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For Indonesian MPs, Indigenous rights may be bad for business, report says

Indigenous peoples march during a parade in Pontianak, West Kalimantan, Indonesia. Image courtesy of baka_neko_baka/flickr.

  • Indonesia’s Indigenous rights bill continues to languish in parliament because it threatens the business interests of lawmakers, activists say in a new report.
  • The bill was submitted in 2012 to parliament, where nearly six out of every 10 lawmakers either owns or is involved in a business that could potentially be impacted if the land rights of Indigenous communities are recognized.
  • The head of the parliamentary committee working on the bill has acknowledged lawmakers’ “paranoia” toward the legislation, saying parliament’s leaders have repeatedly refused to bring it to a floor vote.
  • The inaction on the bill is in stark contrast to the rapid passage last year of two pro-business bills — one a slate of deregulatory measures, and the other an amended mining law — that will make it easier for companies and the government to seize Indigenous lands, among other points.

JAKARTA — A long-delayed bill on Indigenous rights continues to languish in parliament because most lawmakers have business interests that are threatened by the acknowledgement of Indigenous land rights, activists say.

The bill, a perennial priority for legislation for several years, is meant to be the follow-up to a landmark Constitutional Court ruling in 2013 that rescinded state control over Indigenous lands and gave it back to Indonesia’s Indigenous peoples.

It would provide recognition of the customary laws and land rights of Indigenous communities across Indonesia, proponents say — if only parliament would pass it. But it’s hard to see that happening when nearly six in 10 members of parliament own or are involved in businesses that could potentially be affected by the bill’s passage, a new report says.

“It’s clear that they will have a conflict of interest with Indigenous peoples,” Arief Virgy, co-author of the report from the environmental NGO Madani, said in a recent online seminar.

This conflict of interest stems from the fact that most of the lawmakers’ businesses are in the extractive industries, according to the Madani report, which draws on research from last year showing that 318 of the 575 members of national parliament either own businesses or serve as managers, executives or directors of companies.

As many as 140 lawmakers are involved in businesses in the energy and oil and gas sectors, and 96 in the plantation, fisheries and agriculture sectors.

“Businesses in these sectors often clash with Indigenous peoples’ rights because their operations tend to be secretive so their transparency is questionable,” the Madani report says.

One of the clearest signs of lawmakers’ pro-business stance was their swift passage last year of the so-called omnibus law on job creation, Arief said. The law, a sweeping slate of deregulation that amends 75 existing laws, faced near-universal opposition outside parliament. Critics said it slashes labor rights and environmental safeguards in a misguided bid to boost investment in a country hit hard by COVID-19. They also warned it would be detrimental to Indigenous groups as it favors business interests. Yet lawmakers went on to pass it just seven months after it was submitted by the government.

Last year also saw parliament rush through the passage of an amended mining law, widely seen as undermining environmental protections to the advantage of mining companies. The deliberation process only took around two months — record time for any piece of legislation in Indonesia’s parliament.

“Last year, it was very quick for the omnibus law on job creation to be passed. The same thing happened to the revision of the mining law,” Arief said. “This begs the question: Why is it very hard for the Indigenous rights bill to be passed, unlike the laws that I just mentioned?”

Indigenous peoples in West Papua, Indonesia. Image courtesy of Photobom/flickr

Car with no keys

Deliberation of the Indigenous rights bill began in 2012, under the administration of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. When the current president, Joko Widodo, took office in 2014, proponents of the bill expressed hope that his administration would speed up the passage of the bill into law; Widodo’s campaign had painted him as a man of the people not beholden to the long-ruling Jakarta elite.

In 2016, a draft found its way into parliament’s docket of priority legislation, known as Prolegnas, but never made it to the floor vote needed for passage.

In 2018, the government said it had agreed with lawmakers to start discussions on the bill, once again raising hopes that the bill would soon be passed. But the government failed to submit what’s known as a problem inventory, a list of items flagged by various ministries as issues that still need to be ironed out.

By failing to submit its assessment of the bill, the government essentially stalled the deliberation of the bill until the end of the last parliamentary term in 2019, said Willy Aditya, a lawmaker from the National Democratic Party who chairs the parliamentary committee working on the bill.

“So it’s like you get a car, but you don’t get the keys,” Willy said. “What’s there to discuss [if the government doesn’t submit its assessment of the bill]?”

The current batch of lawmakers has resumed the deliberation of the bill, and in 2020 the bill’s working committee had agreed to seek a floor vote on the bill.

However, parliament has refused to bring the bill to a vote at subsequent plenary sessions, according to Willy, who acknowledged there were some factions who believed the Indigenous rights bill would hamper investment if passed into law.

“I’ve sent letters to the speakers [of parliament] three times to [get the bill] immediately discussed at plenary sessions,” he said. “I even rally support from fellow lawmakers to interrupt every plenary session [to ask] why [the bill] is never discussed at plenary sessions.”

Willy said there’s a perception among lawmakers of the bill being anti-development.

“The narrative is Indigenous peoples versus big capital, big corporations, like palm oil, plantations, et cetera,” Willy said in the recent seminar. “This narrative is dominant and it creates fear or paranoia [among lawmakers].”

He said it’s not true that recognizing and protecting the rights of Indigenous peoples is anti-development. Instead, he said, it will finally include Indigenous peoples in the development of the country.

