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New life for Indonesia’s long-delayed indigenous rights bill?

  • Indonesia’s constitution recognizes its indigenous peoples, but no law on their rights has ever been passed.
  • Indigenous advocates campaigned for President Jokowi in 2014 in part because they thought he would change that, but progress has been slow.
  • Now, the Jokowi administration is moving to resurrect a draft bill on indigenous rights that was recently shelved by lawmakers.

In the latest twist in a decades-long push to define the legal status of Indonesia’s indigenous citizens, the government will seek authorization from the House of Representatives to finalize a draft of the Recognition and Protection of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (PPHMHA) Bill, auguring hopes it might finally go to a vote this year.

Though the bill is on the long-list of bills for the current House term (2014-2019), it was left of the priority agenda for 2016, much to the dismay of indigenous advocacy groups across the country. A task force headed by the ministry of law and human rights will be put in charge of finishing a draft of the law, and will return it to the House for debate. No target date for completion has been set.

“What is most important,” said Sandra Moniaga, a commissioner of the National Commission for Human Rights (Komnas HAM), “is to create consensus between the government and the House.”

Petrus Asuy, a Dayak Benuaq man from Muara Tae, East Kalimantan, cuts out the insides of a durian-like fruit in the forest near his home. Photo by Philip Jacobson

For Indonesia’s millions of masyarakat adat, or customary law-based peoples, passing such a bill is a sine qua non for translating their constitutional recognition into policies that acknowledge and protect their traditional lands and ways of being.

Despite a landmark 2013 Constitutional Court decision ending state authority over customary forests, thereby granting adat peoples nominal control over their lands and the resources within them, adat communities still have no established procedure for gaining recognition as such; while their customary territories, said by some to encompass a fifth of the archipelago, have yet to be mapped by the state.

As a result of this virtual invisibility to local governments, Indonesia’s dozens of millions of adat citizens are easily exploited by those who seek fortune in their forests, spurring the loss of lands, traditions, livelihoods, and in some cases, the spread of disease.

According to Moniaga, the government’s decision to take over the drafting of the bill should be seen as an “act of assistance” rather than a move to correct House reticence.

“This action is a way to help the parliament, which has so many bills to produce this year that they are overworked,” she told Mongabay, allowing that strong lobbying in the wake of the PPHMHA bill’s exclusion pressured the government to respond.

Blessing in disguise?

Although AMAN, Indonesia’s main alliance of indigenous groups, has admonished the bill’s postponement, Moniaga said doing so may have saved years of work from being flushed down the drain.

“Currently there is no mechanism for a House member to ask that a law be ‘carried over’ [into the next session],” she said.

Abdon Nababan, the head of AMAN, left, sits next to forestry minister Siti Nurbaya at an event in Bali last year. Photo by Cory Rogers

Work on the PPHMHA law stretches back to 2012, when it was added to the long list of bills at the House. In 2013, due to fierce lobbying from indigenous groups, the House formed a special committee staffed by lawmakers and representatives from the forestry, home affairs, energy, and law and human rights ministries. The committee’s task was to harmonize the draft with government officials so it could be added to the House’s 2014 priority list.

According to the committee head, Himmatul Aliyah, however, the ministry representatives never showed any intention of carrying out their mandate, and the bill was never added to the list.

“[The ministries] sent expert staff who didn’t understand the problem of customary laws, and also didn’t have the authority [to make decisions],” she told in September 2014.

“If the government didn’t want to discuss the bill, it should have said so from the beginning.”

The stonewalling tactic, she alleged, killed the bill before it could be brought to vote in the waning weeks of the House term.

A Mouley man near Syou in West Papua, Indonesia. Photo by Rhett A. Butler

Lacking a “carry-over” mechanism to bridge the presidencies of Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and Joko “Jokowi” Widodo, Moniaga of Komnas HAM said even if the current batch of lawmakers wanted to resume deliberations, the process would have to start from scratch.

No such constraints hamstring the government.

Challenges ahead

AMAN deputy secretary Rukka Sombolinggi cautioned against viewing AMAN’s lobbying victory as an unmitigated success. Though she said she trusted Jokowi’s commitment to indigenous rights, she worried that key components of the PPHMHA bill, which was “80 to 90 percent completed in 2014,” might be watered down.

The government’s plan is to appoint the law and human rights ministry to head an inter-ministerial team tasked with reviewing the 2014 bill and finalizing a draft.

That will include reassessing a lengthy academic paper composed by teams of university researchers in 2010-2011. That document, Sombolinggi said, formed the basis of the 2014 PPHMHA law, took years to write, and was unprecedented in the degree to which it consulted indigenous communities themselves.

“I worry that the ministries will appoint people to the inter-ministerial committee who don’t understand the process [we already underwent]…and that they will try to rewrite something that took years to do,” she said, adding this could further impede realization of the bill.

“In terms of commitment, though, we trust the government. It’s in the technical work, in the small groups, where the challenge ahead lies.”

Indigenous Dayak leaders sign documents related to their customary land claims in Central Kalimantan last year. AMAN is helping indigenous groups across Indonesia map their lands. Photo courtesy of Walhi

Patrick Anderson, policy adviser for the Forest Peoples Programme, a British NGO focused on indigenous lands and livelihoods, said passing a comprehensive law was necessary to eliminate overlapping lines of authority among ministries with stakes in the forest zone.

“The issue of indigenous peoples’ rights has been dealt with separately by a dozen ministries, so it would be useful to have a law that ties all these things together,” he told Mongabay.

He stressed the draft ought to recognize the the rights of indigenous groups to control their natural resources, government structures, customary laws, and other collective rights, including official use of their native languages.

Sombolinggi said the need to act quickly was urgent, as adat groups nationwide lose lands and livelihoods due to the weak protection of their rights everyday.

“After 70 years, there are still no specific laws that recognize, regulate or give guidelines on protecting the rights of indigenous peoples,” she said.

“This [bill] is really about Indonesia’s debt to [its] indigenous people.”