A representative of residents of Indonesia’s Sumatra Island who were forced off their property by the construction of a dam funded by Japanese aid told a Tokyo court Thursday how the project has devastated their lives.

“Before we were forced out, the lives of the villagers were simple but satisfactory,” Iswadi Abdullah Salim, 30, told the Tokyo District Court. “We had nice houses, vast fertile farmland, clean rivers and rubber plantations, where we could work and gain income for children’s education and other necessities.

“But now we live in a sort of refugee camp, with barren land and a well without water,” said Iswadi, one of the residents who were forced from their village in July 1993.

He made the statement at the opening session of a lawsuit filed by 8,400 Sumatra residents.

The Koto Panjang Dam was completed in 1996 at a cost of 31.18 billion yen and paid for with yen-denominated loans from Japan.

The opening of the court session was delayed by about 45 minutes, when several Japanese supporters of the plaintiffs resisted an order by presiding Judge Takashi Saito to leave the courtroom.

The judge said the T-shirts they were wearing, with printed messages saying “no more ODA” in English and “Let’s unite and resist oppression” in Indonesian, amounted to an act of demonstration, which is banned in courtrooms. For a while, there was confusion as bailiffs and the supporters jostled and quarreled.

The suit targets the legitimacy of the aid project, and the plaintiffs are demanding that their homeland be restored to its original state. Each is also seeking 5 million yen in compensation from the Japanese government, the Japan International Cooperation Agency, the Japan Bank for International Cooperation and Tokyo Electric Power Services Co.

The plaintiffs are among 23,000 islanders who were resettled to make way for the hydroelectric dam. Some of the 23,000 have received monetary compensation from the Indonesian government.

The plaintiffs argue that they were resettled to barren areas where they could not support themselves or carry on their traditional way of life.

In a written statement to the court, the Japanese government denied any responsibility for the plight of the residents. It said it had been told by Jakarta that the residents were resettled with their consent and that it is the Indonesian government’s responsibility to ensure the smooth relocation of those affected.

The suit was originally filed by 3,900 people.

Rare animals from the dam-affected area, such as Sumatra elephants, Sumatra tigers and Malay tapirs, have also been named among the plaintiffs by the Indonesian environmental protection group WALHI, which is demanding 5 million yen as compensation for the native animals.

During a later news conference, Kazuo Sumi, chairman of the support group and a professor of law at Niigata University, said the case questions the fundamental meaning of official development aid. He added that only corrupt politicians, including people linked to former Indonesian President Suharto, benefited from the dam’s construction.

He also said the Japanese government is dealing with this case in an irresponsible manner, noting it overlooked mounting opposition from the residents in the dam-affected area.

“I want the Japanese people to know,” Iswadi told the news conference, “that their tax money is used to make people like us suffer in many countries.”

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.