Bid to protect indigenous Indonesians hit by ministry’s doubts over rights bill

  • Indonesia’s Home Affairs Ministry has shocked indigenous-rights advocates with its assessment that a bill currently before parliament on indigenous peoples is “not a necessity” and will only give rise to more problems.
  • That stance goes against the long-held commitment of the administration of President Joko Widodo to recognize and protect the rights of the country’s myriad indigenous communities, including their rights to ancestral forests.
  • The ministry, however, has played down the uproar, saying discussions on the bill are still in their early stages and other ministries and government agencies have yet to weigh in on the matter.

JAKARTA — The Indonesian government looks poised to derail a long-awaited bill on the rights of the country’s indigenous groups, calling it “not a necessity” and saying it will only trigger new problems.

The bill, a perennial priority for legislation for several years, is meant to be the follow-up to a landmark constitutional ruling in 2013 that rescinded state control over indigenous lands and gave it back to Indonesia’s indigenous peoples. Since then, various laws and regulations have been issued that touch on the issue of indigenous rights to some degree, but the central bill that would tie them all together remains locked in legislative limbo.

And that state of uncertainty looks set to prevail, as a letter from the Home Affairs Ministry, dated April 11 and seen by Mongabay, sets out the ministry’s objections to the current draft of the indigenous rights bill.

It argues, among other points, that the bill is not needed, citing the 16 other laws and regulations that address indigenous issues, such as the 2014 Villages Law.

The ministry also says the bill will create problems in the future, such as putting unnecessary pressure on the state budget, triggering new conflicts, and reviving indigenous beliefs that are not regulated by the state. (Indonesia, though nominally secular, grants official recognition to just six faiths, not including the myriad indigenous or animist faiths practiced by groups across the country.)

“Therefore, the passing of the bill on indigenous peoples is not yet a concrete necessity, and there are concerns that it will create new problems related to indigenous people,” reads the letter signed by Home Affairs Minister Tjahjo Kumolo.

The ministry indicated in the letter that it had drawn up the “problem inventory” in collaboration with six other ministries and government agencies.

The letter was sent in response to the government’s solicitation for feedback on the indigenous rights bill, and thus represents the views of just one set of several stakeholders. However, it paints a bleak outlook for the bill’s progress, given that the objecting party — the Home Affairs Ministry — is the principal government liaison to the parliamentary commission in charge of legislating the bill.

A member of the Forest Tobelo indigenous group in North Maluku, Indonesia. Photo by Muhammad Ector Prasetyo/Flickr.

Urgency of the bill

While indigenous rights are guaranteed under Indonesia’s constitution, the country has never passed legislation that addresses the issue directly, leaving indigenous communities with little to no legal protections.

Proponents of the bill say it’s important to have these protections enshrined in law for communities that have existed since long before the Indonesian republic was conceived. That’s why when Joko “Jokowi” Widodo ran for president in 2014 as a man of the people not beholden to the long-ruling Jakarta elite, many indigenous communities pinned their hopes on him. The Indigenous Peoples Alliance of the Archipelago (AMAN), the main advocacy group for these communities, made Jokowi the first presidential candidate it had ever endorsed by backing his bid that year.

Since then, however, progress on the bill has been slow. In 2016, a draft found its way into parliament’s docket of priority legislation, known as Prolegnas, but never made it to passage. The entire process to get it prioritized had to be repeated in 2017, because bills are not carried over from one year to the next. During a meeting with AMAN in March of that year, Jokowi stated his support for the bill.

AMAN and the groups it represents hope the passage of the bill (it’s in the priority docket again this year) will give indigenous communities the legal standing to address the major issues facing them, including the confirmation of basic land rights and a voice in local government.

“The point [of the bill] is to first acknowledge, and then to respect, to protect and to empower indigenous people,” Arif Wibowo, the deputy chairman of parliament’s legislative committee, said late last year.

One of the most pressing demands from indigenous groups is for recognition of their land rights, something which has been denied them for decades by the government in favor of large plantation and mining companies. The government is obligated to relinquish control over state forest areas that fall within indigenous lands, per the 2013 Constitutional Court ruling. But to date, the government has recognized just 18 communities’ rights to their ancestral forests, covering a combined area of 164 square kilometers (63 square miles).

This is far short of the 19,000 square kilometers (7,340 square miles) of land, home to 607 indigenous communities, that AMAN calculates must be rezoned as ancestral forests.

