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Restoring Indigenous Rights in Indonesia

An innovative approach has brought stakeholders together to promote human rights and environmental sustainability in Indonesia.

Many countries, including Indonesia, have struggled to recognize the rights of their indigenous communities. It was only in 2013 that Indonesia’s Constitutional Court passed a ruling to ensure legal recognition of these communities. However, given Indonesia’s decentralized political system, this ruling has not yet filtered down into local laws.

Current law continues to limit indigenous groups’ access to natural resources by presuming that preventing all human interaction with the environment will help protect the land. The result is that many indigenous groups are considered illegal immigrants on their ancestral lands. Some have even been jailed for refusing to leave, including Mansyur Lababa, leader of the Tobu Hukaea Laea tribe, who was arrested in 1998.

Yet this legislation overlooks an important reality: Indigenous communities can play a critical role in promoting efficient environmental management and conservation. Indonesia is home to the world’s third largest rainforest, and without formally recognizing indigenous groups as stewards of the land, much of it has been sold illegally to palm oil producers, hastening the rain forest’s destruction.

Indigenous communities in Indonesia have not historically played a large role as stewards of the rainforests.


To restore the indigenous rights of these rainforest communities, USAID and Chemonics worked together on Program Representasi (ProRep), partnering with local organizations to help bring about the legal changes needed to put the Constitutional Court’s ruling into effect. From 2014 to 2016, the project facilitated the creation of “policy communities” — structured partnerships of civil society organizations (CSOs), policy experts, and research institutions — that worked together to design and implement improved policies, including environmental policies, in Indonesia.

A major strength of these policy communities are their ability to bring otherwise disparate actors together to work toward a common goal. The environmental policy community, for example, provided a unique platform from which to address conservation and indigenous rights, bringing civil society advocates, researchers, and government officials together to solve problems and influence policy.

“We used to feel like we were working on everything singlehandedly. We had no partners to discuss things with, or that shared our same environmental concerns,” explained Reynaldo Sembiring of the Indonesian Center for Environmental Law (ICEL), which is a ProRep partner. “Having a forum like the policy communities allows us to exchange information and grow our network, considering also that environmental issues are very broad. More stakeholders involved means greater opportunity to influence policy.”

ProRep learned to build policy communities through a three-step process. First, the project provided institutional strengthening support to three sets of partners — CSOs, think tanks, and policymakers. As the project worked to help them succeed, trust grew. Mutual collaboration among these groups as they set up a new legislative agenda extended this trust. In the third step, ProRep built policy communities — collaborative groups seeking to achieve specific policy changes.

In 2014, the environmental policy community comprised five partners, including ICEL, the Epistema Institute, Article 33, and the Foundation for Coastal and Inland Community Development. By 2015, the policy community had added eight more organizations and met regularly to strategize policy reforms, draft regulations to make environmental laws more effective, and improve implementation. The policies they discussed touched on conservation through land management and allocation, indigenous groups’ rights over customary lands, and reduction of land conflict over unclear forest boundaries and land ownership.

The environmental policy community meetings have brought together stakeholders from civil society, the government, and research institutions.


For instance, ICEL submitted policy recommendations to enhance the Law on Environmental Protection and Management, proposing changes to address the bureaucratic challenges surrounding land management. The AKAR Foundation, a partner of ProRep, pushed to improve approaches that address land conflicts and to issue community management licenses to farmers’ associations. AKAR Foundation’s efforts led to a decree that provided 35-year forestry permits for eight farmers’ associations in Bengkulu — the first of their kind in Indonesia.

In 2014, the Epistema Institute worked with the Ministry of Environment and Forestry to develop guidance on how local governments could create regulations to recognize indigenous communities. Along with the Sulawesi Institute, another ProRep partner, Epistema encouraged the local government in Lebak, Banten, to legally recognize the Kasepuhan tribe. Other tribes have also received legal recognition in similar processes, including the To Kaili and To Kulawi tribes in Sigi and Central Sulawesi. This formal recognition is an integral first step in earning these communities’ cooperation as active collaborators to preserve the country’s natural resources.

Such local efforts have translated a national goal into concrete local action: In 2015, the Indonesian government pledged to give 12.7 million hectares of land to indigenous communities over a five-year period. Although this goal is still a long way off, the beginning of 2016 marked a major milestone in the allocation of 12 indigenous areas — two of which received direct support from ProRep. Many indigenous communities can now live and work on their land without fear of criminalization.

“Previously, we stayed here only one season, like five or six months, because we were afraid,” explained Liam Wahyudi, secretary of the Bukit Indah Farmers group in the Lebong District. “But now we can stay in one place, live in peace so we can focus on managing our land. We plant robusta coffee, chili, and other types of crops. Therefore, we can have more sources of income.”

This environmental policy community represents a new approach to collective land conservation in Indonesia.


Notably, in August 2015, ProRep and its partners drafted and passed local legislation on the Recognition, Protection, and Empowerment of the Moronene Hukaea Laea Indigenous Community. This was a major breakthrough for Mr. Lababa of the Tobu Hukaea Laea tribe, who has advocated for indigenous communities’ rights since his release from jail.

With the new regulation, Mr. Lababa echoes a sentiment felt by many indigenous communities living in Indonesia and around the world: “I hope our rights as equal citizens are recognized, and we no longer have to live in fear of being criminalized.”

The Tobu Hukaea Laea indigenous group’s legal recognition is one step in a long journey toward full legal protection of all indigenous communities in Indonesia.

A more detailed description of policy communities can be found in a blog post written by ProRep’s former chief of party, John Johnson.

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