A Story of Displacement in Indonesia
From the Director
Peter Klein, Associate Professor and Director of UBC’s International Reporting Program, and Director, Graduate School of Journalism (2011–2015)
In 2009, with a generous donation from Mindset Foundation, we created the International Reporting Program to train the next generation of global journalists — allowing them the opportunity to spend time in the field, experiment with new approaches to global reporting and produce major projects from around the world.
Our media partners have included The Globe &Mail, Toronto Star, The New York Times, CBC, Global, PBS Frontline, Al Jazeera and CBS News, and past projects have won a long list of awards, including an Emmy, an Edward R. Murrow Award, a Sigma Chi Delta Award, a Webby Honor and numerous top prizes at the Canadian Online Publishing Awards.
But our bigger reward is having impact on global conversations. Our multimedia Pain Project is used by global health professionals to advocate for palliative care worldwide. Our documentary about the hazards of illegal electronic waste exports has been used by policymakers in Washington to establish strict new rules about e-waste export. And just six days after our investigation about the murder of a Brazilian Indigenous leader ran in The New York Times, more than a dozen suspects were arrested.
We are now growing the IRP into an ambitious non-profit Global Reporting Centre, the first organization in Canada dedicated to advancing global reporting and producing major projects on under-covered stories throughout the globe.”
From the Instructor
An inside look at teaching in the International Reporting Program with David Rummel, Assistant Professor, UBC Graduate School of Journalism.
Roadblocks to Jakarta
A few days before this, our team was still in Vancouver, scrambling to nail down interviews and get our gear together. And then, as if almost instantly, we were sipping tea and water in this brightly-painted house set along a dusty logging road on the other side of the world.
The experience was surreal because, for months, the trip seemed like it might never happen.
Planning to report in Indonesia was a lesson in persistence and challenging a government that tries very hard to conceal the truth. The topics we wanted to cover were sore points for a country that, at the time, faced harsh global criticism for allowing a third of its natural forests to be destroyed by the pulp, paper and palm oil industries. Even though we approached the story impartially, it was hard to sell it to officials.
The two other UBC reporting groups (team Russia and team Cameroon) were granted their visas well before their departure dates. But our team struggled for months.
Trying to get an Indonesian visa is like running through a maze: just when you think you’ve conquered it, you reach another dead end. We needed to report in December so we could spend the second semester putting our stories together. Without visas, this couldn’t happen.
Trying to get an Indonesian visa is like running through a maze: just when you think you’ve conquered it, you reach another dead end.
After we finished our tea in the chief’s house, we left the smiling children behind and sped down the highway. Chief Saripudin and several members of his community joined us.
We dodged between flatbed trucks teetering with logs and bounced for hours in pickup trucks down an unpaved logging road to reach the Koto Sebelimbing’s ancestral land. The chief said the government and a subsidiary of pulp and paper giant, Asia Pulp & Paper Group (APP), stole the land from the community.
One thing you notice almost immediately about Indonesia is the absence of natural forests. In Sumatra, roads snake through rolling hills of perfectly aligned rows of eucalyptus and oil palm trees, planted like corn.
The clear-cut areas are even more astonishing. Levelled forests back onto plantations for as far as the eye can see. It’s as if a bomb was dropped and destroyed everything for kilometres.
It’s as if a bomb was dropped and destroyed everything for kilometres.
Empathy in the Field
After finishing lunch, we trudged through shoulder-high grass to reach a river the chief said was once a lifeline for the Koto Sebelimbing people. Dressed in sun-faded clothing, the man and woman from the house later took us to a rectangular stone covered in tiny shrubs — the grave of the group’s first chief.
We then headed back to the wooden house, thanked the couple for showing us the land and travelled back down the logging road, leaving a plume of reddish dust in our wake.
Our next destination was a mosque perched on a cliff in the middle of a recently cleared patch of land. The structure, held up by pieces of timber, was a basic platform with no walls and a metal roof. Tarps, ropes, clothing and posters littered the land around it.
The chief blamed the paper company for destroying a sacred building, but he didn’t have any proof that the company did it.
The scene was eerily beautiful as the sun set over the plantation. There was something sad about the weakened and graffiti-covered structure standing in the middle of a naked landscape.
I worried that our short video might not be able to convey the importance of this scene to a Western audience. Clashes with security forces and firebombing of villages, which we were told happened in the past, seemed like a better way of showing the Indonesian government’s land mismanagement. But we didn’t get those images because they didn’t exist.
Our story had evolved into something different than what we thought it was back in Canada. But did that really matter? No. The Koto Sebelimbing’s defeated efforts to retrieve their ancestral land, the government’s ‘arbitration’ process and corruption — this was the real story.
At first, the adrenaline of thinking we had one thing and finding out we had something different was a little overwhelming.
I later realized that having a story ‘evolve’ is one of the best and most exciting parts of international reporting.
Piecing the Story Together
When we returned to Canada, we started the lengthy process of screening our footage. Our time with the Koto Sebelimbing showed us that, as journalists, we should never assume we know and understand a story until we gather all the pieces together.
No amount of research or pre-interviews can predict what you will discover on the ground. And nothing ever goes completely as planned.
About the Author
Heather Roy is a communications specialist and writer. After graduating from UBC with a Master of Journalism degree in 2013, she landed a job at Al Jazeera English in Qatar. Her thesis about generational trauma caused by the Khmer Rouge regime was published in Al Jazeera’s award-winning digital magazine. Heather has written for Al Jazeera online, the Globe and Mail and Discovery Channel’s Daily Planet Show. After almost a year in Doha, Heather decided to return to Vancouver. She now works for Curve Communications, a Vancouver-based marketing firm.