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Indonesia’s indigenous wage two-pronged battle for legal recognition

  • The Indonesian ethnosphere is one of the planet’s most diverse, with hundreds of distinct indigenous groups and languages spoken across the archipelagic country.
  • The constitution recognizes the rights of indigenous peoples, but in seven decades of independence no law has been passed to operationalize them.
  • In the wake of a landmark ruling by Indonesia’s highest court, indigenous groups are turning to local governments for recognition, even as they campaign for the passage of a national law.

Earlier this year, in the central highlands of Indonesia’s star-shaped Sulawesi island, thousands of Indonesians toasted a civil rights triumph years in the making.

Their victory — the passage of a regulation on the rights of the local indigenous groups, by the legislature of Enrekang district — is not the national-level legal breakthrough seen as ultimately indispensable to the future of Indonesia’s indigenous peoples; nor does it yet articulate any specific rights, or demarcate the boundaries of their customary lands.

What it offers is a government-backed plan to one day give the tribes of Enrekang their constitutional due — something years of lobbying lawmakers in Jakarta has yet to deliver.

“The implication of this recognition is that the rights of indigenous Indonesians must be honored and protected by the state,” Amiruddin, the deputy head of Enrekang, told Mongabay. “That’s in line with the constitution.”

The fight for recognition

Enrekang’s 19 indigenous groups are but a fraction of the melange of Indonesians who practice ancient modes of knowledge, belief, community and economy.

These peoples, referred to collectively as masyarakat adat, are numerous and ubiquitous in the country; conservative estimates put their population at 30 million, while their customary territories are thought to encompass a fifth of the archipelago’s land mass, according to Indonesia’s main indigenous peoples alliance, AMAN.

Indonesia's Sulawesi, the world's 11th-largest island. Image courtesy of Gunkarta/Wikimedia Commons
Indonesia’s Sulawesi, the world’s 11th-largest island. Image by Gunkarta/Wikimedia Commons

Belying this huge spatial and demographic footprint, and despite explicit constitutional recognition, no national law has been passed that says who qualifies as indigenous, or what rights, if any, such status confers. The lack of legal certainty leaves adat communities especially vulnerable to abuse and loss of lands to those who see profit in their forests.

“After 70 years, there hasn’t been one law that integrates how the government will operationalize the rights of indigenous peoples as guaranteed by the constitution,” Rukka Sombolinggi, AMAN’s deputy secretary general and a Sulawesi native, told Mongabay.

Debate on that long-awaited national bill continues to proceed fitfully in Jakarta, though there are signs President Joko Widodo considers passing it a priority.

A local play

With the impasse in Jakarta, many adat communities are, like the ones in Enrekang, asking district governments to step up and give them their rights.

Doing so would accord with a watershed 2013 Constitutional Court ruling that not only ended state control of indigenous peoples’ customary forests, but recommended local regulations as the best way to release them into the care of adat groups.

An indigenous Enrekang woman traverses the forest, considered a sacred space. Photo by Wahyu Chandra/Mongabay
An indigenous woman in Enrekang traverses the forest, considered a sacred space. Photo by Wahyu Chandra/Mongabay

Even with a Constitutional Court mandate, however, shepherding these regulations through local legislatures is no simple matter; it requires advocacy groups like AMAN to spend years preparing comprehensive dossiers on indigenous life and customs.

According to Erasmus Cahyadi, AMAN’s law and human rights director, the alliance has helped pass just five regulations — known as Perdas — since the landmark court decision three years ago.

“To get a Perda passed, we have to produce an ethnographic study that documents the history of the community, how they regulate themselves, their adat institutions, and presents maps of the customary forests” — a slow, expensive process, Cahyadi said.

Nonetheless, with funding from the Japan Social Development Fund and the World Bank, AMAN and its affiliates have managed to map nearly 7 million hectares over the last three years.

Whether the government will recognize these maps, however, remains unclear.

Snakes in the grass

The process is not immune to cooptation. In many cases, local elites have appealed directly to district heads to issue unilateral decrees that recognize indigenous communities based merely on the presence of “adat institutions,” which can be operated somewhat like businesses — run by and for the interest of elites.

