Indonesian Journalists Critical of Illegal Palm Plantation Found Dead
By Ayat S. Karokaro and adapted by Basten Gokkon
Two Indonesian journalists who had reported on an illegal oil palm plantation in Sumatra while also allegedly trying to gain control of the crop have been found dead at the plantation.
The body of Maraden Sianipar, 55, was found on Oct. 30 in a ditch in the concession of palm grower PT Sei Alih Berombang (SAB). The body of Martua Siregar, 42, was found the next day in the bushes near a warehouse at the same site. Both men worked for a weekly publication, Pindo Merdeka, based in Medan, the capital of North Sumatra province.
Local media reported that Maraden had been found with his left arm hacked off and wounds to his head, while Martua appeared to have stab wounds in his abdomen, back and head.
Police have launched an investigation into the case amid mounting calls from Indonesian press groups condemning the deaths and demanding that the perpetrators be brought to justice. But it's not clear whether they were killed because of their critical reporting on SAB, whose concession was sealed off by authorities a year ago after it was found to have cleared 750 hectares of forest to plant oil palms.
Witnesses said the pair were also known to be part of a community group that had for years been locked in a dispute with the plantation company and had sought to take control of the oil palms once the local forestry office had ruled that the company's expansion onto forested land was illegal.
Other witnesses said Maraden and Martua had gone by motorbike to the plantation on Oct. 29 with a group of locals seeking to harvest the palm fruit. One witness said he had warned Maraden that plantation guards armed with machetes were guarding a checkpoint in anticipation of the group.
"We have questioned eight witnesses, and we're collecting as much evidence [as possible] to solve the deaths of the two victims," Budiarto, a local police chief, told reporters on Nov. 2.
An oil palm worker harvesting palm fruit at a plantation in North Sumatra. Nanang Sujana for RAN / Oppuk
Locals reported that violent conflicts were common between the plantation's security guards and people trying to take the palm fruit. The latter, who say they have just as much claim to the illegally cultivated crop as SAB, have sought assistance from environmental groups, including the Indonesian Forum for the Environment (Walhi), to resolve the land dispute that has simmered since 2015.
"We suspect the deaths [of the two] to be unusual," said Khairul Buchori, who heads the advocacy and legal department at Walhi's North Sumatra chapter.
Maraden and Martua's deaths come less than a month after the suspicious death of Walhi environmental activist Golfrid Siregar, also in North Sumatra. He was found unconscious with severe head injuries on a traffic overpass in Medan, and died in hospital three days later, on Oct. 6, without ever regaining consciousness.
Golfrid was best known for his legal advocacy work for local communities ensnared in land conflicts with oil palm companies. At the time of his death he was also involved in a lawsuit against the North Sumatra government over alleged forgery in the permitting process for a controversial hydropower project in an orangutan habitat.
Police, however, ruled Golfrid's death the result of a drunken-driving crash. But his former colleagues dispute that claim, pointing to several holes in the evidence cited by police, including independent testimony from his family that he wasn't a drinker.
While the motives behind each of the recent deaths remain unclear for now, press and environmental activists agree that they ring alarm bells about the state of the free press and activism in the country.
The number of reported cases of violence against journalists rose to 64 in 2018 from 60 in 2017, according to the Alliance of Independent Journalists (AJI). The group says the main perpetrators of abuse against journalists are companies and the state.
There were also 171 recorded cases of violence against activists in Indonesia between 2010 and 2018, according to the Indonesian Human Protection Foundation (YPII), with most of the victims environmental activists.
Walhi's Khairul called for the National Police to take over the North Sumatra police's investigations into the recent deaths, saying the latter had "failed to resolve" these cases.
Golfrid Siregar, left, protests against the proposed Batang Toru hydropower project, which threatens the only known habitat of the critically endangered Tapanuli orangutan. Indonesian Forum for the Environment (Walhi)
Reposted with permission from our media associate Mongabay.
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By Aaron W Hunter
A chance discovery of a beautifully preserved fossil in the desert landscape of Morocco has solved one of the great mysteries of biology and paleontology: how starfish evolved their arms.
The Pompeii of palaeontology. Aaron Hunter, Author provided<h2></h2><p>Although starfish might appear very robust animals, they are typically made up of lots of hard parts attached by ligaments and soft tissue which, upon death, quickly degrade. This means we rely on places like the Fezouata formations to provide snapshots of their evolution.</p><p>The starfish fossil record is patchy, especially at the critical time when many of these animal groups first appeared. Sorting out how each of the various types of ancient starfish relate to each other is like putting a puzzle together when many of the parts are missing.</p><h2>The Oldest Starfish</h2><p><em><a href="https://www.biorxiv.org/content/10.1101/216101v1.full.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Cantabrigiaster</a></em> is the most primitive starfish-like animal to be discovered in the fossil record. It was discovered in 2003, but it has taken over 17 years to work out its true significance.</p><p>What makes <em>Cantabrigiaster</em> unique is that it lacks almost all the characteristics we find in brittle stars and starfish.</p><p>Starfish and brittle stars belong to the family Asterozoa. Their ancestors, the Somasteroids were especially fragile - before <em>Cantabrigiaster</em> we only had a handful of specimens. The celebrated Moroccan paleontologist Mohamed <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.palaeo.2016.06.041" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Ben Moula</a> and his local team was instrumental in discovering <a href="https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0031018216302334?via%3Dihub" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">these amazing fossils</a> near the town of Zagora, in Morocco.</p><h2>The Breakthrough</h2><p>Our breakthrough moment came when I compared the arms of <em>Cantabrigiaster</em> with those of modern sea lilles, filter feeders with long feathery arms that tend to be attached to the sea floor by a stem or stalk.</p><p>The striking similarity between these modern filter feeders and the ancient starfish led our team from the University of Cambridge and Harvard University to create a new analysis. We applied a biological model to the features of all the current early Asterozoa fossils in existence, along with a sample of their closest relatives.</p>
Cantabrigiaster is the most primitive starfish-like animal to be discovered in the fossil record. Aaron Hunter, Author provided<p>Our results demonstrate <em>Cantabrigiaster</em> is the most primitive of all the Asterozoa, and most likely evolved from ancient animals called crinoids that lived 250 million years before dinosaurs. The five arms of starfish are a relic left over from these ancestors. In the case of <em>Cantabrigiaster</em>, and its starfish descendants, it evolved by flipping upside-down so its arms are face down on the sediment to feed.</p><p>Although we sampled a relatively small numbers of those ancestors, one of the unexpected outcomes was it provided an idea of how they could be related to each other. Paleontologists studying echinoderms are often lost in detail as all the different groups are so radically different from each other, so it is hard to tell which evolved first.</p>
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