Indigenous Tribes Call for Land Law At 4th Congress

Date of publication: 
20 April 2012

Tobelo, North Maluku. Under a blue sky on Thursday, thousands of indigenous people from across the country marched around the town of Tobelo in northern Halmahera.

Local residents and reporters lined the route, snapping photos of the parade that marked the start of the fourth congress of the Alliance of Indigenous Peoples of the Archipelago (AMAN).

This year’s congress, which runs until Wednesday, has come a long way from when it was first held 13 years ago in Jakarta.

For the first time, lawmakers and government officials are involved, with House of Representatives Speaker Marzuki Alie and Tourism and Creative Economy Minister Mari Elka Pangestu among participants.

“We do not look at the government as the enemy. We see them as a potential partner,” said Patricia Wattimena, AMAN’s officer on advocacy and Asean affairs.

It was a sentiment echoed by the event’s keynote speaker, Noer Fauzi Rachman, the head of the agrarian studies department at Bogor Agricultural University (IPB), albeit with a harsher bent.

“The state is the source of the problems, but it can also solve the problems,” he said.

Fauzi, who wrote his dissertation on land reform and rural social movements in Indonesia for the University of California, Berkeley, said indigenous people felt as if they were being “sacrificed by the state.”

He said government lines such as “land acquisition for development” meant nothing as long as indigenous people were excluded from the political process.

“They need genuine participation and representation in the political process,” he said.

Highlighting the thrust toward working with the government, AMAN, which was formed during the first congress in 1999 and is now Indonesia’s largest indigenous peoples organization, presented the government with a draft bill that would change how they are seen under law.

If passed into law, the bill would give indigenous people the right to free, prior and informed consent, allowing them to withhold consent and effectively veto initiatives such as mining projects or a plantation concession that might affect their land and disrupt their way of life.

Henry Saragih, head of the Indonesian Farmers Union (SPI), compared the situation to colonialism and called for more indigenous people in the House.

“Indigenous people are in crisis. We did the water ritual, but most indigenous people don’t have sovereignty over their own water,” he said, referring to the ceremony that served as the climax of the parade. Community representatives poured water they had brought into a large fountain to symbolize unity.

Mari later told participants that the knowledge of indigenous peoples — sustainable fishing techniques, for example — could be harnessed to “add value to resources” and create a high-value local economy.

“This can be a new strength for Indonesia so that indigenous people can not only prosper but be happy,” she said.

But Fauzi responded by telling Mari that indigenous peoples’ rights to their land must be clearly stated in law, and he urged the acceptance of the draft law.

Lisga Klisye, from Ambon, Maluku, said he had seen too many people displaced by forestry, mining and plantation interests to take Mari at face value.

“We still don’t trust the government,” he said, speaking through a greying beard hanging off his chin. “Not yet.”