Eva Bande, a women’s rights activist, environmentalist, land rights defender and the latest recipient of the prestigious Yap Thiam Hien human rights award. (JG Photo/Diella Yasmine)

'To Lead Is to Take Risk': Women Rights Activist and Land Rights Defender Eva Bande


FEBRUARY 01, 2019

Jakarta. Eva Susanty Hanafi Bande, a women’s rights activist, environmentalist and land rights defender, became the talk of the nation when newly elected president Joko "Jokowi" Widodo granted her clemency in 2014.

Eva was sentenced to four years in prison in 2010 for defending farmers against national palm oil company Kurnia Luwuk Sejahtera (KLS) in her hometown in Luwuk, Central Sulawesi.

A law graduate from Tadulako University in Palu, Eva has always been interested in human rights issues since her student days. 

Eva began her long career as an activist in 1998 while still a university student, advocating for survivors of sexual violence and fighting for the rights of women and children.

She got involved in a student organization called the "Central Sulawesi Student Front," where she met many other women's rights activists. It was also in this organization that Eva first developed her interest in land rights issues.

Through her work with local women, she began to hear complaints against palm oil companies stealing their farmland and forcefully evicting local indigenous people in her hometown. 

To combat this, Eva founded the People’s Front of Central Sulawesi Palm Oil Advocacy (FRAS), a foundation committed to fighting criminalization of farmers and land grabbing.

Eva has dedicated her life defending the rights of local farmers in her hometown.

The 40-year-old has fought alongside farmers from Toli, Piondo, Singkoyo, Moilong, Bukit Jaya and Tou to protect their land from environmental disaster wrought by palm oil companies.

"Becoming a human rights activist is my choice in life. Injustice, everywhere, in any form, simply cannot be tolerated," she said. 

"Land rights is the most basic human rights. Land is the source of all things living and where they will eventually return," Eva said.

Eva has also helped with fighting violence against women in rural areas in Central Sulawesi. 

She, with the help of a few colleagues, founded the women's rights organization "Central Sulawesi Group for Women's Equity" (KPKP-ST) in 2003, the first organization of its kind to be opened after the bloody Poso sectarian conflict.

Nothing Can Stop Eva

Her experience behind bars has not dampened Eva's spirit in voicing the concerns of Central Sulawesi women and farmers.

With the help of her colleagues, friends and families, Eva continued to organize from her prison cell.

"They continued the fight, and advocated on my behalf tirelessly. We can not stop, because we are also fighting for someone else’s life. I made a commitment to fight no matter the consequences. When we're together, nothing can stop us," she said.

Eva's time in prison was hard not only for her fellow activists, but also for her family.

The mother of three had to leave her young kids and her husband at home while she was away.

She said in an interview in Central Jakarta last week that she struggles to explain her imprisonment to her children.

"It was quite emotional for me because they were too young to understand what happened. It took me three months to come up with an answer," she said.

Eva said she told her children that she had to go away to study at a school to become a teacher.

"That was the only thing I could say to my kids, so they don't have to deal with too much trauma. My prison was a 14-hour drive from my hometown, and they took the long trip every week to see me," she said. 

Education Is Everything

Another thing Eva has strong concerns about is education.

Eva grew up in the small town of Luwuk in Central Sulawesi in a very conservative family.

Her father, a headstrong police officer, didn’t want Eva to go to university and expected her to find a job right away after graduating from high school.

But Eva is equally stubborn and insisted she would get a college degree. 

"I was always the curious kid in the family. Most of my days were spent in the bedroom reading books and studying," Eva said.

Her stubbornness led to early hardship. Eva's father refused to pay for her college tuition, so Eva had to find a part-time job as a radio jockey at one of the local stations in Luwuk.

"I don’t take no for an answer,” she said. "Education is the greatest weapon to fight against injustice. That's what I have always told myself."

Eva said the knowledge she gained from her law studies has enabled her to assist other people, especially marginalized communities, to advocate for themselves.

"My professor in college used to say, 'knowledge can’t be discussed only in classrooms, it has to be put into practice,'" Eva said. 

"I take that comment very seriously and I teach that to my students, young activists and even my own children. I am hopeful that they will continue my legacy," she said. 

Four years after her release, Eva is still fighting alongside local farmers against land grabbing and environmental damage in her area.

Last month she won the prestigious human rights award Yap Thiam Hien for her dedication and commitment in defending human rights.

According to the award committee, Eva is one of very few women activists who dare to speak up against environmental destruction. 

The other women activists who also received the Yap Thiam Hien award were Aleta Baun from Mollo, East Nusa Tenggara, and Gunarti from Sedulur Sikep community in Pati, Central Java.

"To lead is to take risk. We have to continue our fight so our community becomes ever stronger, because the fight is far from over," Eva said.