Indonesia: Recognizing Indigenous Rights

Date of publication: 
18 November 2014

Indonesia’s first-ever national inquiry delves into dozens of land disputes involving indigenous peoples and customary forest rights. The target: new President Joko Widodo.

The Pagu woman raised her voice in the presence of officials from the mining company that had caused her so much grief.

To cement her tribe’s territorial claim, she invoked centuries-old place names and a landmark Constitutional Court ruling from last year.

“This is our land, not the state’s land!” Afrida Erna Ngato hollered in the hearing room in Ambon, Maluku. The gallery cheered.

Afrida, the chief of her tribe, had come all the way from remote Halmahera Island to testify in the National Human Rights Commission’s (Komnas HAM) five-month national inquiry into land confl icts aff ecting indigenous people in forest areas.

The inquiry, Indonesia’s first ever, follows up the 2013 Constitutional Court decision that took customary forests out of state forests as a result of a judicial review brought by the Indigenous Peoples Alliance of the Archipelago (AMAN).

The ruling was lauded as a victory for indigenous peoples, but implementation has been slow. That was why AMAN proposed to Komnas HAM that it hold an inquiry, modeled off the one the Malaysian Human Rights Commission carried out last year.

The target: President Joko Widodo. Upon completion of the inquiry, Komnas HAM will produce a set of policy recommendations for the new administration.

“They should publish a special certificate for adat land,” Komnas HAM Commissioner Sandra Moniaga told Tempo, using a term that refers holistically to indigenous peoples’ various life systems. “It cannot be a standard individual certificate. It should be a collective certificate, community-owned.”

She cited the Philippines, where indigenous communities can already obtain such a title.

The inquiry is progressing through the seven regions of Indonesia: Sulawesi, Sumatra, Kalimantan, Java, Maluku, Papua and Nusa Tenggara. In December it will conclude with hearing in the capital, Jakarta.The recommendations are due out on December 10 to coincide with Human Rights Day.

Each hearing features six to eight separate land disputes. For each one, a man from the tribe in question relates their history, their ancestors, their territory, their system of governance.

“That is very important because it is how you legitimate yourself as indigenous,” Rukka Sombolinggi, AMAN’s international advocacy coordinator, told Tempo.

The man also recounts his tribe’s problems. A general explanation from him is followed by a more specifi c one from a female from the community about the unique challenges to women and other issues. Women’s rights is a stated focus of the inquiry, with National Commission on Violence Against Women (Komnas Perempuan) Chief Saur Tumiur Situmorang, sitting on the panel of commissioners along with Bogor Agricultural University professor Hariadi Kartodihardjo, former Constitutional Court justice Achmad Sodiki, 82-year-old international law expert Enny Soeprapto and Sandra.

“If the man is resisting the company, he will often go out of the village, so the woman is left with the kids unprotected,” Rukka said. “So if something happens, the woman has to be the one to defend their village.

“And if they go outside, the man will need more money to travel, so again the woman is left as the head of the family—economic burden is on the woman.”

Last month at the hearing in Pontianak, West Kalimantan, a nurse from Central Kalimantan told of a grisly murder. She had been on duty at a public clinic when community members showed up with a gravely injured, slashed-up woman who had been savagely attacked. Her children had fled into the forest.

“Now the son and daughter have grown up, but the daughter refuses to be a woman”Rukka said. “She wants to be a man. She said ‘If I were a boy probably I could protect my mom.’”

“And now the son is antisocial. So now they live together on their farmland away from the community.”

Allegations of abuses by the security forces have been a constant throughout the inquiry. In disputes across the country, Sandra said, the authorities tended to line up with commercial interests.

“The police, they know there is adat law,” she explained. “But in practice, when they receive a report from the company, they just use state law, the criminal code, and that is unfair because for the community, cutting the trees on their land is not considered criminal.”

The authorities, she added, needed to recognize the reality of ‘legal pluralism’ in Indonesia, where state law, adat law and religious law must all coexist.

Another hallmark of the inquiry has been an inability by bureaucrats and company offi cials to produce documents the commissioners requested of them.

In Pontianak, it came to light that a subsidiary of palm oil giant Duta Palma, Ledo Lestari, never obtained a crucial Right of Cultivation (HGU) title but had commenced operations anyway. The company’s plantation concession in West Kalimantan included the entirety of the Semunying Jaya people’s sacred forest.

In its defense, the company argued that it was in the process of obtaining the HGU. But Sandra said that did not make sense. “What if they don’t get the HGU? They are planting on somebody’s land.” She added that whether there is a loophole in the law is something Komnas HAM must further study.

Rukka said Semunying Jaya has already passed a point of no return. “The forests are all gone,” she said. “Even their burial sites,the ancient ones, have been destroyed by the company.”

In Ambon, miner Gemala Borneo Utama was also unable to produce key documents. Gemala, which has its eye on tiny Romang Island near Timor-Leste, could not come up with a biannual report it is supposed to file with the local government during the exploration phase. Neither could regency officials show the small-island zoning it was supposed to have gotten from Gemala.

“They just said they would check,” Sandra said. “So I’m sure they don’t have it.” The most high-profi le case out of Maluku concerned Menara Group’s aborted foray into Aru, a cluster of about 90 islands in the region’s farthest east.

The company had caused an outcry when it tried to claim nearly 500,000 hectares of the 629,000- hectare archipelago in what appeared to be a flawed process at every step of the way. Finally in April, then Forestry Minister Zulkifli Hasan seemed to capitulate to public pressure when he announced that he would not sign off on the company’s plans.

At the hearing, the commissioners grilleda well-dressed Menara Group executive.Pressed by Sandra as to the magnitude of the company’s plans, the man said a survey had shown that only around 100,000 hectares were feasible for sugarcane. He also replied that Menara Group planned to construct just one or two mills and that each mill would take up only about 30,000 hectares.

“So will you give the other 400,000 hectares back to the community?” Sandra asked. The executive said he could not answer yet.

After the hearing, Sandra said the man’s responses had been strange. “I’m suspicious that they are looking for something else,” she told Tempo, adding that the island, an illegal logging hotspot, is home to a rare species of valuable timber.

Like the Malaysian Human Rights Commission, Komnas HAM does not hold the power to enforce its recommendations. Joan Carling, secretary-general of the Asia Indigenous Peoples Pact, a regional organization that works closely with AMAN, the Malaysian government’s task force assigned to carry out the fi ndings of its inquiry had essentially downgraded the report.

The next steps in Indonesia are to defi ne the process for implementing the Constitutional Court ruling and lay out a solid definition of indigenous people, something the government still lacks, Carling said.

In some countries, she continued, officials had improperly responded to the call for indigenous rights by doling out or pushing for individual land titles, which ultimately undermines the essence of what indigenous people are fighting for: collective control over their own territory and the resources therein.

Rukka said that until indigenous people are able to stake their claims, they would continue to suff er ‘development aggression’.

“The meaning of development should be beautiful,” she explained, “but when it comes to the narrative of indigenous people it’s completely diff erent. Suddenly early in the morning we see excavators. People coming in front of our house and saying, ‘You have to get out of this land.’”

“If we say this is our land, they say ‘Where is your certifi cate?’ While in this country they don’t have that for us. They have never created a mechanism that allows us to have proof of our ownership.”