Indonesia: Why Jokowi and Prabowo won’t be getting the indigenous vote
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Indonesia: Why Jokowi and Prabowo won’t be getting the indigenous vote

THE 2014 presidential election was the closest in Indonesia’s democratic history, decided by a margin of just six percentage points, or 8.4 million votes.

It’s difficult to pinpoint with any kind of certainty the determining factor for Joko “Jokowi” Widodo, at the time the governor of Jakarta, eking out the narrow win over Prabowo Subianto, a former special forces general.

But Abdon Nababan knows of a voter bloc, more than 12 million strong at the time, that may well have swung the outcome of the election.

Back then, Abdon was the head of the Indigenous Peoples Alliance of the Archipelago (AMAN), the world’s largest advocacy group for indigenous communities.

Two months before the election, the alliance took the unprecedented step of endorsing Jokowi, pledging to get its members to vote for him.

SEE ALSO: To win Indonesian hearts, Jokowi and Prabowo must protect Mother Nature

“At least 12 million votes were at stake,” Abdon says today.

Today, just months before Jokowi seeks re-election in an April 2019 repeat of his showdown with Prabowo, the size of the voting bloc represented by AMAN has doubled, Abdon says, thanks in part to the exposure it gained from backing Jokowi. That makes it an even more important demographic for both candidates to court.

But neither is getting AMAN’s endorsement this time around.


The Dayak Tomun community in Borneo protects the forest that constitutes the core of its livelihood. Source: Indra Nugraha/Mongabay Indonesia.

‘Exasperated and fed up

For decades, Indonesia’s indigenous communities have struggled in the face of a relentless push by the government and private sector to appropriate their forests and lands for agriculture, logging and mining, all in the name of development and economic growth.

According to Abdon, AMAN saw in Jokowi — a relative political outsider back in 2014, with a man-of-the-people aura — a chance to protect indigenous rights, and spared no effort canvassing indigenous communities across the archipelago to vote for him.

Nearly five years on, they’ve been left wanting, said Rukka Sombolinggi, the current AMAN head.

In 2014, Jokowi rolled out plans to enshrine indigenous rights in six commitments under his “Nawacita” program of priorities on which he campaigned.

Some of the pledges included passing a highly anticipated and long-awaited bill on indigenous rights; creating an independent and permanent task force for indigenous communities; resolving land conflicts on indigenous territory; and protecting indigenous rights activists.

AMAN at the time felt that there was a real opportunity there for indigenous communities in Indonesia to reconcile with the state, Rukka said.

“We felt there was a new hope in Jokowi because of Nawacita,” she said.

“So for us who had been exasperated and fed up with the [government], there was a breath of fresh air, and that’s what drove us to really work on campaigning for Jokowi.

“For me personally, it was my first time voting,” added Rukka, 45. This time, she said, “we’re swing voters.”


In 2014, AMAN took the unprecedented step of endorsing a presidential candidate, backing Joko Widodo, the Jakarta governor who would go on to win the election. Source: AMAN/Mongabay

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

Stalled bill

The excitement of 2014 appeared to have all but dissipated by the time AMAN held its year-end meeting this past Dec 21 in Jakarta, at an event attended by representatives from Jokowi and Prabowo’s camps.

Contributing to the gloomy mood was a presentation by an Indonesian environmental NGO, Yayasan Madani, of research showing that Jokowi had largely failed to live up to the spirit of his earlier promises, and that neither of the candidates had articulated a clear plan for protecting indigenous rights over the next five years.

“We are concerned with the next development agenda,” said Teguh Surya, the executive director of Madani.

“If indigenous people don’t have a strong position in the [platforms] of both presidential candidates, then what kind of development are they planning for?

“It’s important to fight for indigenous people’s rights because it’s mandated in the constitution,” Teguh added.

Today, empowerment and protection of indigenous peoples and their rights are mentioned in just two items out of 260 elaborated points in Jokowi’s vision and mission statement, a significant reduction from the Nawacita that he campaigned on, according to the Madani report.

Teguh said Jokowi’s current vision and mission statement essentially paid lip service to indigenous people’s rights, “but it doesn’t function effectively.”

“Were the commitments reduced because some of them have been achieved, or is there another reason?” he said.

