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Story Publication logo December 1, 2023

Rempang Residents Say ‘For Generations, We’ve Lived Here and Will Die Here’



Indonesia has been facing the devastating consequences of climate change.


Residents of Rempang Island held a demonstration on October 8, when Coordinating Minister of Economy Bahlil Lahadalia visited the island. The residents rejected the relocation plan. Image by Adi Renaldi. Indonesia, 2023.

Residents fear Rempang’s industrialization will harm the environment. Farmers and fishers refuse to be uprooted from their land and livelihood.

Rubiah* gets up at 4 a.m. every day. After preparing breakfast for her family and tending to household chores, she put her rubber sandals on and wore a bamboo basket on her back before heading to her farm just a few meters from her house, just as the sun shed its first light on the sleepy coastal village of Pasir Panjang, Rempang Island in the Riau Islands. 

Rubiah has lived in Pasir Panjang since the 1970s. She was born on Tanjung Pinang, a neighboring island in the province, where she spent most of her childhood years. Her parents – who originated from Tulungagung, East Java – abandoned her when she was two months old and left her in the care of foster parents. 

She moved to Pasir Panjang village in her twenties with her husband in the hopes of a better future during the rubber boom. They bought a few hectares of land and cultivated rubber trees, vegetables, and fruits. 

“There was nothing here at that time,” recalled Rubiah, now in her 70s. “Just weeds as far as I could see. There’s only a small village on the coast that has been around for decades if not hundreds of years.”

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The first few decades were prosperous for Rubiah. Demand for rubber was high. She could build a decent house and raise her children. But in the past ten years, rubber prices plunged to an all-time low forcing Rubiah and other farmers to abandon rubber and grow other commodities. 

"As a collective, indigenous communities were denied access to legal land rights recognition, let alone private ownership."

— Erasmus Cahyadi, AMAN

Rubiah now grows coconuts on her farm alone after her husband died some years ago. Coconuts were sold to nearby islands, including Batam Island as the economic center.

“There’s no way we can survive by planting rubber trees,” said Rubiah. “So we burned them all and started planting coconuts. It’s been good so far. We don’t complain. It’s just how it works. We have to adapt.”

Rubiah cleared the weeds on one part of her farm with a machete. She walked around to check on the plants and picked some crops. Despite her age, her physical agility was inexhaustible. She was looking for macaques, which had become vermin since she started farming in the village.

“I have to constantly watch the farm,” she said. “If not, they will take all the coconuts.”

Late in the afternoon, she headed back to her home for some rest and lunch before returning to her farm to continue her work. She came home just before dusk settled. 

While she considered herself a migrant, Pasir Panjang was her home, where she would be for the rest of her life. Apart from her birthplace, she hasn’t been anywhere else. 

“I have nowhere else to be. This is my home,” she said. “That means I would die here.”

But in recent months, Rubiah and other residents have grown increasingly restless as the government plans to turn Rempang into an ‘eco-city’ filled with luxury housing, tourism spots, and world-class glass factories.

A poster rejecting the relocation plan in Pasir Panjang village. The government initially planned to empty Rempang Island by September 28 but postponed the plan due to growing resistance. Image by Adi Renaldi. Indonesia, 2023.

Rumors about turning the approximately 17,000-hectare island into an eco-city began circulating in February 2023, according to villagers. But only in April 2023 was the project confirmed, when the government inaugurated the Rempang Investment Zone as the umbrella project of the eco-city. 

Residents of Rempang Island held a peaceful protest in August at the office of the Batam Free Zone Authority (BP Batam) – the entity responsible for carrying out the plan – which was met with silence by the authority. 

“When I heard that we will be evicted, I cried,” said Rubiah. “It still saddens me today, thinking all of my memories are here.”

REMPANG ISLAND IS LOCATED 60 km south of Batam City, the famous port city and free trade zone bordering Singapore in the Malacca Strait, the world’s fifth busiest strait in the world. Unlike Batam City known for its vibrant business centers and industrial parks, Rempang Island still maintains its cultural and traditional values. 

Most island residents are artisanal fishermen and farmers living in small coastal villages. The first settlers arrived on Rempang Island in the early 19th century. Early inhabitants were from the neighboring islands, comprising the Sea People indigenous community, Land People tribe as the native Batam people, and the Malay people. Migrants from other regions came during the New Order Regime transmigration program in the 1970s. 

