Rukka Sombolinggi, Secretary-General, Indonesian Archipelago Indigenous People Alliance: Indigenous People’s Rights Exist Only in Constitution
Violence against indigenous communities continues to occur.
According to Indonesian Archipelago Indigenous People Alliance (AMAN) data, hundreds of community members have been criminalized in various parts of the country with the majority of them being implicated in land issues. Even though for generations they have lived on their lands, some of the them are now either under the control of corporations or converted into national parks. “Like a rat that dies in a rice barn,” said AMAN’ Secretary-General Rukka Sombolinggi in a special interview with Tempo last Monday, June 8.
Rukka explained that violence against the indigenous communities kept recurring because there was no specific law to protect their constitutional rights. In a recent incident, Bongku bin Jelodan of the Sukai tribe in Bengkalis, Riau, was sentenced by the Bengkalis Districy Court’s panel of judges to one year in prison for clearing land to plant yam. He had no idea that his ancestral land had been taken over by a company. “The government has given concessions to corporations without people’s knowledge,” said Rukka. Bongku was freed last Wednesday, June 10, through an assimilation program under the Covid-19 prevention and control policy.
Before the struggle for their rights is over, the indigenous communities must now deal with the deadly Covid-19 outbreak. Luckily, most members of AMAN which consists of 2,372 communities of 18 to20 million population live in the far-flung areas, so their chance of getting infected is slim. However, the economic impact from the pandemic is still inevitable.
Rukka received Tempo’s Mahardika Satria Hadi, Budiarti Utami Putri and Nur Alfiyah at her office in Bogor City, West Java. Native of Tana Toraja in South Sulawesi, Rukka talked about conflicts that continue to beleaguer the indigenous people, the urgent need to get the customary law community bill enacted, to how the communities are responding to the outbreak.
Hundreds of indigenous people have been criminalized in the conflicts with companies. Why does this continue to happen?
Criminalization is just one of many forms of violence they face because as of now there is no legal certainty for the indigenous peoples. If you trace the problem to its root, you’ll find it is a structural problem, a policy problem. The Constitution acknowledges the indigenous people. The clause 2 of the Article 18-B and the clause 3 of the Article 28-I recognize them and their customary and collective rights. Unfortunately, that’s all there is to it. They only exist in the Constitution. There is no specific law created to safeguard these rights. The government has no holistic guidelines to administer, protect and fulfill the indigenous peoples’ rights.
What are the impacts of the absence of special laws for the indigenous peoples?
It gave birth to many (unjust) laws targeting indigenous lands. All these lands are considered unoccupied and the land rights were given to corporations via permits and concessions. Even though some laws recognize the indigenous peoples, the regulations are biased. There are many contradictory and overlapping laws. Sectoral arrogance among the ministries has led to fragmented administration of the indigenous communities. It’s like living in a huge room with many disconnected, windowless or door-less rooms. It’s like being trapped in a laybrinth.
What rights does the Constitution actually give to the indigenous peoples?
The above-mentioned interrelated articles recognize the customary law communities and their traditional rights. These articles raise the issue of hereditary rights of the indigenous communities. The Constitution from the beginning acknowledges the existence of the indigenous peoples and the rights they already had before Indonesia gained independence. In these customary rights are collective rights, among others to determine their own fate, to self-government and to determine economic, social and cultural development priorities on their own. So, there shouldn’t be any forced development.
How about the land rights?
The constitution guarantees their rights to land and to all individual rights, for example, the right to enjoy public services, education, health and administrative services, and the right to vote. Political right is a fundamental right, isn’t it? But everything is still vague because there is no law.
The draft law on indigenous people was proposed during the Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono administration. Why is the deliberation taking so long?
The government certainly has no will because the bill failed twice to get endorsed although the ball is in its court. Now, not only the environment and forestry ministry, but also the home affairs ministry, the maritime affairs and fisheries ministry, the villages ministry to the agrarian affairs and spatial planning ministry are involved. There are seven ministries appointed by President Joko Widodo but they are not doing their job.
