Indonesia denies it has any indigenous peoples

Commentary by: Frances Yan-Man-Shing
June 13, 2013

Indonesia is home to an estimated 50-70 million indigenous peoples, but the government does not recognize the rights of its indigenous peoples and claims that none live in Indonesia. In a response to the United Nations Periodic Review in 2012, a four–year human rights check-up for all countries, Indonesia said: "The Government of Indonesia supports the promotion and protection of indigenous people worldwide... Indonesia, however, does not recognize the application of the indigenous peoples concept...in the country." The UN's report recommended that Indonesia should ratify ILO Convention 169, the only international law for indigenous and tribal peoples. In addition, the UN recommended that Indonesia should secure the rights of indigenous peoples, especially to their traditional lands, territories and resources.

"The Rainforest Foundation Norway thinks President Yudhoyono would show great international leadership by ratifying the ILO 169 Convention. The President has already made a big commitment to reduce Indonesia's green house gas emissions by 41%. We are sure that this ambitious goal would be strengthened if the President also signs ILO 169 and acknowledges the important role Indigenous Peoples play in managing forests sustainably, " says Hege Karsti Ragnhildstveit, the head of Rainforest Foundation Norway's Division for Southeast Asia.

ILO 169 is a convention of the International Labor Organisation, which is part of the UN. The Convention recognizes the land ownership rights of indigenous peoples, and states that they should not be forcibly evicted from their territories. ILO 169 sets a series of standards for the treatment of indigenous peoples and requires governments to consult indigenous peoples on projects that affect them. Governments that ratify the Convention are legally bound to abide by it.

A Dani woman in Indonesian Papua. Photo by: Rhett A. Butler.
A Dani woman in Indonesian Papua. Photo by: Rhett A. Butler.
The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples is also an important international tool, setting a benchmark by which the treatment of indigenous peoples can be judged. However, unlike ILO 169, the Declaration is not legally binding.

The incessant international demand for commodities, such as palm oil and pulp and paper, is responsible for evicting indigenous peoples off their lands and for the wholesale liquidation of Indonesia's remaining rainforests. Indigenous peoples are not adequately consulted or compensated for the use of their traditional lands. Large-scale land acquisitions for palm oil operations are rife with social conflicts due to unresolved disputes over land tenure, resource control and environmental degradation. Forest dwelling communities are often faced with violence and intimidation. Some palm oil companies respond to land conflicts with local communities by using company security forces or hiring military units to crack down on dissenters in order to keep their palm oil operations active.

The ILO 169 is the only international law that recognizes the land ownership rights of indigenous peoples. ILO 169 is not just a law for indigenous peoples; it is a law for everyone. It plays a key role in saving the world's natural ecosystems, putting control of the land back in the hands of the people who have looked after it for generations. Indigenous peoples are thoughtful and skillful partners of the natural world; their ways of life have protected and conserved some of the world's most intact natural ecosystems, species and genetic diversity. Indigenous peoples' territories cover up to 22% of the planet's land surface, and they coincide with areas that hold 80% of the planet's biodiversity (Sobrevila 2008). It is no coincidence that so much of the world's rainforests and biodiversity are on indigenous peoples' lands. Scientific studies based on satellite data have shown that indigenous territories are highly effective and vitally important for stopping deforestation and forest fires (Nelson A, Chomitz KM 2011). Using satellite data from forest fires to help indicate deforestation levels, the study showed rates were lower by about 16% in indigenous areas between 2000-2008. Its analysis shows how deforestation plummets to its lowest levels when indigenous peoples continue living in protected areas, and are not forced out.

Recently, the Indonesian Constitutional court ruled that the customary forests of indigenous peoples should not be classed as falling in "State Forest Areas." This means that the State cannot expel indigenous peoples from their customary forests. The court ruling recognizes indigenous peoples' land rights in the archipelago and opens the way for a major reallocation of forests back to the indigenous peoples. The judgment was made in response to a petition filed with the court by the national indigenous peoples' organization AMAN (Aliansi Masyarakat Adat Nusantara). It is time for the President and the government of Indonesia to secure and recognize indigenous peoples' land rights.

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Commentary by: Frances Yan-Man-Shing (June 13, 2013).

Indonesia denies it has any indigenous peoples.