For generations, residents have lived in 16 coastal villages called ‘kampong lama’ or old villages across Rempang, dating back to 1834, according to village elders. Today, the island is inhabited by 7,000-10,000 people. 

A fisherman rows his boat on the coast of Monggak village. For generations, residents have relied on fishing as their only livelihood. Image by Adi Renaldi. Indonesia, 2023.

The New Order regime under Suharto established Otorita Batam – a government agency responsible for economic development and management – in the 1970s to transform the island into Asia’s powerful economic hub due to its strategic trade route. At that time, Batam was intended to compete with Singapore.

The government issued presidential decrees in 1973 and 1992 that gave Otorita Batam permission to manage Batam Island and expand its authority to the neighboring islands of Rempang and Galang, sometimes abbreviated to Barelang (Batam, Rempang, Galang). 

Under the 1992 decree, Otorita Batam was granted Land Management Right (Hak Pengelolaan Lahan/HPL) on the islands. 

As the first step to achieving the goal and ‘uniting’ the islands to ease transportation, the government built six Barelang bridges connecting Batam with its neighboring islands in the 1990s under President Habibie’s administration.

The Indigenous People’s Alliance of Nusantara (AMAN) believes the issuance of the HPL is an obstruction for residents in Rempang to obtain a land right and legal recognition on customary land. 

Erasmus Cahyadi, an activist with AMAN, said that the Batam mayor at that time issued a communique for district heads across Batam to deny land rights registrations and recognitions for residents. Moreover, HPL was issued without free, prior, and informed consent and not followed by dialogue or public consultation. These are essential steps before initiating a project, added Cahyadi.

“As a collective, indigenous communities were denied access to legal land rights recognition, let alone private ownership,” Cahyadi said in a statement

Fadilah*, another Pasir Panjang resident, said that before Otorita Batam was established, residents obtained ownership acknowledgments in the form of a document from the village authorities. However, whenever residents wanted to upgrade the document to a Land Ownership Certificate (SHM) at the district office or at the agrarian agency, officials turned them away without clear reason.

“Of course, we want a land certificate, so we can have peace of mind. But we were always denied access for various, unclear reasons,” said Fadilah, now in his 70s. 

During the presidential campaign for the 2019 election, President Joko Widodo promised free land certificates to residents of kampong lama in Rempang. This was part of his free land certification program.

“I want to make two points. The first is about land certification for kampong lama. Who agrees that kampong lama is certified?” asked Widodo during the campaign on April 6, 2019. “We’ll complete (land certification) in three months maximum.” 

It was never fulfilled. 

Instead, the government issued ministerial decree designating Rempang Eco-city as a National Strategic Project.

A DOCUMENT DETAILING the Rempang eco-city plan obtained by Ekuatorial stated that the project is expected to generate IDR381 trillion ($24 billion) of investment until 2080 and is regarded as the ‘new engine of Indonesia’s economic growth’.

To carry out its plan, the Batam authority joined forces with PT Makmur Elok Graha (MEG) – a property developer company and a subsidiary of Grup Artha Graha owned by business tycoon Tomy Winata – as the holder of exclusive rights to develop the Rempang eco-city.

In the first phase, MEG will develop about 2,000 hectares of land in four villages into an industrial complex. This is out of 8,000 hectares of concession, according to Coordinating Minister of Economy Bahlil Lahadalia. 

“The project will absorb 30,000 workers until 2028 and more than 306,000 by 2080,” the document stated. 

Farm land in Pasir Panjang Village. The village will be included in the first phase of the Rempang Eco-city project, which will transform the village into an industrial complex. Image by Adi Renaldi. Indonesia, 2023.

The document also stated that MEG has convinced China’s Xinyi Glass Holdings, the world’s largest glass manufacturer, to invest around $11.5 billion (IDR174 trillion) in the first phase of Rempang eco-city by 2080, to build the Photovoltaic Solar Industrial Park (PSIP) to downstream silica and quartz sand. 

On May 26 this year, Winata reportedly met with Gerry Tung, Xinyi’s chief executive officer, in Fuzhou, China. He was joined by Lahadalia, Maritime and Investment Coordinating Minister Luhut Binsar Pandjaitan, and MEG director Nuraini Setiawati. Two months later, MEG signed an agreement with Xinyi Glass in Chengdu, China, witnessed by President Widodo. 

