Belseran Christ, Maluku – The Eastern Seram Police have released four locals as of Thursday but continued to detain 22 others from Sabuai village, Siwalat district, Eastern Seram regency, Maluku, for staging a rally to protest a logging company operating in a forest the protesters claimed as their customary area.
The police arrested them on Monday after the protest turned into a riot and the protesters chained some of the company's heavy equipment used to transport logs from Mount Ahwale forest, Sabuai.
The protesters said even though they were being questioned as witnesses, they regarded the detention as part of an attempt to "criminalize" them.
"Yes, the police are still questioning us. There are 22 of us left," Hatuari, one of the residents detained at the Werinama Police, said on Thursday.
He claimed that they were not being treated like witnesses. "We ask the government or the [National Commission on Human Rights] to check up on us," Hatuari said.
Eastern Seram Police spokesperson Brig. Suwardi Sobo confirmed the arrests of the 26 Sabuai villagers, saying that they were being examined as witnesses. "We have not named any suspects," he said.
He also said that of the 26 detained, four had been questioned and sent home.
Dozens of Sabuai people on Monday staged a demonstration in an attempt to stop the company from continuing its activities in the forest.
Chairman of the Sabuai indigenous community, Nicko Ahwalam, said locals had repeatedly tried to stop the company's activities and issued a customary sanction against it. "The company ignored it," he said.
Sabuai residents claimed the company's logging activities were illegal. However, Maluku Forestry Agency head Fadly Lie said the company had obtained a license to log from the administration. It also holds a license to cultivate the forest area.
"They have followed regulations," said Fadli, who also claimed that the area was not a customary forest but "areas for other uses" known as APL.
"I have told the police and prosecutors in East Seram that the area is an APL," Fadly went on.
Nicko said the Mount Ahwale forest was home to wood of high economic value. The area is also rich in historical sites and legacies of residents' ancestors, such as Negeri Lama.
"This forest and mountain are part of our village. How can we give it up to be exploited?" Nicko said. He added that the logging had also caused damaged to the environment, turning it into a barren forest.
"Just wait until the rainy season. It will for sure cause landslides and flooding. We live at the foot of the mountain. Landslides can hit our village," he said.
Despite the forestry agency's insistence about the legality of the logging activities, residents and university students, grouped under the Sabuai Students Alliance, have claimed that the activities are illegal, which is why they have filed a report with the police.
Sabuai customary government chief Friderik Nisdoam said in June last year that locals had never been invited to discuss the environmental impact of the company's activities and had not been notified about them.