How does AMAN communicate this problem to the president?
We’ve met with Pak Jokowi three times, once before he became President. In the two meetings after he became President, Jokowi said he would set up a task force on indigenous people but there is nothing yet up to now.
AMAN’s Secretary-General, Rukka Sombolinggi, during an event to celebrate the Indonesian Archipelago Indigenous People Awakening Day, in Benteng Moraya, Tondano, North Sulawesi, March 2018./AMAN doc.
When did AMAN representatives last meet Jokowi?
A few days after I was elected as the secretary-general in 2017. He assured there wasn’t any problem. He talked about the indigenous people and customary forests, blue economy. But in reality, the government doesn’t even have the power to push its ministries.
What is making the indigenous bill discussions contentious?
To this date, whatever problems surrounding the bill was never revealed to the public, including us. We can’t read their mind and we simply have no clue. AMAN has frequently initiated dialogs. If the government is feeling burdened by something, let’s talk about it and find solutions. But it’s like we’re talking to a wall.
Are the points in the bill too much for the government to accommodate them?
The law will in fact lessen the burdens of all parties, including the ministries. It should also help companies because the absence of the law keeps the production costs high. Half of their production costs go to mitigating conflicts (with the indigenous communities) and (maintaining) security.
Does criminalization, such as the one faced by Bongku, often occur?
A type of criminalization combined with other form of violence, usually intimidation, pitting people against one another and dividing them. Outsiders usually call them internal conflicts but in reality, these conflicts are deliberately created for the interests of the companies and the government. They will never try to sit down with the people and collectively try to find solutions.
How many indigenous communities have come into conflict with companies?
Eighty percent of the indigenous lands—or even more—has been given in concession to companies. Which part of this country has not been given in concession?
What are their land statuses?
Currently, they have no any legal status or legal certainty. Only 35,000 hectares are recognized as indigenous forests and even that is not because of the government’s goodwill alone. Since 2007, the customary forest requirements are stipulated in regional regulations on indigenous communities. Currently there are around 70 such regulations throughout Indonesia. As regards the customary forests, the government actually enjoyed the fruit of our labor. We carried out participatory mapping to the nitty-gritty of administrative matters and so on.
What can the government do to resolve the status issues of the customary lands?
First, the indigenous community draft law which has been stalled at the House of Representatives (DPR) for over a decade must be passed. But ideally for now is to immediately start the registration of all the indigenous lands. We’ve handed over the tanah ulayat (customary land) map measuring at least 10.57 million hectares to the government, which should already has been administrated, but it never been used to register those customary lands.
The indigenous community draft law is at the top of this year’s national legislation priority agenda of the DPR. Isn’t the ball in the parliament’s court now?
No, it still rests with the government where it faces a dead end. After all, it wasn’t the government which proposed the bill. The DPR has actually no problem with it. We’ve intensively communicated with the factions at the House for the past 10 years and never received any rejection. Nor from the major political parties. They in fact support it.
The DPR is also deliberating the Job Creation Bill of the omnibus law which includes investment clauses. How will the bill impact the indigenous people?
The omnibus law without the indigenous community law will be an ultimate weapon to seize the remaining indigenous lands and accelerate impoverishment of indigenous communities. The people will lose access to their ancestral lands, food sources and traditional livelihoods. The bill is allegedly for creating work, but it fails to understand that indigenous lands are the workplace of the indigenous people. Criminalization will increase. Even the existing regulations including the Environment Law which recognizes the people’s rights to clear their customary lands according to their traditions are precisely used to criminalize the people.
Why do you feel that the omnibus law will largely disadvantage the indigenous people?
First, it contradicts a lot with the 1945 Constitution. Second, it contains articles and clauses on indigenous people which are either ‘copied-paste’, slipped in, omitted or reinterpreted from laws. There is also a clause about the customary land tenure that lasts for decades. This is crazy. It’s more brutal than the laws during the Dutch era.
Besides the omnibus law, why does AMAN also object to the land bill?
