Blog: Fieldwork heroes

By Ward Berenschot

My work usually focuses on the semi-villains who animate local politics. Here is a celebration of one of its heroes.

As a researcher working on murky topics like corruption and violence, I usually write only about the shady types. My explorations of the netherworld of politics are filled with political bosses, fixers, criminals and cronies. These pragmatic players of the game of politics are not necessarily bad people. They are generally surprisingly fun to hang out with, and harbour their own tinge of idealism. But they all accept politics-as-usual. With their pragmatic dealing-and-wheeling, they help to maintain things as they are.

Once in a while I meet someone different. Someone with the hard-headedness to refuse to accept politics-as-usual, and the courage to combine this conviction with concrete action. Such people are, in ngo-speak, the ‘drivers-of-change’. Most of them never acquire any kind of fame. Most of them get crushed in the wheels of politics. Outside the purview of the media, their sacrifices are rarely acknowledged, let alone honoured.

So let us celebrate these important yet often forgotten people. One of my fieldwork heroes is Gugel. He is a palm oil employee-turned-activist in Central Kalimantan. This Indonesian province is inundated with palm oil companies. The companies maximize their profits by minimizing the costs of obtaining land for plantations. They do this at the expense of local communities, who receive very little compensation for the loss of their land and livelihoods. Gugel used to facilitate this process. Employed as ‘community liason’, Gugel was responsible for maintaining the support of local authorities for the company. This meant, in practice, that each month he distributed bags of money. In return the local government helped to suppress community protests. Gugel saw that the connections he brokered helped the company to evade its responsibilities. To obtain their land, the palm oil company had promised the villagers a share of the plantation. This promise was never fulfilled.

Feeling uncomfortable with the company’s practices, Gugel resigned – ‘I could not take it anymore’. He immediately joined local efforts to resist the company. He turned into a mighty adversary. Using his inside knowledge, Gugel could prove that the company had falsified paperwork to obtain loans. He lodged a well-documented complaint at the police station. That is when his previous connections turned against him. A counter-complaint was filed, accusing Gugel of publicizing company secrets. And sure enough, the police chose to act only on this complaint. After spending several months in hiding, Gugel was arrested and put on trial. This is hardly exceptional. A common pattern in the cases I followed in Central Kalimantan is that palm oil companies forge cases against leading activists in order to break community protests.

After spending five months in jail and going all the way to the supreme court, Gugel was eventually acquitted.  When I spoke to him, it was clear that the experience had not broken his resolve. He now works as a community paralegal. That is how I met him – I was very happy that he joined a legal aid program that I had helped to set up. This program is full of heroes like Gugel. With 17 other paralegals Gugel now goes around his district on a motorcycle to inform village communities about how to defend their land. He phrased a sentence that fits all fieldwork heroes: “If we do not have courage, change will never come.”

Photo: Kemal Jufri / Milieudefensie

(Ward Berenschot is a postdoc at KITLV researching local democracy, clientelism and identity politics in India and Indonesia. His Veni research project ‘Shades of Clientelism: A Comparative Study of Indonesia’s Patronage Democracy’ compares clientelistic practices throughout Indonesia.)

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