, trying to hold back her tears. “[But] When I heard that he was arrested, my mind went blank. I can’t eat. My heart hurts.”

Ardiansyah and his girlfriend were meant to marry soon. That future now looks uncertain.

The National Human Rights Commission said its preliminary investigation had found that officials may have violated rights in pursuing evictions as well as their response to the protests. Following widespread criticism over the police response to the protests and subsequent violence, President Jokowi – as Mr Widodo is known – scrapped the eviction deadline, which had been set for the end of September. The government said residents did not have to leave the island but will be moved elsewhere on the island “in a peaceful way”.

Rempang map

Mr Rudi, the mayor, is hopeful that this will end the stalemate. He says the new location in Rempang will eventually include schools, health facilities and docks for the fishing boats of some 2,000 families. Until that happens – in about two years – locals have been promised a monthly allowance and housing in Batam.

A community divided

“They want to move us to small houses in the city – I don’t want to [go],” Grandma Cuh says.

But a handful have decided to accept the government’s offer and leave. The proposed relocation has divided the close-knit community. “My neighbours said, ‘How can I have the heart to leave?'” says 25-year-old Angga Pratama who moved out after accepting Mr Rudi’s offer. He believes there is no stopping the government’s plan. “My leaving does not affect [the others’] fight to keep the island. But now they view me as a traitor.”

Although the majority are reluctant to leave They say the intimidation continues as officials knock on doors, asking why so many don’t want to sign the relocation documents.

“They do that every day. We can’t go on with our lives peacefully,” says Nurita, a great-grandchild of Grandma Cuh.

She now spends much of her time at a booth hosted by legal aid workers, discussing with other locals how to fight the eviction.

Nurita says they have one goal: “We will stay in our villages. The government may destroy our houses but we will not leave. We will stay here until we die.”

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