APSN Banner

Pro-business parties accused of holding back Indonesia's Indigenous rights bill

Mongabay - May 7, 2024

Hans Nicholas Jong, Jakarta – Fear among Indonesia's ruling class of losing control of natural resources to Indigenous people is why the country's parliament continues to delay passing a long-awaited bill on Indigenous rights, according to activists.

The bill was proposed in 2012 and has been placed on parliament's list of national priority legislation every year since 2014, but never passed since. A lawmaker on the legislation committee discussing the bill now says that's because it keeps being blocked by two of the biggest parties in parliament.

Luluk Nur Hamidah said her committee had as early as 2020 submitted a final draft of the bill to the parliamentary speaker, Puan Maharani, but that the latter had since done nothing about it.

As speaker, Puan – a member of the PDI-P, the biggest party in parliament and the main party in the ruling coalition – was supposed to bring the bill to a plenary session of parliament for a vote. If passed, parliament would then notify the administration of President Joko Widodo, also a PDI-P member, which would have an opportunity to identify specific problems to be resolved in the draft legislation. This list of problems is known as a "problem inventory list," or DIM by its Indonesian acronym.

The next step would be for parliament to discuss the DIM with the government to resolve any outstanding issues, before passing the bill into law.

But none of that has happened, with Puan refusing to move the bill from committee level to the wider plenary, said Luluk, from the PKB, a minor coalition partner.

The reason for the stagnation? The staunchly pro-business coalition behind Jokowi, as the president is known, likely perceives the bill as being anti-development, said Zenzi Suhadi, executive director of the Indonesian Forum for the Environment (Walhi), the country's biggest green group.

"Why is there no political will? Because there are parties who perceive Indigenous peoples as a competitor in managing natural resources," he told Mongabay.

If Indigenous peoples' rights are enshrined in law, then investors would be legally required to obtain their free, prior and informed consent (FPIC) before operating in an area, said Syamsul Alam Agus, head of legal advocacy at AMAN, Indonesia's biggest coalition of Indigenous groups.

"Investors don't want this," he said. "That's why businesspeople [lobby] politicians, asking them to not pass the bill, because doing so will force them to negotiate with Indigenous peoples and elders."

'Instill fear'

But it's not just the PDI-P apparently holding back the Indigenous rights bill in parliament. According to Luluk, the Golkar Party, the third-biggest in parliament, has taken a strong line against the bill.

"It always instills fear that this [bill] will create a stumbling block for our national strategic [development] goals," she said.

In 2021, Golkar lawmaker Christina Ariyani said the party saw no urgency for passing the bill, despite it being on the docket since 2012. Another Golkar lawmaker, Firman Soebagyo, said this April that some provisions in the bill could prove unconstitutional, and questioned whether it could even be implemented if passed.

These responses indicate a sense of "fear or paranoia" among some lawmakers, Willy Aditya, a NasDem Party member who chairs the legislation committee working on the bill, said in 2021. (NasDem is another minor partner in the ruling coalition, which comprises seven of the nine parties in parliament.)

Golkar has a long track record of championing bills deemed to favor investors at the expense of the environment and Indigenous peoples. In 2017, Firman backed a bill that would allow palm oil companies to clear carbon-rich peatlands for plantations.

Golkar was also among the most strident backers in 2020 of the so-called omnibus bill on job creation, a slate of sweeping deregulation proposed by the Jokowi administration.

The bill was heavily criticized for rolling back environmental and human rights protections for the sake of attracting investment in the country. Among other provisions, it made it harder for local communities and NGOs to provide feedback on proposed projects that might harm the environment and exacerbate climate change. It also limited the range of stakeholders who could participate in an environmental impact assessment, a prerequisite for all kinds of commercial, industrial and infrastructure projects.

At the time, Firman backed this latter provision, saying the current participatory process allowed parties not directly affected by such projects, such as NGOs, to have a say, and called such participation dangerous.

Despite mounting outcry from activists and students, parliament pushed through the government-sponsored omnibus bill in a swift 167 days, less than six months, during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic in October 2020.