Activists blame red tape for the glacial pace of progress, noting that only local governments can grant recognition of customary forests to indigenous communities through local bylaws. For a local administration to issue such a bylaw, it has to ensure that the indigenous people have been living in the area for a long time and that the customary land truly exists, among other things.

Activists say they hope that the national bill, once passed, can address these bureaucratic hurdles hindering the recognition of customary land rights.

The Dayak indigenous tribe of Kambiyain village in South Kalimantan province, Indonesia, is holding an ‘aruh’ ritual to celebrate the success of their harvest. Photo by Indra Nugraha for Mongabay Indonesia.

‘Misguided’ assessment

Given parliament and the president’s statements of support for the indigenous rights bill, the letter from the Home Affairs Ministry has come as a disappointment to activists.

“[We’re] surprised because the minister previously conveyed his commitment to indigenous peoples during AMAN’s national meeting in Sorong [in 2015],” Rukka Sombilinggi, secretary-general of AMAN, told Mongabay.

She called the Home Affairs Ministry’s stance misguided and a clear violation of Jokowi’s commitment.

“The existing regulations on indigenous peoples overlap with each other and haven’t been able to answer the needs of indigenous peoples,” Rukka said. “Therefore, a law on indigenous people is the answer to the core problems that the government is facing in managing indigenous people. And more importantly, it will provide legal certainty for indigenous peoples, the government and businesses.”

Muhammad Arman, AMAN’s policy advocacy, legal and human rights director, said government data showed clearly that land conflicts arising from a lack of legal recognition of indigenous communities and their lands were rampant across the country.

He cited data from the Supreme Court, which showed that more than half of the 16,000 unresolved land disputes recorded since Indonesia declared independence in 1945 were related to customary land conflicts. Similarly, the National Commission on Human Rights has found massive human rights violations due to the lack of strong laws to protect indigenous people.

“These findings should have been a reason for the government to speed up the passage of the bill,” Arman said in a press statement.

President Joko Widodo on Oct. 25 handed over land certificate to a representative of an Indonesian indigenous group. That day, a total nine communities secured rights to their forests. Photo courtesy of Indonesia’s Cabinet Secretary.

Still in the early stages

For its part, the Home Affairs Ministry says its assessment of the need for the indigenous rights bill should be seen as just one facet of the overall debate, and not as the government’s final decision on the issue.

“The minister and his personnel will still continue to support discussions related to indigenous peoples,” the ministry’s secretary-general, Hadi Prabowo, said at a press conference in Jakarta.

Asked why the ministry deemed there was no urgency to pass the bill, officials declined to answer, saying instead that discussions around the bill — begun in 2016 — were still in the early stages.

Nata Irawan, the ministry’s director-general for village administration, said key aspects of indigenous rights were already covered under the 2014 Villages Law.

“And [the law] has even been followed up with a ministerial regulation in 2014,” he said at the press conference. “But if it’s still deemed to be lacking, then we’re ready to accept advice and opinions to further [discuss the bill]. What’s clear and what we have to understand together is that the Home Affairs Ministry supports President Jokowi’s policies.”

Nata said there was the possibility of the government officially endorsing the bill despite the ministry’s current stance — if other ministries and government agencies deemed the bill to be important. This is because the Home Affairs Ministry is looking at the issue from an administrative point of view, while others like the Ministry of Environment and Forestry might look at the importance of the bill from the perspective of conserving ancestral forests, Nata said.

He said further discussions on the bill were planned with the Ministry of Justice and Human Rights. “If we’re talking about whether the bill is needed or not, the Ministry of Justice and Human Rights will be the one to decide,” he said.

The Ministry of Environment and Forestry, meanwhile, said that if there was no consensus among government agencies on the importance of the bill, the matter would be discussed with the State Secretariat, which effectively serves as the president’s office for all matters related to ongoing legislation.

Environment and Forestry Minister Siti Nurbaya Bakar said her office was looking at the bill from the perspective of ancestral land rights, as it was tasked with overseeing the government’s program to recognize customary forests. She acknowledged the difficulties faced by indigenous peoples in getting their land rights recognized, despite the government’s pledges of support.

“In practice, the program has been going on with existing regulations. But our indigenous friends feel that it’s difficult because the process [at the level of] local governments and local regulations is slow,” Siti told reporters in Jakarta.


Banner image: Indigenous Indonesians of Mentawai district depend their lives on the resourceful forests. Photo by Vinolia Ahmad/Mongabay-Indonesia.

This story first appeared on Mongabay

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