Subject: JP: East Timorese refugees destroy forests to survive

The Jakarta Post November 1, 2001

Refugees destroy forests to survive

Yemris Fointuna, The Jakarta Post, Atambua

East Timorese refugees living in Atambua, East Nusa Tenggara, have destroyed some 700 hectares of protected forests in the regency of Belu for agricultural purposes following a halt in aid from the government.

Some refugees recently interviewed by The Jakarta Post said that they had had to convert the forest into agricultural land so as to anticipate a possible shortage of food by the end of this year when the government would no longer provide them with assistance.

"We will plant corn, tubers and other crops in the coming rainy season. We just don't want to starve," Dominggus Ferreira said.

The government had earlier asserted that as of December this year there would be no more humanitarian aid for around 290,000 East Timorese who opted to stay in Indonesia and are now living in West Timor, East Nusa Tenggara province.

Starting next year, the refugees will have to rely on their own resources to survive.

East Nusa Tenggara provincial spokesman JB. Kosapilawan said early this month that the refugees had received humanitarian aid for two years and that they could be lacking the spirit to fend for themselves as they had become too dependent on the government.

The decision came as a blow to the refugees who accused the government of trying to kill them gradually by stopping the aid.

They said they did not have anything that would allow then to live independently.

The illegal deforestation has apparently drawn serious attention from local councillors.

The deputy speaker of the legislative council for Belu regency, Blasius Manek, said that the administration and the police should take prompt action to stop the deforestation.

"If the deforestation continues, someday people will find it difficult to get water, and flood will become a danger," Blasius said.

The head of the forestry office in Belu, Valen Kelen, said in Atambua last week that the forests destroyed by the refugees were located in water catchment areas. "They were traditional forests, which belong to the people. They are all protected forests."

According to official records, the refugees have just destroyed, among other areas, 450 hectares of protected forest in the village of Kateri, Malaka Barat district, 50 hectares of forest in the village of Bipemnasi Swamohok, Kota Atambua district, and another 12 hectares of forest in Selim Kovalima district.

Belu regent Bria Yohanes said that a special team had been set up to curb the illegal deforestation. "Legal steps are preferable in handling this case."

Meanwhile Belu Police chief Adj. Sr. Comr. Nender A. Yani claimed to have arrested 14 refugees believed to have been the masterminds behind the destruction of the forests.

"They encouraged the other refugees to cut the trees in the protected forests. We will take legal action against them," said Nender.

Soon after the East Timor referendum sponsored by the United Nations in 1999, at least 500,000 East Timorese flooded into West Timor. Most of them were poor and brought nothing with them.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) entered West Timor and started to provide humanitarian aid to the refugees. The aid was halted last year following the passing of a United Nations resolution stating that West Timor was an unsafe area.

Resolution No. 1319, which also ordered the pullout of UNHCR workers and a halt to humanitarian aid, was issued after the killing of three UNHCR workers in September 1999.

Since then, the Indonesian government has provided the refugees with humanitarian aid of Rp 1,500 and 400 grams of rice per person per day. 

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