It was definitely not the former for Rukka, who said none of what Jokowi promised in terms of the protection of indigenous rights was delivered.

Top of AMAN’s list of priorities is the passage of the long-delayed bill on recognition and protection of indigenous peoples.

The bill, a perennial priority for legislation for several years now, 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.

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

The main obstacle to the House passing the bill is the government’s failure to submit to legislators what’s known as the “problem inventory.”

The government has to be one making the list since the bill was an initiative by the House.

This list, a crucial part of the legislative process, identifies potential overlapping issues with existing laws that the bill may create should it be passed. House discussions on the bill can only proceed once the government submits the problem inventory.

The inventory first needs to be signed off by officials from six ministries, including environment, land, and maritime affairs, according to a top official at the Home Affairs Ministry, the government’s liaison to the House for discussions of the bill.

Nata Irawan, the ministry’s head of village administration, said on Dec 19 that the reasons for the delay had been reported to the president. He added his office expected the inventory would be published by the end of 2018.

The list was still not finalised as of Dec 31.


The panel of speakers at AMAN’s year-end discussion, from left: Teguh Surya of Yayasan Madani, Eva Sundari of Joko Widodo’s campaign team, Dahnil Simanjuntak of Prabowo Subianto’s campaign team, and Rukka Sombolinggi and Abdon Nababan of AMAN. Source: Basten Gokkon/Mongabay.

‘We don’t know what they’ve been saying about us’

Proponents of the indigenous rights bill say they’re pessimistic it will be passed before the new parliament convenes in October 2019, following the election in April.

Bills are not carried over from one year to the next, and the bill’s backers in the House, if re-elected, will have to once again push for it to be included in the docket of priority legislation.

Luthfi Andi Mutty, the legislator behind the bill, blamed the delay on what he called the government’s fixation with the bureaucratic aspects of the bill.

“A typical character of bureaucracy is that it refuses to share authority because authority is identical to power, and power is a source of income,” he said at an event at the maritime affairs ministry on Dec 19.

He suggested there was lobbying pressure on the government from the private sector, for whom he said the status quo of dealing with local authorities over land claims was preferable to having to negotiate with indigenous communities.

The current draft of the bill calls for investors to hold direct discussions with the indigenous communities whose land they intend to use.

Madani’s Teguh said there was little chance of any bill, much less the indigenous rights bill, passing in 2019, as much of the political focus would be on the elections.

“Look at the House’s general meetings recently, they hardly [have enough legislators to] reach the quorum,” he said.

“Meanwhile, Cabinet ministers are split over their support for the presidential candidates. So for the next few months, we don’t know who [in the government] will be taking care of us. Honestly, no one.”

Rukka also laid the blame for the stalled bill on the government, saying it hadn’t been transparent in drafting the problem inventory with indigenous rights activists.

“We’ve never seen any draft of the inventory,” she said.

SEE ALSO: Bid to protect indigenous Indonesians hit by ministry’s doubts over rights bill

“Not a single ministry has ever shared it with us, or simply disclosed it to the public. It’s so strange. They want to discuss indigenous peoples and our rights, but we don’t know anything about what they’ve been saying about us.”


President Joko Widodo on Oct 25, 2017, handed over land certificates to representatives of Indonesian indigenous groups. Nine communities secured rights to their forests at the ceremony. Source: Office of the Indonesian Cabinet Secretary/Mongabay

Superficial distractions

Besides the lack of progress on the indigenous rights bill, AMAN says Jokowi has failed to establish an independent and permanent task force at the national level to help protect indigenous rights, resolve conflicts over indigenous lands, and tackle the persecution of indigenous activists across the country.

“We’ve met with the president twice to discuss this, and he continued to promise he would expedite the process,” Rukka said.

“But to date, there’s still no task force. Our activists are still in prison, our lands are still being stolen in the name of development and for oil palms.”

The government is obliged to relinquish control over state forest areas that fall within indigenous territory, per the 2013 Constitutional Court ruling.

But to date, the government has recognised just 18 communities’ rights to their ancestral forests, covering a combined area of 164 square kilometers (63 square miles).

This is far short of the 19,000 square kilometers (7,340 square miles) of land, home to 607 indigenous communities, that AMAN calculates must be rezoned as ancestral forests.

