Hans Nicholas Jong, Natalia Laurensia Carmelia Yewen, Sorong, Indonesia – An Indigenous clan in Indonesia's easternmost region of Papua has had its rights to its ancestral lands and forests recognized by the local government, a key step toward acknowledgment at the national level.
On Oct. 15, Sorong district head Johny Kamuru issued a decree recognizing the rights of the Gelek Malak Kalawilis Pasa clan members to their lands and forests, which span an area of 3,247 hectares (8,023 acres).
The decree is the first of its kind in Sorong, West Papua province, and it pushes the Indigenous clan a step closer to having its rights officially recognized by the central government.
By issuing the decree, Johny said, the rights of the Indigenous peoples will be better protected and they will be able to manage their lands and forests to improve their welfare.
"Don't take this rights recognition for granted," he said.
Matias Komegi, a member of the West Papuan People's Assembly, an official state institution comprising tribal chiefs tasked with arbitration and speaking on behalf of Papuan tribal customs, said he appreciated the Sorong district head's decision to issue the decree.
"Indigenous peoples have to have sovereignty on their own lands," he said.
The LMA, the umbrella organization for Indigenous communities in Sorong, said the decree was a long time coming.
"Through this recognition, [Indigenous] peoples will be stronger in protecting their ancestral lands and forests," said Silas Kalami, the chief of the Indigenous Malamoi peoples under the LMA. "If lands and forests are no longer [there], then [we] can no longer be called Indigenous peoples."
Franky Samperante, the director of Pusaka, an NGO that advocates for the rights of Indigenous Papuans, said the decree is important because the lands of the Kalawilis clan have long been coveted for commercial exploitation.
In the 1990s, logging company PT Intimpura Timber Co. obtained a concession spanning 330,000 hectares (815,400 acres) near the Kalawilis clan's area. The clan rejected the company's presence, according to Franky. Part of the logging concession was eventually turned into an oil palm concession, operated by PT Henrison Inti Persada.
Henrison currently manages plantations west of the Kalawilis lands and forests.
To prevent their territories from being given away to concessions by the government, the Kalawilis clan members mapped their territory with the assistance from Pusaka, a process that started in 2019.
The mapping process involves documenting the history of the clan as well as its customs, rituals and laws. The mapping then serves as the basis for the decree that recognizes their rights.
"This is just one clan that has received recognition because the mapping is already clear," Johny said. "The government will keep supporting and pushing other clans to map [their territories]."
Franky said a neighboring clan called the Gelek Gilik had also mapped its territory. However, the clan members haven't reached a consensus to submit their maps to the local government.
'They want to manage their own forests'
There are an estimated 10.56 million hectares (26 million acres) of ancestral forests in Indonesia, inhabited by 833 Indigenous communities across the country.
However, the central government has recognized just 59,442 hectares (146,884 acres) of ancestral forests for 80 communities nationwide as of July this year.
Decrees by local governments in Indonesia are a first step for Indigenous communities to obtain collective titles to their lands. They must be followed by formal recognitions issued by the central government, in this case the Ministry of Environment and Forestry.
So far, no formal recognition has been granted by the ministry for ancestral forests in the Papua region, and the process to gain this legal recognition is usually a costly and time-consuming one.
Franky said he planned to submit a request to the environment ministry to get the Kalawilis clan's decree strengthened by a formal recognition by the ministry. However, he said the ministry had told him the clan's ancestral forests are designated as production forest zone, which is usually reserved for logging concessions.
"The Indigenous peoples don't want this," Franky told Mongabay. "They want to manage their own forests."
Herman Malak, the head of the Kalawilis clan, said he hoped the local decree will be an example for other clans on how to protect their lands and forests.
The clan use some of their land to cultivate food crops and they also gather and hunt from their forests.
"We Gelek Malak have proved that we can protect [our] customary lands and forests," he said.