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Jokowi cancels appearance at rare indigenous peoples congress

Andreas Singko (front) stands with other Tae elders in 2012 after performing a ritual in the forest. Photo by Tomasz Johnson/Environmental Investigation Agency

  • This week marks the fifth congress of the Indigenous Peoples Alliance of the Archipelago. The event takes place once every five years.
  • Indonesian President Joko Widodo had been scheduled to deliver a speech. He would have been the nation’s first top official to attend.
  • Last last year, Jokowi recognized the rights of nine communities to the forests they call home. The development was welcomed by indigenous groups even as they called for him to replicate it on a far larger scale.
  • “This congress is a deadline for Jokowi to keep his promises. Otherwise there will be a political decision.”

TANJUNG GUSTA, Indonesia — Abdon Nababan, head of the world’s largest indigenous peoples alliance, was telling reporters today why it had supported Joko Widodo’s bid for the nation’s top job in 2014 when he received a Whatsapp message from the president’s office. He read it aloud.

“‘President Jokowi will not attend’,” Nababan told the room, an airy meeting hall set up to hold the main speakers at the indigenous peoples congress now underway in this village on the outskirts of Medan, the capital of North Sumatra. 

A silence hung in the air; someone pierced it with a whistle.

“‘He will send Environment and Forestry Minister Siti Nurbaya in his place. Presidential Chief of Staff Teten Masduki will also appear.’ That’s it.”

It was a deflating moment. Jokowi, as he is known, had been scheduled to speak on Friday at the congress and perhaps deliver a major policy pronouncement in line with his campaign platform, which had earned him the Indigenous Peoples Alliance of the Archipelago’s (AMAN) first-ever endorsement of a candidate. Would he establish a long-awaited task force on indigenous rights? Would he recognize the the tenure of more communities over the forests they call home?

“Of course it is a surprise,” Nababan said of this latest development. “We don’t need to ask why [it happened]. It says something.”

Joko Widodo is surrounded by reporters in 2013, the year before he won the race for president. Photo by Eduardo M.C./Flickr

AMAN holds its congress every five years. Each event is a grand cultural display that sees hundreds of communities in one of the world’s most diverse nations come together to decide who will lead the alliance.

Three years ago Jokowi became Indonesia’s first president without ties to the military dictatorship that fell in 1998, the year before AMAN’s establishment. While the regime had developed the archipelago country mainly by setting companies loose on its vast natural resources, the former furniture salesman earned AMAN’s support by promising to fight for a law on indigenous peoples, to create a national mechanism for resolving conflicts pitting communities against firms and the state, to end the criminalization of indigenous persons, and more.

Last year AMAN threatened to withdraw its backing, citing a lack of follow-through on his pledges. The president’s subsequent acknowledgement of nine “customary forests” “[rekindled] our hope in Jokowi, which had dimmed,” Nababan, a Batak man from Sumatra, said at the time.

The customary forests — the first the state has recognized — cover a total of around 13,000 hectares (32,000 acres), but AMAN has mapped more than 8.2 million hectares it says belongs to the nation’s adat groups, as those who practice ancient modes of knowledge, belief, community and economy are called here.

Asked by a reporter at Wednesday’s opening of the congress what “gift” she thought Jokowi might announce at the event, AMAN deputy Rukka Sombolinggi quickly corrected him.

“Our rights are not a ‘gift’,” said Sombolinggi, a Torajan from Sulawesi. “They belong to us. What he will do is return those rights to us because they were confiscated by other parties. Thirteen-thousand hectares is small part of our rights. We respect his intentions, but we expect millions of hectares.”

Rukka Sombolinggi, AMAN’s international advocacy coordinator, speaks at a Food and Agriculture Organization event in Italy in 2014. Photo by Roberto Cenciarelli for FAO/Flickr

Jaleswari Pramodharwardani, deputy head of the president’s staff, said in a speech at the congress on Wednesday that Jokowi had established a team to help pass a draft law on indigenous rights that has languished in the notoriously corrupt Indonesian parliament. That announcement was the first Nababan had heard of it, he said, adding that he was seeking details.

Herenemus Takuling hails from Halmahera island in eastern Indonesia, where his community is resisting a French-owned nickel miner he says grabbed its land. He was sitting in the meeting hall when Nababan announced Jokowi would be a no-show.

Takuling said his community had already sent its own letter to Jokowi — and to the French president and parliament — asking for an audience with him.

“He has all the power of the president, so there must be some way he can fix this problem,” Takuling said. “If the company won’t cooperate, revoke its permit.”

AMAN’s leadership remains hopeful Jokowi will deliver on the commitments enshrined in the “Nawacita” list of priorities he campaigned on.

“This congress is a deadline for Jokowi to keep his Nawacita promises,” said Melda Sitompul, a press officer seated next to Nababan at today’s event. “Otherwise there will be a political decision.”

Banner image: Elders from the Dayak Benuaq community of Muara Tae perform a ritual in the forest. Photo by Tom Johnson for the Environmental Investigation Agency

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