Xinyi Glass, a subsidiary of the Xinyi Group, was founded in 1988 and is headquartered in Hong Kong. It manufactures industrial glass for automotive and architectural purposes, as well as solar photovoltaic panels. It has a sales network covering 140 countries, according to its website, and supplies major car manufacturers including Ford, Volkswagen, and General Motors. In the first half of 2023, Xinyi Glass reported revenue of $1.6 billion. 

In 2022, Xinyi Glass, through its Indonesian subsidiary PT Xinyi Glass Indonesia, signed an agreement with PT Berkah Manyar Sejahtera – a joint venture between a state-owned port operation company and oil distribution company AKRA – to invest in land acquisitions amounting to $600 billion to build a glass factory at the Java Integrated Industrial Port Estate (JIIPE) in Gresik, East Java.

Meanwhile, MEG, according to BBC Indonesiahas been present in Batam since 2000. In 2004, for example, Winata signed an agreement with the Batam City Administration to develop and manage 17,000 hectares of land on Rempang, 300 hectares on Setokok Island, and 300 hectares on Galang Island. 

The agreement stated that MEG is the sole exclusive rights holder to develop Rempang Island and granted the company Land Management Rights (HPL) and Building Management Rights (HGB) for 80 years, which means the rights will expire in 2084.

At that time MEG planned to develop Rempang into world-class business centers and tourism hotspots, according to a Tempo report. However, the project was marred by corruption allegations that forced MEG to abandon it. 

The same project has been resurrected as the Rempang eco-city, in such a short time span.

TO KICK OFF DEVELOPMENT in Rempang, the government has deployed a full-scale force to evict its residents. The plan was to empty the island by September 28. 

On September 6, after receiving a tip-off that the government would deploy a joint-operation team of police officers’ mobile brigades (Brimob), military personnel, and BP Batam personnel to conduct land measurements, residents of Rempang constructed tree trunk barricades on one of the Barelang bridges to prevent the team from entering. 

Despite barricades, a clash broke out between police and residents on September 7 morning. Police fired teargas, rubber bullets, and water cannons at protesters.  

“There were like, hundreds if not thousands of personnel that morning,” recalled Bobi, a youth activist, and resident of Monggak village. “It was chaos.”

Police personnel also fired teargas inside school buildings, later blaming the wind direction, causing several students to suffer eye irritations and breathing difficulty. Dozens were arrested and 35 were named suspects for inciting riots and assaulting officers. 

Residents staged another protest on September 11, demanding the government revoke the project. A clash occurred as residents threw stones at the office building and police personnel during the protest. A number of police and military personnel were stationed near villages in the aftermath of the clashes.

Residents of Rempang Island held a demonstration on October 8, when Coordinating Minister of Economy Bahlil Lahadalia visited the island. The residents rejected the relocation plan. Image by Adi Renaldi. Indonesia, 2023.

Boy Jerry Even Sembiring, executive director of the Indonesian Forum for Environment (WALHI) Riau, said the government should conduct an environmental impact assessment (AMDAL) before embarking on such a project. Before the project was announced, the government, in his opinion, did not conduct meaningful public discussions with the affected communities. 

Sembiring said the decision to start this project so hastily has caused several problems. These include the forced evictions of thousands of residents, a violation of human rights, and the absence of free, prior, and informed consent.

“Producing AMDAL should involve communicating and consulting procedures with the affected communities to accommodate their aspirations,” said Sembiring. “However, residents of Rempang have yet to see such documents.”

The AMDAL consultation only took place in early October as stipulated by a document issued on September 27 by BP Batam seen by Ekuatorial. The consultation, however, only invited six residents and local officials, without the majority’s knowledge. 

Some of the invitees also live in non-affected areas. Without the AMDAL, it’s difficult to measure the glass industry’s impacts on the environment and communities, said Sembiring. 

"It’s strange, really. It’s like when you try to sell something but you don’t have it in your hand. So how can we trust that?"

— Ahmad

Abdullah*, a fisherman and resident of Pasir Panjang, feared that Rempang’s industrialization would have irreversible impacts on the ecosystem. For generations, Rempang residents have relied on farming and fishing to support themselves and their families.

“We’re doing fine all these years, we can eat, we can send our children to school. If they build a large industry here, the impact would alter the already rich ecosystem,” he said. “If we’re unable to farm and fish, we’ll die. These are things we know how to do for the rest of our lives. How will we survive if they are gone?”

