Indonesia’s land rights decision a major victory for indigenous peoples
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Indonesia’s land rights decision a major victory for indigenous peoples

“THIS is only the beginning,” declared Indonesian President Joko Widodo at a special ceremony at the presidential palace, “[the land being handed back] is still so very small.”

Jokowi, as he is known, ushered in the new year by returning some 13,000 hectares of tanah adat or customary land to nine indigenous groups in northern Sumatra, making good on a 2013 Constitutional Court ruling and a promise from when he was elected in 2014.

Back then, the Indigenous People’s Alliance of the Archipelago (AMAN) successfully brought a case for land rights before Indonesia’s highest court, winning a ruling in favour of the community in question’s rights to their hutan adat – customary forest – which had previously been unilaterally claimed as state forest.

The Constitutional Court’s ruling modified the wording of the 1999 Forestry Law, thus dividing public forest land between customary and individual state forests. Judge Muhammad Alim of the Constitutional Court said that “[i]ndigenous Indonesians have the right to log their forests and cultivate the land for their personal needs, and the needs of their families.”

The 2013 legislative change was estimated to apply to some 32,000 villages and some 40 million indigenous people across the Indonesian archipelago, but until Jokowi’s action in 2017 has scarcely seen change in practice.


Local Papuan women crossing a bridge in Wamena, Papua, Indonesia. Source: javarman/

For much of Indonesia’s history, the rich natural resources of the nation’s regions have been exploited by Jakarta, with the majority of wealth flowing back to Java at the expense of local communities. The era of democratisation since 1998 has seen the emergence of civil society groups like AMAN able to advocate for indigenous rights, although progress in securing traditional land ownership to date has been limited.

While Indonesia is a signatory to the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous peoples, its government has long claimed the concept of indigenous rights is inapplicable as almost all Indonesian citizens are indigenous. Consequently, indigenous peoples have been prosecuted for undertaking traditional cultural practices on their customary lands, due to committing acts deemed illegal by the state like hunting or clearing land. Moreover, the National Commission on Human Rights (Komnas HAM) states that much of the violence against indigenous people is perpetrated by police officers and corporations due to conflicts over land.

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Nevertheless, in December 2014, the Environment and Forestry Ministry agreed to be the trustee of 4.8 million hectares of indigenous maps to be included in the One Map Initiative. This policy is managed by the Geospatial Information Agency and is aimed at resolving conflicts which arise because of overlapping maps and data. In order to facilitate the granting of indigenous land rights, AMAN has itself mapped more than 8.2 million hectares of tanah adat from roughly 365 ethnic groups across Indonesia.

According to AMAN secretary general Abdon Nababan, “we (should) understand that indigenous rights is a constitutional human right in Indonesia. The challenge for us now is that for the past 50 years, we haven’t had the administration or the operational procedures to register that right. We have to start from zero in terms of the administration system and also the institutional arrangements.”


Indigenous Peoples Alliance of Indonesian Archipelago secretary-general bdon Nababan. Image via YouTube.

This month’s return of community lands from pulp giant Toba Pulp Lestari (TPL) to the North Sumatra Indigenous community of Pandumaan – Sipituhuta represents the formal beginning of this process.

“We are thankful and appreciate the government, specifically Jokowi and the Minister of Forestry, for the redesignation of these customary lands,” said Suryati Simanjuntak, the executive director of Kelompok Studi Pengembangan Prakarsa Masyarakat (KSPPM), a regional human rights NGO.

“Still, the fight of the community must continue to be strengthened, especially those who have not yet received their rights.”

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AMAN has previously called for the government to explicitly apologise for decades of denying indigenous owners their rights. The Rainforest Action Network has called on Jokowi to comprehensively “fulfill [his] promise” and return 12.7 million hectares of additional land. The government is also yet to deliver on its commitment to develop a special taskforce for indigenous rights.

Coordinator of the Borneo Futures initiative, Erik Meijaard, has warned against handing back land to indigenous peoples too quickly without developing effective management plans. Inadequate oversight could see powerful community members selling off land to business sector for personal gain, thus leading to further deforestation and social conflict.

He argues that “Indonesia needs competent institutions and careful and transparent processes for guiding the indigenous land rights issue to make sure that affected communities are the main beneficiaries.”

In any case, Jokowi’s return of tanah adat early on in 2017 is a major step in the right direction towards fulfilling the rights of Indonesia’s many millions of indigenous peoples.