Land rights win for Indigenous peoples in Southwest Papua, but challenges persist

The Knasaimos peoples of the South Sorong Regency in Papua have been granted legal land rights over their indigenous lands. However, enforcing these rights remains challenging, with a lack of political will by the Indonesian government to enact the draft law on Indigenous peoples, and persistent targeting of merbau timber by loggers.

Knasaimos Peoples receive decree of land rights
Fredik Sagisolo, chair of Indigenous People Fellowship Council, holds a decree letter as they celebrate during a ceremony in Teminabuan, Southwest Papua. Indigenous Knasaimos people are granted legal title over their traditional land, after decades of effort to have their customary rights recognised. Image: Greenpeace.

Nearly four thousand Indigenous peoples from the Knasaimos tribe have received legal recognition of their rights over their ancestral lands. Located in the South Sorong Regency of West Papua, these lands cover the districts of Saifi and Seremuk, spanning an area of 97,411 hectares – roughly the size of Hong Kong.

The decree, issued by the South Sorong regional government, is the fruit of decades of effort from the Knasaimos peoples, and numerous non-governmental organisations such as Bentara Papua and Greenpeace. Since 2009, they have engaged in participatory mapping to safeguard the forests against oil palm and pulp plantation expansions.

“Finally with today’s decree, the nation opens its eyes to an indisputable fact that this land has always belonged to our ancestors, and so to us, and is our grandchildren’s birthright. We alone have the legal right to determine our future and manage our land,” said Fredrik Sagisolo, chair of the Knasaimos tribal council.

Decree ceremony Knasaimos

South Sorong regional secretary Dance Nauw (left) hands over a decree to the chair of Indigenous People Fellowship Council Fredik Sagisolo (right) during a ceremony in Teminabuan, South Sorong, Southwest Papua. The decree recognises the customary rights of the Knasaimos people over their traditional lands. Image: Greenpeace.

The path to legal recognition was one fraught with challenges. Despite a constitutional court decision in 2012, which required the Indonesian government to recognise the pre-existing rights of Indigenous Papuans, policymaking at both the regional and national level had marginalised these rights.

According to Greenpeace Indonesia, a significant portion of land in the Saifi district was classified by the Ministry of Forestry and Environment as convertible production forest (Hutan Produksi yang dapat di Konversi, or HPK) – forests that can be changed or designated into non-forest status by the release of forestry land or through a ministerial decree.

Without consultation with the Knasaimos peoples, the central and local governments offered loggers and plantation companies concessions to clear forests and convert land to industrial uses. Land was also designated for a transmigration settlement scheme, which aimed to relocate landless individuals from densely populated regions of Indonesia to less populous areas.

Like other Indigenous communities, the Knasaimos peoples rely on nature for their livelihoods. The forest provides them with food, medicines, building materials, and sacred grounds for religious and spiritual practices.

Sago preparation

A Papuan woman preparing sago, which is a traditional stape food for the Knasaimos peoples, derived from the stem of tropical palms. Image: Greenpeace.

During the Covid 19 pandemic, sago – a traditional staple food made of starch extracted from the stems of tropical palms – served as an important alternative to rice, which was in short supply. The sago harvested and produced by the Knasaimos peoples also helped to feed other local communities, with the government facilitating the purchase and distribution.

The Knasaimos peoples’ intimate relationship with nature has translated into the sustainable management of their forest and its resources – rather than intensifying production for profits, they take only what they need.

“In issuing this decree, we demonstrate to both our local community and to the central government that commitments to protecting the environment and ensuring dignity and prosperity for Indigenous communities go hand in hand,” said Dance Nauw, the regional secretary for South Sorong, who formally presented the decree acknowledging the Knasaimos territory.

A battle half-won

The awarding of land rights is a significant milestone, but the area remains vulnerable to incursions.

Speaking at the presentation ceremony in Teminabuan, Kiki Taufik, the global head of Greenpeace Indonesia’s forest campaign highlighted that legal recognition for indigenous communities is not only the responsibility of the local government in South Sorong; it is also that of the central government in Jakarta.

“We need Indonesia’s House of Representatives to pass the draft law on Indigenous peoples, and we won’t rest until we see full legal protection and recognition for Indigenous forests and real solutions to end deforestation in Papua,” he added.

Knasaimos women in the customary forests

Indigenous Knasaimos women in their traditional dress, making their way to the customary forest. The forest was inherited from their ancestors and the only source of livelihood for the Sira village. Image: Greenpeace.

Since 2014, a draft Indigenous rights bill has been placed every year on the list of national priority legislation, but it has yet to be passed. If passed, the bill is expected to streamline recognition of customary territories and to further secure Indigenous rights.

Time, however, is running out. Activists have mounted pressure on Joko Widodo’s administration to take legislative action before his term ends in October this year, but it is unlikely that the bill will be passed in time by the outgoing parliament.

With the legal acknowledgment of land rights, no further permits should be granted to external parties without seeking and obtaining consent from the Knasaimos community. However, enforcing these rights remain a challenge, said Amos Sumbung, forest campaigner at Greenpeace Indonesia.

Initial threats come from forest conversion for palm oil, as a result of the government’s prior designation of land areas within the Knasaimos territory as convertible production forest. The central government will need to redesignate the area to reflect the new Indigenous land status, he added.

Timber barons also continue to eye the valuable merbau wood in the region.

Merbau tree

Indigenous Knasaimos peoples standing in front of a huge merbau tree in their forest. Over 80 per cent of Indonesia’s merbau timber exports come from Papua. Image: Greenpeace.

Merbau is a luxurious dark hardwood, commonly used for high-grade flooring. Between 2019 and 2020, processed timber from Papua was shipped to 20 countries including South Korea and China, with revenue mounting to US$277 million.

Found across regions of Madagascar and Southeast Asia, merbau has seen its status decline from “not threatened” in 1997 to “near threatened” in 2020, under the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List. The greatest decline is seen in the island of New Guinea, driven by timber harvests.

“The Knasaimos Indigenous peoples are today enjoying the fruit of their long struggle, but we must remember that there are many other Indigenous communities in Tanah Papua [the local name for West Papua], and across the rest of the archipelago, who have permanently lost their land, forests, and biodiversity after concessions were handed to company interests,” said Sumbung.


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