In response to strong resistance from residents, the government postponed the eviction until further notice. But residents still fear for their safety.

FOLLOWING BP BANTAM'S EFFORTS to evict residents, clashes, and arrests, Ombudsman Indonesia conducted a preliminary investigation in late September. They said, among others, that they found evidence that residents of Rempang have lived there for generations.

The ombudsman found tombs dating back to 1958 as well as administrative records such as ID cards, school certificates, and land tax records issued in the 1980s. This suggests that the old kampongs have existed for generations and that the state recognized the residents of Rempang and they have the right to live in Rempang. 

The Ombudsman also found that the current relocation plan lacks a legal basis and residents feel intimidated due to the use of law enforcement in its implementation.

“The temporary housing, relocation, and allowances do not have a legal basis for the program to be carried out,” according to the Ombudsman. 

Meanwhile, BP Batam believes it is acting in accordance with presidential decrees.

“It has been clear that according to the presidential decree, our work areas include the three islands of Batam, Rempang, and Galang,” BP Batam spokeswoman Ariastuty Sirait said in a press release. 

“So if an investor wants to invest in Batam or Galang, they have to propose to BP Batam, the authority that allocates the land use permit.”

Muhammad Rudi, head of BP Batam and mayor of Batam, said the government would use persuasive measures to relocate residents. 

“The government will guarantee the rights of residents in Rempang development. So, we’ll establish a two-way communication effort.”

RESIDENTS REPORTED GROWING RESTLESS and unable to work on farms or fish. In one instance, a resident said that she was drained of energy and her mind was consumed by the fear of being evicted.

“All of us could not work as usual,” she said. “I was mentally drained.”

As a way to consolidate resistance movements, residents and a consortium of activist groups established command posts in 16 kampong lama. These posts were where they held meetings to discuss strategies. Meetings sometimes were held at night after residents returned from work. 

“Our goal now is to unite each kampong lama to make one movement to reject eviction and relocation,” said one activist. 

In a statement, minister Lahadalia claimed that about 70% of Rempang residents have agreed to be relocated. Activists and residents doubt this number. 

“The data was unclear,” said the activist. “How did they gather the data? So far the majority of residents have voiced their opinions, and they refuse to be relocated.”

A banner reading ‘Relocation Registration Center’ can be seen across Rempang Island. Image by Adi Renaldi. Indonesia, 2023.

To persuade residents to relocate, BP Batam has put up posters and banners across Rempang reading “Tempat Pendaftaran Relokasi” (Relocation Registration Center). When Ekuatorial visited Rempang in early October, most centers were empty. 

Several residents reported that they were being intimidated by police and military personnel. Ahmad*, a resident who owns five hectares of land, said that several police and military personnel visited his home and asked him to register his family for relocation, which he refused. Ahmad, a native of Sulawesi, came to Rempang in the 1980s. He has farmed his land since, growing coconuts, rubbers, and vegetables. 

“They said ‘Why don’t you register for relocation?’ And I replied, why would I? Because I have the right to live here. I’ve been here for a long time,” said Ahmad. “We are not against investment. The government can build whatever they please, but they should not evict us.”

Many activists and residents questioned BP Batam’s commitment to the relocation program. Government officials promised to build 3,000 houses on a 471-hectare land plot called Maritime City, a modern housing complex. 

Residents will be relocated to temporary relocation apartments in Batam City. During this transition, families will receive an allowance of around IDR2 million ($130). According to the relocation plan document, one family is entitled to a 500m2 plot of land with a 45m2 house. However, the exact location of the relocation program has yet to be determined.

“It’s strange, really,” said Ahmad. “It’s like when you try to sell something but you don’t have it in your hand. So how can we trust that?”

In Pasir Merah village, a kampong lama with more than 1,000 inhabitants that will be included in the first phase of the co-city project, the majority of residents have refused to relocate. One of them is Mak Ucu, a fisherwoman in her 50s, who has lived in Pasir Merah village her entire life. 

Mak Ucu is not over the moon about a modern housing complex. She prefers her modest wooden stilt house facing the sea to a concrete brick home. Mak Ucu, who is of Malay descent, said her ancestors were buried in the village. She could not imagine their graveyard being transformed into an industrial area. 

“Even if we are shot dead,” said Mak Ucu. “We’re not leaving our village. For generations, we’ve lived here and will die here.”

*Several residents interviewed requested their names changed for fear of retribution. 


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