Indigenous People Want to Have a Say in What’s Happening to Their Lands

Tobelo, North Maluku. In an open-air pavilion overlooking the pristine waters off the coast of northern Halmahera, about 150 indigenous people gathered for a forum on their rights over land and natural resources over the weekend.

One by one they picked up the microphone, describing their communities’ experiences fighting outside interests for control of their ancestral heritage.

A man from Manado, North Sulawesi, lamented the destruction of temples in his community ostensibly protected by the state. A Papuan with a feathered headband called for a new, autonomous presidential unit to oversee local, government-initiated councils for indigenous people.

A woman from Halmahera, where extractive mining is abundant, talked about mobilizing her people against the forces encroaching on their forests, and how hard it was to convince them at first.

“Don’t be afraid,” someone shouted. “You are not alone.”

In workshops about land rights, community mining, indigenous religion, traditional forest management, aquaculture-based economies, the role of the United Nations and much more, representatives of communities from across the country spoke of their desire for self-determination at the fourth congress of the Alliance of Indigenous Peoples of the Archipelago (AMAN) in Tobelo on Friday and Saturday. Sunday was set aside for a food festival.

The accepted term for indigenous people in Indonesia, masyarakat adat, refers to peoples who hold on to forms of ancient customary law based on communal rather than private ownership. Conflict between adat and the modern capitalism it long predates was the reason AMAN was initially created, and it underlies nearly every aspect of the congress.

AMAN is lobbying hard for the Indonesian government to codify indigenous peoples’ rights into law. During the congress’s opening ceremony in Tobelo on Thursday, AMAN formally submitted a draft law to House of Representatives Speaker Marzuki Alie and Tourism and Creative Economy Minister Mari Elka Pangestu, who were in attendance.

One of the main things AMAN is pushing for is better political representation and a say in decision-making. This includes free and prior informed consent, or FPIC, which would give indigenous peoples the right to decide what kind of projects they want to allow on their land. The major criticism of the current system is  the apparent prioritization of the interests of political elites, bureaucrats and businesses.

Though it is met with apprehension by the corporate world, FPIC already exists in the Philippines, where it has had a marked effect, said Joan Carling, secretary general of the Asia Indigenous People’s Pact, a coalition of 28 national indigenous organizations.

In some cases, she said, FPIC had put the brakes on investment, with companies afraid the law would give them problems.

In others, though, firms had adjusted. Of special  note were companies from Canada, she said, which were reorienting themselves to support FPIC because they realized it made their positions more, not less, secure.

“Indigenous people are not closed-minded. We want development too. It’s just that our welfare should also be accounted for,” Carling said, speaking on the sidelines of a workshop on climate change mitigation.

“The heart of the matter is land tenure and sustainable livelihoods,” she said, adding that the state sees forests only in terms of carbon and as a commodity under Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD) schemes. “But for us it has multiple values. Indigenous people should also be compensated for cultural loss.”

AMAN has recorded 530 unresolved conflicts related to control of land, forests and ocean territory between some of its 1,696 community members and state and private interests. Several of these conflicts, often involving companies backed up by state-backed paramilitary groups, have occurred in bouts of bloody violence over the past year in places such as Bima, West Nusa Tenggara, and Mesuji, Lampung.

Indonesia is a signatory to the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. But many indigenous groups say they have not been allowed to exercise these rights in practice.

There have been successes, though. Since 2000, the state has amended the Constitution to recognize indigenous rights as human rights. Statutory law has also been changed to recognize their rights to maintain their culture, land and resources.