Indonesia probes violations of indigenous rights in contested forests


Fidelis E. Satriastanti, Thomson Reuters Foundation –

Date of publication: 
29 May 2014

JAKARTA – Indonesia’s Human Rights Commission has launched the country’s first national inquiry into alleged human rights violations related to land conflicts involving indigenous people.

“It is the first inquiry into these (land conflict) cases on a national scale because we have indications of the same patterns (of human rights violations) for these conflicts,” said Sandra Moniaga, a member of the commission, which is known as Komnas HAM, before the launch of the initiative in Jakarta on May 20.

Public hearings will be held in seven regions – Sumatra, Java, Bali-Nusa, Sulawesi, Kalimantan, Maluku and Papua – in addition to a national hearing. Each hearing will involve witnesses, experts, local leaders and advocates from civil society organisations.

Around 140 cases have been reported to Komnas HAM as part of the inquiry.

“We will have a comprehensive investigation (and) secondary data collection from institutions that are concerned with this issue,” Moniaga said.

The institutions include the Indigenous Peoples’ Alliance of the Archipelago, the Association for Community and Ecology-Based Law Reform and the National Forestry Council.

The commission aims to complete its inquiry by November and to issue recommendations for action by the country’s next president, who is due to be elected in July.

Nearly 70 percent of Indonesia’s forest – 136 million hectares (336 million acres) – belongs to the state. Land conflicts involving indigenous people date back to the Dutch occupation of the country from 1847 to 1942. Land was frequently claimed as the state’s property without considering the customary claims of native people living in forested areas.


In 1967, then-President Suharto issued a forestry law that covered only forest categorised as protected, natural reserves and forest used for production or tourism. The 1999 Law on Forestry did mention indigenous forest, but defined it as state-owned forest situated within an “indigenous law community area”, meaning an area where local people have established mostly unwritten laws and customs over generations.

Activists slammed the 1999 law for excluding the claims of people living near or inside the forests, which resulted in ongoing conflicts.

“The previous laws should be corrected by the ruling government,” said Moniaga, who says the state has engaged in systematic land grabs.

“People usually associate human rights violations with social and political rights, but these (indigenous) people are also suffering from human rights violations. They lost their rights to their lands, they lost their political rights, and most of these conflicts ended up with deaths,” she added

Abdon Nababan, secretary general of the Indigenous People’s Alliance of the Archipelago, agrees with this characterisation.

“We are referring to economic, social and cultural rights,” said Nababan. “These are the same rights being taken away from indigenous people.”


Kaharuddin, a member of the Dayak Punan tribe, one of the oldest indigenous communities in Kalimantan, said his tribe has suffered as a result of the government’s policies, from “forced” migration to the granting of timber concessions in the tribe’s customary forests.

“We were forced to move from the forests to settlements by the government in 1972 for the (stated) reason that we were living in too-remote areas. But we are forest people, we would eventually go back to the forests,” said Kaharuddin. Only 63 families are still living in the forests, making the tribe an endangered community, he added.

To make things worse, the Punan tribe’s 22,000 hectares of traditional forest are now threatened by timber concessions.

“These companies … come to our forests and just leave it damaged. They have destroyed fruit, trees, rattan and rubber which are the main commodities for the Punan people,” said Kaharuddin.

“We Punan people (are) always careful in managing our forests. We usually cut trees every five years, but these concessions with their equipment cut hundreds of trees (very quickly). It’s painful to hear that we are being accused of destroying our own forests,” he added.


The struggle of indigenous communities to have their land recognised by the state received a boost in 2012 when the Constitutional Court granted an appeal by civil society organisations to revise the definition of indigenous forest in the 1999 forestry law.

The court’s decision, popularly known as MK 35, excluded indigenous forest areas from being categorised as state forests and recognised indigenous people’s ownership of the land in their forest areas.

However, there have been no significant efforts by the government to follow through on the decision.

“On the contrary, it is going backwards after the ministry of forestry and ministry of home affairs issued letters presenting bureaucratic obstacles” to implementing the decision, said Iwan Nurdin, secretary-general of the Consortium for Agrarian Reform.

Nurdin cited a 2013 letter from the forestry minister stating that indigenous forest can remain in the state’s possession if the community’s claim to the forest has not been legalised by regional regulations. Few such regulations have been issued in the past year.

The second letter from the home affairs minister also sparked controversy because it included land owned by traditional royal families in the category of “indigenous law community areas”, a classification that many experts and historians reject.

The implementation of MK35 is being overseen by the coordinating ministry of people’s welfare. The assistant deputy for conflict issues, Marwan (who goes by one name), was only appointed two months ago.

“I am still learning about the cases, but we will find a way to deal with these conflicts,” he said.

Kaharuddin said his tribe simply want their forest lands back. “(They) don’t have to be in good condition. Give us back our forest, we will fix it ourselves,” he said.

Fidelis E. Satriastanti is a Jakarta-based writer with an interest in climate change issues.