In early 1999 a young man from Seko Padang named Mahir Takaka and several friends from Yayasan Bumi Sawergading (YBS Palopo) were trying to support the indigenous Seko. They discussed how to increase the community’s understanding of the right to customary territories, provide legal protection and have the rights of the Seko recognized by the government. The fruit of the discussion was the participatory mapping of Seko’s customary territory and the initiative to create The Council of Salombengan Seko’s Customary Leaders (Dewan Pemangku Adat Salombengan Seko/DEPASS). Representatives of Seko’s nine customary territories held a customary meeting to discuss the initiative and finally agreed to create it.  Priest Yan Sa’bi was assigned and approved as the head of DEPASS. “The creation of DEPASS was facilitated by YBS Palopo; the Indigenous People Alliance of the Archipelago (AMAN) had no program for Seko then,” said Mahir, currently sitting in AMAN’s National Council for Sulawesi Region.

DEPASS was then trying hard to foster a regional government regulation – and a regent’s decree – on the recognition of the indigenous Seko community. Several meetings were held in Seko to draft such regulation and decree. Once completed, the drafts were submitted to the district government for approval and endorsement. In 2004, Perda (Regional Government Regulation) No. 12 The year 2004 on Preservation of Customary Institutions in North Luwu was issued by Regent H.M. Luthfi A. Mutty, who also signed North Luwu Regent’s Decree No. 300 The year 2004 on Recognition of the Indigenous Seko Community.

Four years after the issuance of the Regulation and the Decree, in 2008 Priest Yan Sa’bi passed away, leaving the office (i.e. the head of DEPASS) vacant. A year had passed but no one attempted to form a new management. Barnabas Tandi Paewa of Seko Lemo, along with several friends of his, took advantage of the situation to disband DEPASS and form Seko Customary Council (Dewan Adat Seko/DAS). A number of Seko customary leaders, including Tobara Ambalong R. Kondo Lada’, were present in a meeting discussing the inception. On the other hand, customary leaders from Central Seko did not approve the new institution as it did not comply with their traditional philosophy – Sallombengan, which symbolizes unity and togetherness as well as strong social cultural bonds among the indigenous communities in Seko. Besides, DAS could never be higher in position than Tobaro. “He (Barnabas) said he was higher than Tobaro, which we do not agree to. No position is higher than Tobaro, or Tomokaka. They are equal in position. Tobara, Tomokaka and Tokey all lead their respective communities in certain areas. For example, I, Tobara, lead the Katobaraan and my authority spans from Ambalong to Palandoang, Lambiri,” said Kondo Lada’. He also noted that each hamlet has its own Tua Kampung (customary leader). When they cannot resolve a problem in their respective hamlets, they will invite Tobaro to help address it. “That’s why we will not accept DAS. As a matter of fact, he (Barnabas) had no right to disband DEPASS,” he strongly asserted.

According to R. Kondo Lada’, there was a hidden motive behind the creation of DAS, as can be assumed from the way the proponents held meetings to discuss its inception and the determination of the management structure. The nominated members of the management seemed to have been determined beforehand. The proponents had already set the structure. “They immediately announced the structure: Barnabas Tandi Paewa, SH as the head; Nasir as the secretary. Soon afterward, there was a disagreement among those present,” he said. He went on telling us that the decision was taken one-sidedly by the proponents. The true voice of the indigenous Seko and the majority of the communities in hamlets did not accept it. Of the nine Katobaraan (customary institutions) in Seko, only two accepted the inception: Tomokaka Beropa’ and Tomokaka Kariango; the other seven – Tobara Lodang, Tobara Hono’, Tobara Turong, Tokey Singkalong, Tobara Ambalong, Tobara Pohoneang and Tobara Hoyane – refused to recognize the institution. “Three Katobaraan in Central Seko, where the hydroelectric power plant was to be set up, that is Hoyane, Pokapaang and Ambalong, all rejected the company. DAS said the three accepted the company; however, it was a mere claim,” said he.

PT Seko Power Prima, represented by Operational Manager Ginandjar Kurli, stated on 20 April 2017 in its statement before the court in the case of the conflict with the Seko that they were operating in Seko’s customary territories upon approval of the head of DAS – Barnabas Tandi Paewa. Barnabas, who is a retired Masamba policeman, is currently working for the company. “Therefore, DAS’s position and role in Seko gives us a headache,” R. Kondo Lada’ ended his talk about the history of DAS.

Musa Derita, one of the customary leaders in Pokapaan’s customary territory, told us that he and his community knew nothing of what DAS was and what it did. He said he just heard of the name. They knew more about DAS when a conflict arose with the company. “I got a letter about DAS and its management but we never recognize it,” he said.

He further added that, as a matter of fact, in 2012 PT Seko Power Prima was subject to a customary fine of one buffalo (worth IDR10 millions) for entering and operating in Pokapaan’s customary territory without a prior permit from the customary institution. Ginandjar, speaking for the company, said that the company would halt all its activities there but, in reality, the activities continued up to the geological survey (drilling). “The company did not respect the rights of the indigenous Pokapaan and did not heed the customary sanction; as a result, it met with widespread and strong opposition,” he noted.

According to Musa, the arrest of fourteen members of the Seko was purely associated with political interests. The fourteen, with thousands of other Seko members, had from the beginning rejected the company’s operation. If they had not been arrested, the opposition would have remained strong.

Despite the customary sanction, the company continued with the drilling, taking samples of soil and rocks for analysis. The protesters took the samples and dumped them so they were not brought outside Seko’s customary territories. He and the others had never committed violence or physical attacks against the company’s workers. “I know precisely what Amisandi was doing. He neither beat nor wielded a machete to threaten the workers. In fact, Amisandi always reminded his fellows not to commit any violence. I’m the customary leader here, I know precisely what was happening,” said he.

At that time, Musa Derita had just visited several hamlets to talk to his community. He intended to unite the pro and con groups with regard to the company’s operation. He told them what he had learned about the conflict and about Bakaru hydroelectric power plant in Enrekang District. “I’ve talked to the communities of Longah and Hoyane; none will ever give up their land for the project. They would rather be buried in their land than giving it up to the company,” he said.

He expressed his disappointment over the North Luwu government’s failure to see what the Seko really wanted. “Our government’s performance is a big disappointment to us, the indigenous Seko. We feel like we are intimidated as we’re strongly opposed to the company. We are forced to accept it. To be honest, the company had actually retreated from its investment here but it came again, driven by the district government and the police,” he told. He also said that, as a Seko customary leader, he would never let the Seko divided. He and the other customary leaders would do their best to reunite them, although a few had gone to jail. “I’ll do my best to defend the customary territories and reunite the communities,” he ended his story.