Amid Indonesia’s quest for development, don’t neglect Indigenous land rights

The outgoing Widodo administration neglected Indigenous land rights in favour of development. The incoming Prabowo administration needs to resolve this issue before such abuse becomes even more widespread.

So far, only about 3 million hectares of Indigenous land have been recognised in Indonesia even at the local level, and just 100,000 hectares officially returned to Indigenous people as customary forest. Image: , CC BY-SA 3.0, via Flickr.

During Indonesian President Joko (Jokowi) Widodo’s tenure, there has been a significant increase in land conflicts, as his administration has prioritised investments and job creation over protecting local communities and their rights. According to Mongabay, an American-run online conservation news platform founded by Rhett Ayers Butler, there have been 2,939 land conflicts impacting approximately 1.75 million households. This is almost double the number 1,520 – that affected 977,000 households during the Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono administration’s ten-year run.

As Prabowo Subianto, the president-elect, begins building his administration, the government must find a pathway to resolve the increasing land conflicts and the problems that Indigenous communities (described as adat, including their practices and customs) face regarding their land rights.

Article 5 of Indonesia’s Basic Agrarian Law 1960 acknowledges customary rights but its implementation requires local governments to first recognise adat communities and depends on whether the granting of such rights conflicts with the state’s overall goals or national interests. The conditional recognition is also enshrined in Article 18B(2) of Indonesia’s Constitution. The recognition process is complex, requiring extensive evaluations by research institutions.

Indonesian laws define Indigenous peoples using the term masyarakat hukum adat (literally, “customary law community”). Such communities must demonstrate traditional communal territory, prevailing institutions and laws their members abide by, and a customary governance system. However, Indigenous peoples need strong connections with local authorities as intense lobbying is required to secure their rights.

The 1999 Forestry Law also imposes constraints on Indigenous communities. The law states that customary forests are under state control, enabling government agencies to grant large concessions for logging and plantations. Although a 2012/13 constitutional court decision validated the constitutional rights of Indigenous peoples to their lands and territories, including their rights over customary forests, the 1999 Forestry Law has not been amended to reflect this verdict.

The well-connected elites frequently hold interests in land that take precedence over the land rights of local Indigenous communities, where cases of intimidation, violence, and abuse occur. In Riau, for instance, the National Commission of Human Rights uncovered human rights violations in the prolonged land conflict between the Sakai tribe and PT Arara Abadi. PT Arara Abadi secured the forest concession in 1996 but the Sakai had been farming in the Bengkalis and Siak regions since the Dutch asserted hegemony over the area in 1857. Nonetheless, the tribe refrained from pursuing legal safeguards due to the convoluted bureaucratic procedures involved.

Notably, many conflicts have been associated with plantation companies since Widodo became president, with almost 40 per cent of all reported conflicts since 2015 being attributed to this sector. In an interview with the author, an NGO member shared that the plantation companies’ practice of contributing to the electoral campaigns of district and village heads exacerbate the land grabbing problem at the Indigenous communities’ expense. Despite longstanding ancestral claims by Indigenous communities, companies could claim land ownership with support from local political elites.

The failure of law enforcement agencies to uphold the law and protect the rights of Indigenous communities has led to growing distrust and an urgent need for institutional reforms to promote transparency and accountability.

Local communities lack knowledge of how their rights may be and are affected by development projects. Proponents of plantation development often downplay potential negative impacts and rarely communicate information in the local dialect, making it difficult for affected locals to understand the true consequences. This knowledge gap harms communities, leading to a lack of empowerment and agency in decision-making processes related to development projects.

Indigenous communities also lack clarity on their rights under the Perkebunan Inti Rakyat (PIR, Nucleus Estate Smallholder), colloquially known as the “Plasma” scheme. When their farmland is acquired, per this scheme, companies are supposed to “allocate” land of 20 per cent to each contracted small-scale farmer, and this is referred to as “Plasma” land.

Indonesia has implemented nine Plasma schemes, with the PIR-Trans scheme closely linked to the transmigration policy under Suharto’s New Order, where transmigrants from Java moved to the outer islands as participating farmers. Local communities resisted transmigration as it was seen as giving transmigrants preferential access to land and credit.

In 2022, the Gecko Project, a non-profit news outlet registered in the UK, revealed that nearly 155 companies involved in palm oil production failed to comply with their legal obligation to provide the required Plasma land despite acquiring smallholders’ land.

Plasma land provision to local communities is crucial to avoid land conflicts. An example is the dispute between PT Tapian Nadeggan and the local community in the Nanau sub-district in Seruyan regency, Central Kalimantan. In September 2022, the local community organised a mass action involving over 5,000 villagers to demand that PT Tapian Nadeggan comply with the Plasma requirements. As of writing, there has been no update in the public domain concerning the dispute.

A more recent example is a 2023 protest by the Dayak community in Bangkal, Central Kalimantan, where they demanded that palm oil company PT Hamparan Masawit Bangun Persada (HMBP) comply with Plasma allocation. The police response, including firing on the villagers, exacerbated the situation and further eroded the Dayaks’ trust in institutions. The failure of law enforcement agencies to uphold the law and protect the rights of Indigenous communities has led to growing distrust and an urgent need for institutional reforms to promote transparency and accountability.

Hence, the incoming government should prioritise efforts to transparently enforce land use regulations, with appropriate input from stakeholders, to secure the rights of Indigenous peoples. Specifically, the government should streamline the processes for recognising an adat community. Indonesian authorities should insert provisions or implement strategies to ensure that adat rights are enforceable without ambiguity and the same standards are applied across the archipelago.

Strict monitoring mechanisms must guarantee that consent from Indigenous communities for development projects is voluntary and based on comprehensive information prior to development. Increased transparency over Plasma allocation is crucial to holding companies accountable and improving enforcement. Companies should not avoid providing the necessary Plasma land for participating farmers. Last, the government must provide sufficient resources to authorities to investigate Plasma land problems when they occur.

By implementing these measures, the government can protect Indigenous peoples’ rights and promote a more equitable future for all Indonesians.

Eugene Mark is an assistant fellow with the Regional Social and Cultural Studies and Thailand Studies Programme at ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.

This article was first published in Fulcrum, ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute’s blogsite.

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