"We were blamed, captured, criminalised for defending our own lands"
By Fidelis E. Satriastanti
JAKARTA, March 25 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Indonesia's government is under pressure to boost protection for indigenous peoples' rights, after a state-led inquiry identified 40 cases in which they were violated, prompting calls for the president to set up a task force to deal with the problem.
The National Commission on Human Rights (Komnas HAM) launched the inquiry in April 2014 after mounting reports of human rights abuses related to land in forest areas.
Of the thousands of cases reported to the commission, 40 were selected from seven regions - Sumatra, Java, Kalimantan, Sulawesi, Bali-Nusa Tenggara, Maluku and Papua - as test cases for investigation.
One was a long-running land conflict in Muara Tae village in East Kalimantan province's West Kutai district. Here the Dayak Benuaq indigenous people have struggled since the early 1970s to claim rights over their customary forests in the face of encroachment by logging and mining operations, and more recently oil palm plantations.
"Our ancestors have been protecting (our) customary forest for generations," said Masrani of the Dayak Benuaq, who came to Jakarta for the launch of the inquiry report in mid-March.
"We did all we could to protect the forests. We tried to seek help from local government but instead we were blamed, captured, criminalised for defending our own lands."
The expropriation of customary forest for timber concessions, mines, plantations and government-backed resettlement violated the Dayak Benuaq people's rights to a healthy and safe environment, property ownership, cultural activities, education, traditional knowledge and a life free of fear, the inquiry found.
Masrani testified to the inquiry that the loss of land had created tension between his community and neighbouring villagers who had chosen to sell their territory to companies.
He also recalled intimidation from "men with guns" who had attacked the village in 1998-99, forcing him and his family to take refuge in the forest.
In the eastern province of Maluku, a tribe native to the Aru Islands was taken unawares by a plan to develop a sugarcane plantation in 2012.
Local people later discovered that the head of Aru district had granted permits in 2010 for companies to use customary forest without the tribe's knowledge or consent.
Of the district's 600,000 hectares, the permits covered nearly 500,000 hectares, and 90 out of 117 villages were located in concession areas.
"So where do you suppose we should live?" asked Mamado, an Aru traditional leader.
In 2014, after an intense social media campaign, Zulkifli Hasan, then forestry minister in the government of Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, cancelled the plantation plan.
The inquiry report said the Aru tribe's rights to information and participation, and to be consulted under the principle of free, prior and informed consent (FPIC) had been violated.
Intimidation and abuse experienced by tribe members had also denied them the rights to feel safe, and to be free from fear, torture, inhuman or degrading treatment, it added.
Despite this, in mid-2015 the current agriculture minister, Amran Sulaiman, announced the development of 500,000 hectares of sugarcane plantation in three locations: Aru, Merauke and South Sulawesi.
This and other developments have fuelled scepticism over President Joko "Jokowi" Widodo's election promise to protect the rights of indigenous peoples.
A draft bill to that end - which would recognise indigenous peoples' rights to their land and natural resources, and put their beliefs on an equal footing with those of other citizens - is in legal limbo, and has not been included in the national legislation programme for 2015-2019.
Saur Tumiur Situmorang, one of the report's authors and a member of the National Commission against Violence on Women (Komnas Perempuan), said the inquiry also revealed violations of the rights of indigenous women.
When they cannot access their land, they must travel longer distances to collect food, she said.
In Papua, that left some women vulnerable to sexual and physical abuse while out on the road, as well as at home if they failed to find enough food, the inquiry found.
And as forests are converted to plantations, the herbs indigenous women use to stop bleeding during birth are becoming rarer, denying them the right to reproductive health.
Shrinking access to customary forest also restricts the farming and crafts activities of women, who are at greater risk of arrest for trespassing and encroachment without proper legal representation, Situmorang said.
Abdon Nababan, secretary general of AMAN (Indigenous Peoples' Alliance of the Archipelago), said indigenous peoples had waited "a rough two years" for the inquiry to be completed.
Nababan had supported the process because in 2014, AMAN was reporting cases of rights abuses almost once a week, he said.
In 2013, Komnas HAM recorded 1,123 complaints over land use, which more than doubled to 2,483 complaints in 2014.
That figure is likely to increase, as around 70 percent of Indonesia's nearly 32,000 villages are located in or near forest areas, experts say.
Nababan blamed violations of the rights of indigenous peoples on the 1999 Law on Forest, which excluded them from secure legal tenure over customary forests.
He urged the government to set up a task force to deal with indigenous peoples' grievances, while waiting for new legislation to be passed.
Presidential Chief of Staff Teten Masduki said at the report launch that Jokowi was deeply committed to indigenous people, but his administration had been up and running for only two years.
"Please be patient. We are looking into the best way to find the right solution for the issue," said Masduki. "The past must be cleared so it will no longer be a burden for the future."
He noted demands that the cabinet should not become too large, and said the government wanted to avoid overlapping agencies that would swell the state budget.
But it would not neglect the need to set up a task force on indigenous issues, he added, without saying when that might happen.
(Reporting by Fidelis E. Satriastanti; editing by Megan Rowling. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, corruption and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)
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