Indigenous Dayak peoples staged a protest in front of PT Karangjuang Hijau Lestari’s office in North Kalimantan, Indonesia, demanding the release of members of their community on April 6, 2021. Image courtesy of Indigenous People’s Alliance of the Archipelago (AMAN).

‘Robbing of our rights’

Rukka Sombolinggi, secretary-general of the Indigenous Peoples Alliance of the Archipelago (AMAN), said the struggle for official recognition of Indigenous rights continues.

“For us, Indigenous peoples, our territories aren’t merely lands and economic issues, nor objects of production, but [they’re our] cultural identities,” she said. “That’s why it’s super important to keep fighting for Indigenous peoples, who should have been long recognized and protected by the state.”

For decades, Indigenous peoples have had their land rights denied by the government in favor of large plantation and mining companies. According to data from AMAN, there were at least 40 cases of criminalization and violence against Indigenous peoples in 2020.

“Our rights to live have been robbed in relation to forest clearing and environmental degradation,” said Mardiana Derendana, an Indigenous Dayak woman from Central Kalimantan province. “We’re not anti-companies or government. We’re against the robbing of our rights.”

While various laws and regulations have been issued that touch on the issue of Indigenous rights to some degree, the central bill that would tie them all together remains locked in legislative limbo.

Madani’s Arief said passing it into law is more important now than ever. This is because Indigenous communities across Indonesia are facing increasing threats of violence, prosecution and land grabbing in the wake of the passage of the omnibus law on job creation, he said.

“There are so many clauses [in the omnibus law and its implementing regulations] that have the potential to violate the rights of Indigenous peoples,” Arief said.

A 2021 government regulation on risk-based business management, for instance, which is a derivative of the omnibus law, says projects related to land use can be automatically approved if the government doesn’t respond after 20 days, regardless of whether there are detailed zoning plans for the affected region.

“This stipulation has the potential to increase the problem of spatial use and threatens the rights of Indigenous peoples on their territories seeing how there are still many regions that don’t have detailed zoning plans,” the Madani report says.

Another derivative regulation, on land procurement, says Indigenous communities who fail to attend public consultations on projects in their territories three times are assumed to have agreed on the amount and form of compensation.

The Madani report cites another derivative regulation, on eminent domain for projects of “strategic national importance,” which says such projects can effectively be forced through in areas where zoning plans would otherwise prohibit them.

Arief said this will threaten Indigenous peoples and their land rights, especially communities that haven’t obtained legal recognition from their local governments. This is especially the case, he said, if the project in question is an oil palm plantation supplying the biofuel industry.

Indonesian Agriculture Minister Syahrul Yasin Limpo with local officials ride a tractor during a visit at the site of the food estate program in Humbang Hasundutan district, North Sumatra province, Indonesia, in September 2020. Image courtesy of North Sumatra provincial government.

Food estate fears

Among the latest list of national strategic projects is President Widodo’s “food estate” program, which aims to establish millions of hectares of agricultural estates across Indonesia in a bid to boost domestic food production.

While details of the program are still scarce, environmentalists have already raised concerns that it will entail the establishment of large-scale oil palm plantations, thereby fueling further deforestation and displacing Indigenous peoples from their lands.

Late last year, Agriculture Minister Syahrul Yasin Limpo said the government would soon establish oil palm estates on the islands of Sumatra, Borneo, Sulawesi and Papua. Earlier this year, Airlangga Hartarto, the coordinating minister for the economy, called palm oil a national strategic project that needs to be protected for its economic importance.

Madani calculates there are 190,000 hectares (469,500 acres) of customary lands inside areas earmarked for the food estate program in just four provinces: North Sumatra, South Sumatra, Central Kalimantan and Papua.

That doesn’t include the many existing plantations and other commercial concessions that are already mired in land disputes and even violent conflict with Indigenous and local communities.

Madani has identified 1.1 million hectares (2.7 million acres) of customary lands overlapping with oil palm concessions; 1 million hectares (2.5 million acres) inside oil and gas concessions; 948,000 hectares (2.3 million acres) in selective logging concessions; 457,000 hectares (1.1 million acres) in pulpwood concessions; and 408,000 hectares (1 million acres) in mining concessions.

“This is why the Indigenous rights bill needs to be passed immediately,” Arief said. “Because looking at the spatial condition of Indigenous territories that overlap [with concessions], there’s a huge risk of agrarian conflicts flaring up.”

To curb the conversion of forest to oil palm plantations, the government imposed a three-year moratorium on issuing new plantation licenses in 2018. Green groups have called on the government to extend the moratorium, which expires this month.

“We don’t know if the palm oil moratorium will be extended or not,” Arief said. “If not, then there’s a likelihood that this [expansion of plantations] will threaten Indigenous peoples’ rights, especially if it’s emboldened by the government regulation on national strategic projects.”

Besides preventing land conflicts from flaring up, passing the Indigenous rights bill is also integral to the nation’s efforts to save its remaining forests, he added.

Madani has identified 5.6 million hectares (13.8 million acres) of natural forests and 878,000 hectares (2.17 million acres) of peat ecosystems inside Indigenous lands. These forests and peatlands can be saved and rehabilitated if the rights of the Indigenous communities living in them are recognized and protected, Arief said.

“If we want to achieve our climate commitment,” he said, “the passage of the Indigenous rights bill can be one of the ways to support that.”


Banner image: Indigenous peoples march during a parade in Pontianak, West Kalimantan, Indonesia. Image courtesy of baka_neko_baka/flickr


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