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Finding a voice

Down To Earth - August 29, 1997

Indigenous peoples in Indonesia are sick of being treated as second class citizens. Their voice is being heard more and more frequently as communities from Kalimantan to West Papua oppose the forces that marginalise them.

A rare opportunity for indigenous people to gather together and air their views in public was provided in March this year by a two-day public hearing organised by the World Commission on Forests and Sustainable Development.

Two indigenous representatives from West Papua were among the most outspoken participants. Josepha, an Amungme woman, spoke about the struggle for land against mining Freeport/RTZ. "What did we get for our demand? I and some other native people were tortured and kept for weeks in a container," she said.1 "We have lost a lot of our natural resources. We have lost our land inherited by our ancestors," said Bartolomeus Magal, another West Papuan participant.

The hearing also involved participants representing timber companies, government and non-governmental organisations. (Jakarta Post 4/3/96, 5/3/96, 9/3/96)

On another occasion, in April, government development programmes in Kalimantan were criticised by Dayak anthropologist Stephanus Djuweng. "Development projects are occupying the Dayak Ancestral land, cutting their commercial rubber plantations..their collective forests, [and] polluting their rivers...". He accused government officials of forcing Dayaks to change their culture and replace traditional longhouses with other houses, the construction of which benefitted the officials.

Djuweng also said the World Bank, which has helped finance Indonesia's development should also be held responsible for the environmental damage in Indonesia.

He was speaking at the launch in Jakarta of a book published by the Bank Information Centre, a Washington based NGO, entitled A Citizen's Guide to the Multilateral Development Banks and indigenous People. The book is designed to help indigenous people find their way around the procedures of MDBs including the World Bank.

A Bank official, Benjamin Fisher, defended the Bank saying that it had improved its development policy by encouraging indigenous people, like Dayaks, to participate in development programmes.

Unfortunately Bank procedures, however progressive and acceptable to indigenous peoples, are useless if the host government's policies conflict with them, as do those of the Indonesian government. This "policy gap" is a problem the Bank and other aid agencies have yet to address.

Figures and targets

There are officially around 1.5 million people classified by the government as "isolated tribes." They are divided into three categories: nomadic, semi-nomadic and settled.

Officials of the Social Affairs Department, which is responsible for 'developing' them, typically divide indigenous peoples into those that have been dibina or guided by the government (i.e the object of government programmes) and those who have not. Such development schemes resettle indigenous families on small plots, where they are expected to grow commercial crops (typically in unsuitable conditions), live in regulation housing and wear modern clothes, while abandoning traditional practices and the customary ways of living.

The system of fulfilling targets, means that quantity rather than quality is emphasised. It is not surprising then that there are frequent reports of failure: once government assistance runs out, resettled indigenous communities return to their former homes and lifestyle.

At the same time, indigenous peoples enjoy practically no rights of their own. Lands must be yielded to the government in the interests of national development (this is a catch-all including logging, mining, plantations and other forest conversion projects.) Indigenous people are also supposed to convert to one of the major world religions recognised under Pancasila, the government's guiding philosophy.

The prevailing, ingrained attitude among government officials is still based on the belief that indigenous peoples are 'backward' and need to progress to catch up with the rest of society.

According to provincial Social Affairs official for East Kalimantan Dr Wiyono, isolated communities in his area who have not been yet reached by his office number around 4,000 families. "These isolated communities, in the nomadic and semi-nomadic categories, generally still live backwardly in several ways, socially, culturally, economically, and in their religion and education," he said. (Suara Pembaruan 28/5/96)

Impacts of industrial forestry in Kalimantan

Kalimantan has been especially hard hit by logging and, more recently, the development of timber estates for the pulp and wood industries. Dayak communities are fighting the appropriation of their lands and destruction of their villages.

Several major disputes have erupted in Kalimantan within the past few years over such projects. One of them is the dispute between the Bentian Dayaks of Jelmu Sibak village in East Kalimantan and PT Hutan Mahligai which is developing a timber estate transmigration project on their traditional lands (see DTE 28 for background).

The latest development in the dispute was the visit in May of a Bentian representative, Nyeloi Adi to Jakarta. His purpose was to lodge complaints with the Forestry and Transmigration Ministries over the illegal occupation of Bentian lands by the contractor. The Jelmu Sibak villagers have already presented their case to local authorities, Ministers in Jakarta and the National Human Rights Commission.

According to Nyeloi Adi, as many as thirty government delegations have visited his village to investigate the dispute. These visits all failed to gain an objective perspective, partly because they never even met with the villagers! (Republika 25/5/96)


A long-running dispute over traditional land in another East Kalimantan village led to the torture of fourteen local people, by members of the security forces. Three representatives of the residents of Menamang village in Kutai district travelled to Jakarta in January to present their case to the National Human Rights Commission. One of the three, Awang Ateh, described how he had been beaten and burned with a cigarette after refusing to accept compensation for land taken by a timber plantation company. The dispute began in 1992 when the company, Surya Hutani Jaya, took over 1,663 hectares of traditional lands belonging to the 294 villagers. Crops, fruit trees and rattan cultivated by the villagers were destroyed.

The company, which is a joint venture of PT Surya Raya Wahana, PT Sumalindo Lestari Jaya and the state-owned forestry company Inhutani I, plans to develop a 198,000 hectare timber plantation on the site. Promises of compensation never materialised, while forged documents were used to claim that villagers had accepted and received compensation. Finally, after a new investigation by Kutai district authorities found that compensation claims were justified, some villagers decided to accept the compensation. Those who refused, were then subjected to torture. (Indonesia Media Network 3/2/96) In appropriate circumstances, Forestry Minister Djamaludin has been known to show sympathy for indigenous concerns, "We believe sustainable forest management will be more successful if the natives' involvement is intensified..." he said when opening the World Commission on Forestry and Sustainable Development hearing. But he is powerless to change the balance of power in their favour without a sea change in the thinking of Suharto himself (or a change in the leadership of the country).

The President, who is ever watchful of safeguarding national unity at all costs, is unlikely to start allowing indigenous peoples all kinds of rights which challenge the centralised control he enforces.