Even then, the state’s acknowledgment of customary forests means little to AMAN, as the group’s aim is the full control by indigenous communities over their ancestral lands, which isn’t limited to forests, and includes villages and water sources, Rukka said.

“Right now it’s like they’re distracting us with superficial things” like the recognition of customary forests, she said.

There’s also the matter of at least 127 indigenous groups in 10 provinces facing persecution over unresolved land disputes, AMAN data indicate, as their territories have been taken over without their free and informed consent.

In addition, there are 1.2 million indigenous people whose territories fall within designated conservation areas and who are therefore at risk of being resettled by the government, according to AMAN.

Under a 2017 presidential regulation, resettlement is the only way to resolve land-tenure problems inside conservation areas.

SEE ALSO: Indonesian activist lauds land transfer as major breakthrough for indigenous tribes

Eva Sundari, a House legislator and member of Jokowi’s campaign team, said the biggest hurdle in the president’s effort to make good on his 2014 pledges to indigenous communities was the government’s failure to revamp legislation on environmental issues and regional autonomy.

“There are other issues that make things messy, like financial management, which is still not well executed,” Eva said at AMAN’s Dec 21 meeting.

“Management of indigenous people isn’t optimal because it collides with sectoral policies in the government.”

But none of these reasons has swayed the AMAN leadership. Rukka said Jokowi “must take action that will regain our trust, and not lie to us again.”


AMAN has staged demonstrations calling for the passage of the indigenous rights bill by the Indonesian government and parliament. Source: AMAN

A clear commitment

AMAN’s refusal to endorse Jokowi this time around doesn’t mean the indigenous alliance is supporting his rival, Prabowo.

“It’s difficult for us to say we support Jokowi,” Rukka said, “but it’s also difficult to say that we now support Prabowo.”

The spokesman sent by the challenger’s campaign team to AMAN’s Dec 21 meeting, Dahnil Simanjuntak, said he hadn’t even heard of the indigenous alliance until earlier that day.

Prabowo’s vision and mission statement also makes no explicit mention of indigenous peoples, according to the Madani report. The closest it comes is a pledge for “environmental revitalisation with local wisdom.”

“We don’t know what they mean by local wisdom,” Teguh said. “Local wisdom doesn’t necessarily mean indigenous peoples.”

Dahnil said it was important to look at the bigger picture of development with a main focus on the environment and society.

“We can achieve that with local wisdom, and when you talk about local wisdom specifically, it’s definitely about indigenous people,” he said.

“There’s no other local wisdom except the one that exists in customs.

“We want to build Indonesia, not just build in Indonesia, and with this we want to build the indigenous people that also exist in Indonesia,” Dahnil added.

On the issue of the indigenous rights bill, Dahnil said it was everybody’s task to ensure it passed, regardless of who won the election.

Rukka said the semantics about the vision and mission statement were meaningless, especially given there were six explicit promises to indigenous people in Jokowi’s 2014 platform, none of which had been achieved.

“So imagine when it’s unclear and contextual, and open to interpretation,” Rukka said of Prabowo’s platform, adding that this gave him an easy out to renege on any campaign commitments later on.

“If you mean to protect indigenous rights, say it loud and clear, and have something that can be measured. Don’t be doubtful, don’t be shy about stating it,” Rukka said.

Dahnil invited the AMAN leadership to a meeting with Prabowo to discuss indigenous rights further. Rukka accepted the invitation; no date has been announced yet for the meeting.

Indigenous rights activists have called on both presidential candidates to revise their pledges to elaborate in more detail their plans to protect indigenous rights.

SEE ALSO: With Asian Games theatrics, Jokowi campaign off to roaring start

Indigenous peoples have been globally acknowledged as guardians of the forest and an invaluable ally for government in the fight against climate change. A 2018 study found that indigenous peoples manage nearly 300 billion metric tonnes of carbon stored above and below ground on their lands.

The report noted that failure to recognise indigenous peoples’ land rights could open up these lands to unbridled deforestation and release the sequestered carbon into the atmosphere, undermining the global pledge to reduce carbon emissions under the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement.

“If indigenous people’s issues don’t have a place in [the candidates’] commitments,” Teguh said, “and if it isn’t clear where they’re headed, then the development agenda will not progress either.”

This piece first appeared on Mongabay.