Indonesia’s indigenous leaders press land claims – RTE World Report

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Indonesian forestry and environment minister Siti Nurbaya and Abdon Nabadan, the outgoing leader of AMAN, at Tanjung Gusto on March 17 2017 (Photo: Simon Roughneen)

Indonesian forestry and environment minister Siti Nurbaya and Abdon Nabadan, the outgoing leader of AMAN, at Tanjung Gusto on March 17 2017 (Photo: Simon Roughneen)

TANJUNG GUSTO — Coming from all over Indonesia, vividly-garbed traditional dancers yelled ‘horas’, which means hello in the Batak language of north Sumatra.

But the pageantry could not mask their disappointment at being snubbed by the country’s president.

Hundreds of Indonesia’s tribal leaders had traveled to Tanjung Gusto, a small village on Sumatra, the biggest of Indonesia’s 17,000 islands.

They arrived with high expectations that the government was about to grant at least some of their demands for control of what they claim as their ancestral lands.

Indonesia’s vast oil palm plantations and jungles overlap with land claimed by hundreds of indigenous groups.

The land contains some of the country’s vast and invaluable natural resources.

The tribes are adamant they have ancient customary rights to 8 million hectares of field and forest scattered across Indonesia.

Traditional regalia on display at Tanjung Gusto in North Sumatra (Photo: Simon Roughneen)

Traditional regalia on display at Tanjung Gusto in North Sumatra (Photo: Simon Roughneen)

In north Sumatra, billboards acclaiming President Joko Widodo lined the road to the village from nearby Medan, a logging and mining city of 2 million people.

Widodo, who is known by this nickname ‘Jokowi’, was endorsed by the indigenous leaders during his 2014 election win.

But the day before the president was due to speak at the indigenous gathering, he abruptly cancelled. Instead, he sent his environment and forestry minister Siti Nurbaya on the two hour flight from capital Jakarta.

The let-downs did not end with the president’s no-show.

The forestry minister Nurbaya’s speech was “nothing new,” according to Rukka Sombolinggi, the new leader of AMAN, the Indonesian acronym for the Indigenous Peoples Alliance of the Archipelago, the main umbrella group for the minorities.

“As of today it is only 13,000 hectares of indigenous land has been returned, it is not enough, and indigenous activists are being criminalized for defending their lands,” Sombolinggi said.

As she left the conference, I asked forestry minister Nurbaya why the president pulled out of the meeting.

“He has to be in the border in Kalimantan,” she said, referring to the Indonesian part of the island of Borneo.

But other indigenous leaders echoed Sombolinggi.

Roganda Simanjuntak, a community leader of the Tang Batak people living near Lake Toba, the world’s biggest volcanic lake and a major Sumatran tourist attraction, said “we wanted to hear about the president’s commitment to us.”

The Tang Batak have been fighting since the late 1980’s to reclaim at least some of the 70,000 hectares of customary land which Simanjuntak said was seized by a paper and pulp milling company with the connivance of local officials.

Such stories are legion across the vast archipelago, a country that arcs from Aceh on the tip of Sumatra and Ground Zero for the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, to Papua, 3000 miles east.

Indonesia has the world’s third biggest jungle after Brazil and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. But for decades the government has allowed its verdant rainforest be burnt and bulldozed and chopped down to clear vast swathes of land for the planting of oil palm trees.

Indonesia is the world’s biggest source of palm oil, which is used in wide range of mundane products such as soap, shampoo, chocolate and cooking oil.

Demand is growing as hundreds of millions of middle class Asians have been added to the world’s consumers over the last two decades.

Natural resources make 60% of Indonesia’s exports, with palm oil the third biggest export after coal and gas.

Palm oil is a source of income not only for agribusinesses but for the hundreds of thousands of smallholder farmers that grow around 40% of Indonesia’s palm oil.

But this windfall has come at a cost to the environment in Indonesia and abroad.

A 2014 study by scientists at the University of Maryland showed deforestation in Indonesia exceeding that in the Amazon, an area of jungle 4 times larger than Indonesia’s. The result has been the endangering of species such as the orangutan and Sumatra’s rhinos and tigers.

Almost every year for more than two decades, slash and burn fires incinerate forests and smoulder away through the peatland underneath as land is cleared for plantations.

The belching smoke is then carried across the Straits of Malacca, one of the world’s busiest waterways. It covers parts of Malaysia and wealthy city-state Singapore in a thick, choking haze for up to 2 months a year.

Environmentalists say that giving indigenous groups legal rights to their land is the best way to ensure forest ecologies are preserved.

Rukmini P. Toheke, from Palu in Central Sulawesi in the east of Indonesia, said that “for us the forest are “katu vua,” or life itself.”

“If we destroy the forests we destroy our own lives,” she said.

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