Indonesia: Indigenous Peoples Fight for Rights Online

Date of publication: 
19 November 2013

Indonesia loves its social media. In a country that hosts 64 million active Facebook users, 29 million Twitter users and 1.7 million users of LinkedIn, the statistics speak for themselves.

Once it was a good way to waste some time but increasingly, the internet and social media is being used to mobilize social action, facilitate political participation and share beyond geographical constraints and across national borders.

From as early as 1994, with what started as a local struggle for the indigenous peoples of Mexico’s Chiapas and grew to become the transnational Zapatista movement, to the public demonstrations of the Arab Spring that spread across the Middle East from December 2010, the internet and social media has become one of the essential tools for modern social movement.

The indigenous peoples of Indonesia are not excluded from this activism phenomenon.

Earlier this year, the Constitutional Court delivered a historic ruling on the 1999 Forestry Law, following a submission by the Indigenous Peoples’ Alliance of the Archipelago (Aliansi Masyarakat Adat Nusantara – Aman), a national membership-based organization representing over 2,000 indigenous communities.

The Constitutional Court Decision 35, as it is often referred to, declares the word “state” in Article 1(6) of the Forestry Law to not be legally binding. So where it previously read “customary forests are state forests located in indigenous peoples’ territories,” the ruling declared that it should simply read “customary forests are forests located in indigenous peoples’ territories.”

For the estimated 50 to 70 million indigenous peoples in Indonesia, the decision was met with much praise.

It gave a glimpse into something of a brave new world: the denial of government ownership over potentially 40 million hectares of forests, and with it, their ability to grant concessions for mining and logging.

It also meant that the possible stewardship of customary forests is now completely in the hands of local indigenous communities who have lived and managed these forests for generations.

Yet the welcome was met with equal reservation.

“What the indigenous peoples need immediately is a concrete mechanism in the field, indicating that the government and its relevant agencies comply with the Court’s decision,” said Abdon Nababan, secretary general of Aman, at a gathering of civil society organizations following the ruling.

Taking to Facebook

It wasn’t long before Aman members began erecting placards in customary forests that read “ Ini hutan adat kami, bukan hutan negara ” (this is our customary forest, not a state forest).

Photos were uploaded to the Hutan Adat Kita (Our Customary Forest) Facebook page, an initiative started by the Indigenous Youth Front, the youth wing of Aman.

“[Hutan Adat Kita] was created to raise awareness among indigenous communities as well as the broader public about the Constitutional Court Decision 35.

“The photos are there to affirm that customary forests are forests on customary land and publicly show that indigenous peoples are eager to reclaim their forests and have the forests returned to them,” said Simon Pabaras, chairman of the Indigenous Youth Front.

Closely tied in with the recognition and practical application of indigenous sovereignty over customary forests is the fundamental recognition and protection of the rights of indigenous peoples themselves.

Lack of commitment

Since 2011 the bill on the Recognition and Protection of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples has sat with the People’s Representative Council. It is a single piece of legislation that will formally recognize and protect the rights of indigenous peoples in Indonesia.

Currently any legislative protection of indigenous peoples is sectoral based and largely peripheral.

A special committee, comprised of the minister for forestry and the minister for law and justice among others, was established earlier this year to oversee the bill. However, when the bill will be passed is as unclear as when the Constitutional Court Decision 35, which was announced six months ago, will be implemented.

“The government has not shown the will to implement the Constitutional Court Decision 35 or adopt the bill on the Recognition and Protection of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples,” Simon said. “We don’t have a lot of time left.”

Petitioning power

In danger of being drowned out as political preparations and campaigning for the 2014 election begin to ramp up, Aman has circulated Petisi 35, a petition to push the government to pass the bill on the Recognition and Protection of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and implement the Constitutional Court Decision 35. Accompanying the paper-based petition is, of course, an online petition also.

Currently there are more than 2,000 signatures from both the online and offline petition.

Aman hopes to receive many more signatures from Indonesia and around the world. The effect of social media will play its part in achieving that.

“We are asking for the support of justice for indigenous peoples and their rights over land, territories and resources including customary forests…

“We urge the government of Indonesia to immediately implement the Constitutional Court’s decision and to recognize and protect indigenous peoples’ rights by adopting the bill,” Simon said.

For the moment, Aman acknowledges that its offline campaigning activities for Petisi 35 have gathered the most support because of the spread of its member communities across the archipelago living without internet access.

Likewise, poor signals where there is internet access has been an obstacle for some communities sending through their photos to the Hutan Adat Kita Facebook page.

Despite this, Simon acknowledged the continuing significance of social media and the internet in supporting the indigenous movement in Indonesia.

“We can strengthen the indigenous movement through online networking and connecting with other organizations like workers, farmers and fishermen.

“But we also know that many peoples use social media in Indonesia and it has become a potential arena for campaigning.”

As another tool for the modern activists and advocates, expect to see more frequent appearances of the indigenous movement in the online arena.

Jacqueline Pham is a volunteer working with Aliansi Masyarakat Adat Nusantara (Aman), a membership based organization representing and advocating on behalf of indigenous peoples in Indonesia.

Petisi 35 is available in both Bahasa Indonesia and English. To sign the online petition Petisi 35, please visit The Hutan Adat Kita Facebook page can be visited at