A ritual is performed by the indigenous Tangsa community of Enrekang. The ceremony brings together elements of Islam, Christianity and Hinduism. Photo by Wahyu Chandra
A ritual is performed in Enrekang’s Tangsa community. The ceremony merges elements of Islam, Christianity and Hinduism with local animist strains. Photo by Wahyu Chandra/Mongabay

Of the 187 legislative regulations and executive decrees that have been promulgated by district governments since the fall of the dictator Suharto in 1999, few have actually involved local communities, according to AMAN.

“These really just legitimize elites, freeing money [from the budget] to be used for activities not really related to helping the community,” Cahyadi explained.

Such dubious decrees, he warned, threatened to dilute the effectiveness of the local-recognition strategy overall. Even so, when issued after Perdas passed by district legislatures, executive decrees could be crucial to ensuring their implementation.

No ‘one size fits all’ Perda

While all of the regulations have the ultimate goal of securing adat territory and traditions, AMAN campaigner Arman Moehammad said they varied in how far they went, as each one depended on local political actors and the resources at hand.

In the case of Enrekang, the Perda merely acknowledges the existence of indigenous groups, laying out a process of verifying them and eventually, acknowledging their collective rights.

That job, Arman said, will be carried out by an as yet-formed committee composed of local ministry officials, NGOs and other government figures.

“The lobbying we are doing now is to make sure indigenous peoples are included on the committee,” he said.

Of the 19 groups seeking recognition, he added, only seven had compiled the necessary ethnography and customary mapping.

AMAN facilitates an ethnography documentation session in South Sulawesi province. Photo by Wahyu Chandra
AMAN facilitates an ethnography documentation session in South Sulawesi province for indigenous citizens seeking recognition from the state. Photo by Wahyu Chandra

Elsewhere, in mountainous Lebak district to the west of Jakarta, a recently passed regulation on the Kasepuhan people goes further, incorporating agreements on land use and capacity building — even defining the boundaries of some indigenous territory.

The victory was made possible partly due to allies in government and a fierce, two-year sustained lobbying effort to resolve a dispute with a local rubber company.

When asked if there was a “model Perda” ripe for replication, however, Cahyadi said it was too early to tell, as implementation of the commitments — even in Lebak — remained sluggish.

A traditional rice barn in the Kasepuhan village of Sirnarasa in West Java. Photo by Wibowo Jatmiko/Wikimedia Commons
A traditional rice barn in the Kasepuhan village of Sirnarasa in West Java. Photo by Wibowo Jatmiko/Wikimedia Commons

In Malinau district on the island of Borneo, a regulation similar to the one in Enrekang was passed in 2012. More than three years later, the body tasked with verifying the presence of adat groups is still awaiting finalization.

In Enrekang, Cahyadi said, the biggest challenge was to ensure the verification process did not get bogged down by agendas embedded “in the local political constellation,” and to make sure indigenous peoples were given a seat at the drafting table.

Two sides of the same coin

AMAN continues to press for Perdas in 19 districts across the archipelago. But according to the alliance’s Sombolinggi, it would be a mistake to view the campaign as a stopgap measure on the way to a national bill.

In decentralized Indonesia, she said, the campaigns were two sides of the same coin.

“The national law will provide the general conditions and regulations on indigenous rights, but when it comes to implementation [and verifying the presence local indigenous communities], each local regulation will have to be very specific,” she said, adding that Perdas “reinforce the conversation at the national level.”

In other words, while the effectiveness of the Perda drive is necessarily limited by the lack of a national bill — and, consequently, by a reliance on the goodwill of local actors — it gives AMAN a way to test out best practices.

“In the end, we need Perdas to release the indigenous territories from the [state] forest zones,” Sombolinggi said.

“But the regional regulations [Perdas] also need a strong mandate from the central government.”

A Celebes crested macaque in northern Sulawesi. The island is a biodiversity hotspot due its high number of endemic plants and animals. Photo by Henrik Ishihara/Wikimedia Commons
A Celebes crested macaque in northern Sulawesi. The island is a biodiversity hotspot due its high number of endemic plants and animals. Photo by Henrik Ishihara/Wikimedia Commons

Follow Cory Rogers on Twitter: @cm__rogers

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