Indonesian government lagging independent effort to recognize Indigenous lands | Land Portal
  • A total of 17.6 million hectares (43.5 million acres) of Indigenous territories in Indonesia, an area half the size of Germany, have been demarcated under an independent initiative that began in 2010.
  • The mapping is seen as the first step for Indigenous communities in the long and complicated process of applying for official government recognition of their land rights.
  • But government efforts continue to lag behind this initiative, with the state to date only recognizing 15% of the territories demarcated by the latter.
  • At the local level, governments in the eastern regions of Maluku and Papua have been more accommodating of Indigenous land claims; but at the national level, a bill on Indigenous rights has been stalled in parliament for a decade now.

JAKARTA — An independent initiative in Indonesia has mapped Indigenous lands covering an area half the size of Germany since it began in 2010, nearly a third of it in the past six months alone.

In total, the Ancestral Domain Registration Agency, or BRWA by its Indonesian acronym, has demarcated  17.6 million hectares (43.5 million acres) of Indigenous lands, or wilayah adat. Of this figure, it mapped 5 million hectares (12.4 million acres) in the past six months, all of it in the eastern regions of Maluku and Papua.

The BRWA was established by a group of NGOs to guide Indigenous groups in mapping their own territories, which include forests, rivers and sea, amid the slow progress by the government in recognizing their ancestral land rights. Demarcation in the BRWA database doesn’t guarantee this official recognition, but rather is seen as a first step toward applying for recognition.

That process can be long, complicated and expensive; to date, the government has only recognized 176 Indigenous territories spanning a combined 2.69 million hectares (6.65 million acres) — just 15% of what the BRWA has mapped. Within this total, the Ministry of Environment and Forestry has recognized 89,783 hectares (221,859 acres) of customary forests, which is less than 1% of the 13.76 million hectares (34 million acres) of customary forests, or hutan adat, identified by the BRWA.

BRWA head Kasmita Widodo called on the ministry to speed up the recognition process of customary forests. Failure to do so would leave Indigenous communities without any legal protection against land grabs by big businesses, he said.

“The environment ministry needs to immediately do technical verification on the proposals of customary forests that have been submitted by Indigenous communities to the environment minister,” Kasmita said.

Abetnego Tarigan, a special adviser to Indonesia’s president on human development, said one of the biggest obstacles for the government in recognizing Indigenous peoples’ rights to their forests is the lack of funding to verify their claims.

The verification process requires the environment ministry to deploy inspectors to the ground, but the funding for this consistently falls short, Abetnego said.

“The gap is in the available [financial] resources, it’s always a fifth of what’s requested by Indigenous peoples,” Abetnego told Mongabay on the sideline of a recent event in Jakarta. “If the [financial] resources are available, then there’s going to be much more [Indigenous land rights recognized].”

Abetnego helped create the BRWA in 2010, as the head at the time of palm oil industry watchdog Sawit Watch, one of the platform’s founding NGOs.

The map of Indonesia’s Indigenous lands that have been demarcated by the Ancestral Domain Registration Agency, or BRWA.

Progress in Papua

The recent boost in the total area demarcated by the BRWA was driven by mapping efforts in Maluku and Papua, two of Indonesia’s least-developed regions and home to diverse Indigenous groups.

In August 2021, the BRWA had demarcated a total of 2.8 million hectares (6.9 million acres) of Indigenous territories in Maluku and Papua. As of today, it has demarcated 7.9 million hectares (19.5 million acres) in those regions, a nearly threefold increase.

Kasmita attributed this largely to the provinces of Papua and West Papua, which already have special regulations in place that serve as guidelines for recognizing Indigenous communities and their territorial rights.

“In West Papua province, there’s already a special local regulation on the recognition of Indigenous peoples and there’s already district regulations on the guidelines,” he said.

West Papua Governor Dominggus Mandacan said these regulations are designed to reduce the bureaucratic burden of filing Indigenous land claims by simplifying the requirements and the identification and verification processes.

But while local governments in Papua have adopted progressive policies on the issue, at the national level it’s a different story.

A bill on Indigenous rights submitted to parliament in 2012 was meant to provide recognition of the customary laws and land rights of Indigenous communities across Indonesia. But it remains stalled despite being on the list of priority legislation for a decade now.

Abetnego said the government supported passing the Indigenous rights bill into law.

“We hope the Indigenous rights bill doesn’t only focus on land [rights], but also provides protection on values, practices and the [cultural] richness of Indigenous peoples,” he said.

Papua fisherman. Photo credit: EcoNusa
Papua fisherman. Photo credit: EcoNusa

‘Will the ancestral land be returned?’

The administration of President Joko Widodo has been expressing support for the Indigenous rights bill since at least 2017, when Widodo said that forest management by Indigenous peoples was more sustainable.

Rukka Sombolinggi, secretary-general of Indonesia’s main indigenous alliance, AMAN, one of the founding NGOs of the BRWA, said the conservation agenda must include the role of Indigenous peoples.

“We’ve been farming, hunting and concocting medicine as well as utilizing various natural resources in a sustainable manner,” she told Mongabay Indonesia in March.

But the Widodo administration’s business-friendly policies, including a hugely controversial law passed in 2021 that rolls back environmental and social safeguards, continue to sideline Indonesia’s Indigenous communities, activists say.

For decades, much of the country’s land was parceled out to companies at the expense of Indigenous peoples and local farmers. This has resulted in wide gulf in land ownership, with just 1% of Indonesians controlling more than half of the land, including forested areas that have been cleared to make way for pulpwood plantations and oil palm estates, among other commercial activity.

In January this year, Widodo announced the revocation of hundreds of permits for logging, plantations and mines. The affected permits include 192 issued by the Ministry of Environment and Forestry for 192 logging, plantation, mining and ecotourism operations, covering 3.13 million hectares (7.73 million acres); 36 Ministry of Agrarian and Spatial Planning permits for plantations (at 34,448 hectares, or 85,123 acres); and 2,078 Ministry of Energy and Mineral Resources permits for mines.

Indigenous communities, many of them entangled in land disputes with many of the affected companies, have not yet seen any benefit from this latest policy, and are instead continuing to be kicked off their lands, activists say.

Data from AMAN show that there were 13 cases of land grabs in 2021, affecting 103,000 Indigenous peoples on 251,000 hectares (620,200 acres) of land. Indigenous groups and activists are now calling for the government to give the revoked concessions back to local and Indigenous communities.

Ambo Klagilit, an Indigenous man from the Moi community in Sorong district, West Papua province, said that since the government announced the mass permit revocation, he hadn’t seen any moves to return ancestral lands to Indigenous communities.

“Right now, there’s a big question in the Moi Indigenous community he said as quoted by local media. “Will the lands whose permits have been revoked be returned to Indigenous peoples or not?”


Banner image: Iban dugout canoes on the Utik river in Sungai Utik’s customary forest in West Kalimantan, Indonesian Borneo. Image by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay.

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