Pro-business parliament and administration

Luluk said the case of the omnibus law proves that when the government and lawmakers have strong political will, they can pass laws quickly, even in the face of strong public opposition.

Zenzi said it also shows just how deeply entrenched the pro-business sentiment is in parliament, with all seven parties in the ruling coalition – accounting for 82% of seats – backing the omnibus law. And it's not just reflective of strong lobbying from outside, Zenzi added: in many cases, lawmakers themselves are businesspeople with a vested interest in the issues they legislate.

A 2020 study showed that 318 of the 575 members of the national parliament either owned businesses or had roles as managers, executives or directors of companies. At the time of the study, at least 140 lawmakers were involved in the energy and oil and gas sectors, and 96 in the plantations, fisheries and agriculture sectors – businesses that account for most of the outstanding land and resource conflicts with Indigenous peoples and local communities.

"It's very difficult to see which political parties truly represent the voices of people nowadays," Zenzi said. "If there's political will from politicians and the government, it shouldn't take 10 years to pass the bill on Indigenous peoples, because our Constitution mandates the government to protect and respect Indigenous peoples."

Failure to pass the bill leaves Indigenous communities at further risk of being displaced from their ancestral lands, said Syamsul, the lawyer with Indigenous coalition AMAN.

From 2019 to 2023, AMAN recorded 301 cases of land grabbing that affected Indigenous communities. And when these communities fight back, they often face criminal persecution. Between 2017 and 2022, it identified 672 Indigenous individuals facing some kind of legal trouble over cases that involved a combined 8.5 million hectares (21 million acres) of customary land.

"The parliament and the government always say that [passing the Indigenous rights bill] is not a pressing matter," Syamsul said. "Aren't these [land grabbing and criminalization cases] not a pressing matter?"

Blow hot, blow cold

A new parliament will be sworn in on Oct. 1 and a new president on Oct. 20, meaning there's realistically no chance the Indigenous rights bill will pass before the end of the current term.

In August 2023, AMAN sent a letter to both President Jokowi and parliament, urging the prioritization of the bill, but received no response from either. The silence from the president in particular was jarring, given that nine years earlier, when Jokowi first ran for president, AMAN had endorsed him – the only time in its history that the ideologically apolitical coalition had backed a political candidate.

Jokowi's subsequent victory in that campaign was followed by a meeting with AMAN leaders in June 2015, just a few months after his inauguration, at which he vowed to pass the Indigenous rights bill.

"So I don't know what they [the president and lawmakers] are thinking," Abdon Nababan, the head of AMAN during that 2015 meeting, told local media this past March. "[They] suddenly changed, because when we met, nearly all of them declared their support [for the bill]."

In an interview in 2020 with the BBC, Jokowi suggested things like environmental and human rights were low on his list of priorities. At the top was economic growth, he said, and "maybe after that, then the environment [will be a priority], innovation and then human rights. Why not?"

With no response to their letter last August, AMAN and eight Indigenous peoples initiated a lawsuit in October to force the passage of the Indigenous rights bill before the current administration leaves office.

At a March 14 hearing of the lawsuit in Jakarta, Effendi Buhing, a plaintiff and leader of the Indigenous Laman Kinipan community of Central Kalimantan province, testified about his case.

In 2020, police arrested Effendi following a running dispute between the Laman Kinipan and the palm oil company that had expelled the community from its land in 2018. In that time, community members say they've also experienced intimidation from the company, which has apparently enlisted the police to its cause.

The community has repeatedly requested the government to issue formal recognition of its rights to its forests, but to no avail. On April 29, the Laman Kinipan community formally submitted its fourth request to the administration of Lamandau district, where the community lives.

When Effendi testified in March, the charges against him still stood, two years since his arrest.

"I came all the way here to inform [the court] about these facts, that we really need this law," he said. "[The government] keeps weakening us with various regulations. I really pin my hopes [on the court]. I don't know who else should I pin my hopes on."

Source: https://news.mongabay.com/2024/05/pro-business-parties-accused-of-holding-back-indonesias-indigenous-rights-bill