They tried to slip in again the substance of the bill that was successfully thrown out last year. If you read the bill briefly, it initially sounds sweet, but the key is in the disclaimer at the bottom that says land already entitled with an easement cannot be claimed as the customary land. So, the government is trying to wash its hands off the problems that arose in the past, for instance, overlapping permits. It was the government that issued them in the first place. So many of these permits have left the indigenous people disfranchised.
Can’t the people reclaim their customary lands?
No, because there are already companies standing on them.
What is the worst scenario if the land bill is endorsed?
First, we’ll be back at domein verklaring (which gives the government rights over all free lands). Second, land gabbing problems will continue. In fact, land grabbers will get amnesty which will become a ground to legalize land seizures in the indigenous areas. And the bill will automatically validate all the permits. Even if the people resist, their resistance will be futile because companies on their lands have the legality. This contradicts with the Agrarian Law and the Constitutional Court’s decree No. 35/PUU-X/2012 regarding the state’s control over natural forests.
AMAN also disagrees with the plan to turn customary lands into social forestry. Why?
We’ve long opposed to the idea of social forestry, even before the Constitutional Court’s decision No. 35, because it is just another permit. This is our land, you see. The permit will give the government rights to access and manage our lands. We’re talking about our ancestral land. The state does not own the land—which now measures 12.7 million hectares—to hand out permits to turn it into social forestry.
Why does only a small area have the customary forest status?
The government has made it extrememy complicated so people get frustrated. Some who have started the process years ago still have not seen the light at the end of the tunnel. This is different from social forestry. When people get frustrated, they get mad at AMAN which they think is not helping although we are stuck at the environment ministry. In a condition like this, the government would offer village forest (one of the social forestry models) which can be processed fast.
How is the Covid-19 affecting the indigenous communities?
Geographically, around 90 percent of them live in remote areas, so if someone get sickened with the flu, it certainly is difficult to reach them. For instance, in the cases of Mentawai and Maluku, patients had to be brought out of their villages. Although many villages already have community clinics, their facilities are inadequate. Hundreds of community clinics have no personal protective equipment so we have to supply them.
How many community members have been infected?
So far, 47 are found to be Covid-19 positive. Most of them were not in the indigenous areas when they got infected. They came from clusters like Gowa (a religious event in Gowa, South Sulawesi) and were treated at the nearest referral hospitals.
To what extent the pandemic has threatened the lives of the indigenous people?
Those living in the conflict areas are at the highest risks. Their lands have been taken over by companies or the government. So, they became laborers or oil palm plantation farmers. They don’t receive sufficient health care. The existing preventive mechanism is very inadequate. They also face food crisis since they no longer have their own lands to cultivate and have to depend on salaries, if they have jobs.
What has AMAN done to help the communities vulnerable to the impact of Covid-19?
We have 88 Covid task forces to check on them. What they do first is locking down (the affected areas) for sure. The disease comes from outside, from cities. As long as all the accesses to and from the customary areas are sealed off, controlled tightly, coupled with self-isolation, activities within the areas should be normal. We also checked their food stock and learned that some of them live hand to mouth while others have rice supply enough for another six months up to a year. I advised the latter not sell so they can help others.
Do the people also perform rituals to ward off the outbreak?
For sure. They simultaneously carried out many tolak bala rituals to repel the disease. Many are still performing them until today.
What kind of rituals are they?
All kinds. There is a ‘fence off’ ritual so the virus will only roam outside their areas, (laughs)...They have a principle about entirely new, unknown, mysterious diseases. In the old times, they would use smoke to ward them off. They also use steam to purify themselves physically and spiritually. Nowadays they drink herbal concoctions to strengthen their immune system. They also have sterilization chambers where people are sprayed with a disinfectant liquid made from mixtures of betel leaves with lime or betel leaves with aloe vera.
Doesn’t the government’s help reach the communities?
Many communities are not registered. They actually don’t need help as long as they have the guarantee to be able to farm. We even have a member who sewed and distributed tens of thousands of masks.