Indigenous Rights in Indonesia: Struggle and Success

Throughout our meetings in Jakarta, one consistent theme has been the role of indigenous peoples and traditional approaches to managing natural resources. Yesterday we traveled to AMAN House, the Jakarta headquarters for the Aliansi Masyarakat Adat Nusantara (The Indigenous Peoples Alliance of the Archipelago) to hear firsthand about the struggle for recognizing indigenous title and protecting the rights and lifestyles of indigenous peoples throughout Indonesia.

The recognition of the very existence of indigenous peoples in Indonesia has historically been controversial. In a sense, most Indonesians are indigenous, living on the land that their ancestors have inhabited for centuries. However, traditions and lifestyles have changed dramatically in the past century for most Indonesians, especially in Java and southern and eastern Sumatra. AMAN stands for the rights of those who have not succumbed to economic and cultural pressure to change their livelihoods. Across Indonesia AMAN includes some 2,253 member communities, with a total population of about 30 million people or more than 10% of Indonesians. Yet AMAN has had to battle every inch of the way for legal recognition of their members’ customary land use rights, in part because most of these communities are impoverished and live on land targeted for plantation and mining development by private firms and local political leaders.

During the Suharto regime, the slogan underlying Indonesia’s policy towards its many indigenous communities was “unity in diversity,” and the government argued that since almost all Indonesians were ancestrally from Indonesia, all Indonesians were equally indigenous and no specific indigenous peoples were awarded land use rights or protection of their traditional lifestyles. Development efforts did target “vulnerable population groups,” but these programs ignored the traditions that made indigenous groups distinctive, instead encouraging lifestyle shifts. For example, Indonesia still doesn’t recognize tribal religions as valid despite the fact that millions practice traditional belief systems, often alongside one of the nationally recognized religions. These religious beliefs are subsumed into adat, translated as “custom” or “tradition,” which includes many elements of the traditional lifestyles defended by AMAN. Because the official Suharto government position ignored the value of preserving traditional customs, legally the lands inhabited by these traditional groups fell under state control. Cooperation between the Ministry of Forestry and firms seeking oil palm concessions allowed plantation managers to obtain concessions without engaging with the indigenous peoples living in forest slated for clearing. Approval from indigenous groups was never required for licensing. As a result “vulnerable population groups” were economically coerced into working on the very plantations that supplanted their traditional ways of life.

A recent court ruling in the case “Review of Law Number 41 Year 1999” gives a momentous ray of hope for indigenous peoples throughout Indonesia. The court ruling states that customary forests are the collective property of the indigenous peoples living in them and using them, rather than state property over which indigenous peoples have little control. This was the first major court ruling upholding the customary land use rights of indigenous peoples throughout the archipelago. Mina Setra, Deputy Secretary of AMAN who welcomed us to AMAN House, said that before the ruling was announced, AMAN had prepared press releases for both a victorious ruling and an unfavorable one, but that more time was invested in the announcement anticipating defeat because AMAN was so accustomed to losing court battles.

The surprise victory is thrilling for AMAN as a validation of their decades-long struggle; it also marks a shift in the focus of AMAN’s work towards maintaining the rights this ruling confirms.

AMAN helps protect and promote economic alternatives and political rights for indigenous groups. One important program both for AMAN and for this course’s subject matter is their series of educational meetings designed to promote and explain REDD+ projects. Last month a group of indigenous youth met in Denpasar, Bali to learn about REDD+ and other environmental sustainability projects that preserve forests while providing economic benefits. Similar seminars have been held around Indonesia; indigenous peoples’ participation in any REDD+ project from the outset is a key factor in the success of the project as a whole.

Various economic possibilities like REDD+, ecotourism, or sustainable agriculture are essential for preserving both the lifestyle of indigenous peoples and preventing further environmental degradation on the lands these people inhabit. There is always a risk that even though indigenous peoples now have land rights, some might simply sell off the rights to corporate entities for quick cash. Since these communities are often impoverished with few economic alternatives, companies can easily close land deals for little money. Mina Setra told us of one indigenous community that wished to sell off their land for $20 per acre to an oil palm company; these companies can earn $2,000 per hectare annually once oil palms mature. Sales like these between multinational firms and subsistence-level communities are forms of economic exploitation that can reasonably be compared with older colonial practices.

Another important feature of AMAN’s work is mapping the land claims of the indigenous people they represent. Now that there is legal recognition of these claims, it is important for boundaries to be defined carefully to eliminate the potential for encroachment by third parties or for conflict between claims by different indigenous groups. To this end, AMAN has embarked on a project that has currently mapped over 300 distinct territories comprising 40 million hectares of land. The Indonesian government has agreed to accept AMAN-recognized maps as part of the official One Map project. AMAN generally doesn’t participate directly in the mapping process but instead provides materials and cartographic expertise through partner organizations. Indigenous communities can then use these tools to map their own lands. This gives indigenous communities the ability to identify their traditional lands themselves, an unprecedented right that is an important early step in empowering the indigenous peoples of Indonesia.

AMAN’s and their partner NGOs’ work is an important element of creating a more environmentally responsible Indonesia, and recent successes reflect victories not only for indigenous peoples but for all human rights in Indonesia. Despite progress, there are still many challenges, particularly economic ones, that can prevent the full realization of indigenous rights.

-Mark O’Dell

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Photos: L. Ahlman

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