Eva is a defender of women’s human rights, land rights, and the environment and a mother of three from the district of Banggai, in Central Sulawesi Province, Indonesia. Her activism began in 1998 when, while still a university student, she became an advocate for survivors of sexual violence and for the rights of women and children.
Through her work with women, Eva began to hear of forced evictions and of farmland stolen by palm oil companies. One company in particular, PT Berkat Hutan Pusaka, had illegally appropriated land from local indigenous people and from the Bangkiriang Wildlife Reserve in Central Sulawesi. The company logged native trees from the land and replaced them with palm for oil production. Local communities quickly began to feel the impact. Without the protections against soil erosion offered by native trees, flooding became more common and the paddy fields and homes were constantly swamped. The incidence of water-borne diseases like dysentery and diarrhea increased.
Witnessing this, Eva founded the People’s Front for Central Sulawesi Palm Oil Advocacy to organize communities to stop the illegal land grabs and to monitor environmental degradation. Together with local farmers, she organized peaceful demonstrations against the company. When the Indonesian military stepped in and tried to end the protests, tensions escalated. Eva attempted to mediate and calm the situation, but local anger boiled over and a group of farmers set fire to some of the company’s equipment.
Along with twenty-three others, Eva was arrested and on May 26, 2010, sentenced to 4 years and 6 months of imprisonment, even though she herself had no role in starting the fire. At the time, she had three young children at home.
Eva continued to organize behind bars. “I will always be with you, my friends, no matter what the risks are,” she said every time farmers from the community visited her in jail. While in prison, Eva protested the injustices perpetrated by the corporation and the court with a hunger strike. Her extensive network of colleagues and friends, some from her student activism days, advocated for her tirelessly. The issue of Eva’s imprisonment was also raised with the newly elected President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo, who promised her release during his election campaign. On December 10, 2014 President Jokowi finally granted clemency for Eva, and scheduled her release for December 22, Indonesia’s National Women’s Day.
“To lead is to take risks. The violence I experienced in jail definitely left a mark on me, and it shook the community as well. We have to continue to strengthen the community because the fight is far from over.”
— Eva Bande
Eva’s imprisonment was also hard on her family. It was difficult to explain her imprisonment to her three young children and it took her three months to prepare emotionally for their first visit. Initially, she told them she was away from them because she was attending school to become a teacher. For Eva, this was the only way she could think of to help her children to deal with the trauma. The prison’s location, in Luwuk, was a 14 hour car drive from her home. To be closer to Eva, her husband and the eldest child relocated to Luwuk.
Eva has a deep commitment to the value of education, especially for women. When her father expected her to work after graduating from high school, Eva insisted on getting a college education instead. When her father refused to help her pay for college, she supported herself by working at a local radio station. She has found that the knowledge she gained in the classroom on law later enabled her to assist farmers in advocating for themselves. For Eva, her teacher’s lessons carried far beyond college. As she says: “land justice cannot be discussed in the classroom only, it has to be put in practice.” Ultimately, her father came to understand and support her work. And it was this support from her family that Eva credits with giving her the strength to survive her sentence.