Securing recognition for indigenous land

Nenek Mahbun at BRWA launch

Down to Earth 87, December 2010

An update on the Ancestral Domain Registration Agency - BRWA - launched earlier this year.

"We have taken back the land…but it isn't recognised as ours.  We want to be free to work our own land." (Nenek Mahbun, from Kelumpang Lima)

Nenek Mahbun is sitting with Ibu Mardiah, Ibu Misna and Ibu Icik together with other women, men and children who are here in Lapangan Merdeka, the main square in Medan, capital of North Sumatra province, on the 17th March 2010. They are full of enthusiasm, here to celebrate Indigenous Peoples of the Archipelago Day. The occasion is also being used to launch of the Ancestral Domain Registration Agency (BRWA).1  Nenek Mahbun's words chime with the situation in Lapangan Merdeka. The hundreds of people gathered here are members of the North Sumatra indigenous community organisation BPRPI2 and their banners demand recognition for their customary land.

Nenek Mahbun was 75 last year. "I have been fighting to get back our land since I was young - for around fifty-five years - and I'm still fighting. Just look at the scars on my leg, hacked with a machete while I was defending the land" she says.

Other stories like this are told by Bapak Ibrahim Isra, an indigenous elder from Secanggang village. The rotational agriculture system they use led to their land being grabbed by the government on the grounds that it had been abandoned. They began the actions to reclaim their land in 1979 and these are still going on today. They have tried several approaches, including through legal processes, but with no success.

The threats from the state plantation company PTPN who are using the company union and the police to try to regain the land still continue, even during the celebrations and launch in Lapangan Merdeka today. "We are afraid our land will have been destroyed when we get back home. So some of us had to stay behind and guard it."

"For us (in the BPRPI)” continues Bapak Ibrahim, “today is a historical occasion, as the government wants to come and sit down with us. We have come in great numbers to get recognition from the (North Sumatra) government."

As she stands up to join the events just about the start, Nenek Mahbun says "Help us get our rights because the land is our life. This struggle is not for the old women like me, but for our grandchildren and the future generation."


The hope for recognition is also shared by the other indigenous representatives gathered in the square, from the Aceh Indigenous Peoples Network (JKMA), the Riau Indigenous Peoples Alliance (AMAR), the Jambi Indigenous Peoples Alliance and from the Kasepuhan community in West Java. The launch of BRWA is signalled by the unfurling of a large banner in Lapangan Merdeka, by the deputy governor of North Sumatra, Gatot Pujonoegroho. There is a symbolic handing out of BRWA registration certificates for those ancestral domains which have been verified:  Enggano in Bengkulu province; the Lusan Ancestral Domain in East Kalimantan, Lewolema in East Nusa Tenggara, Pulau Nasi in Aceh, Lodang in South Sulawesi and Sei Utik/Dayak Iban in West Kalimantan.

A lot of hope is being invested in BRWA. The agency was established by the Executive Board of the Alliance of Indigenous Peoples of the Archipelago (PB AMAN) working with the Participatory Mapping Network (JKKP) and Forest Watch Indonesia (FWI). BRWA functions as an umbrella agency for registering 'wilayah adat' (customary areas or ancestral domains) across the archipelago, and to serve government and non-government information needs relating to indigenous peoples and their ancestral domains.

According to BRWA Chief Executive Kasmita Widodo (Dodo) the agency has been established to:

  • push for recognition of indigenous peoples' ancestral domains, and
  • put pressure on regional governments to provide protection to indigenous peoples, by supplying information on the ancestral domains in their regions.

Registration is a part of BRWA's efforts to prepare data to strengthen the drafting of a new law on the protection of indigenous peoples, which is included in the current national legislation programme (2010-2014). At the same time, indigenous people are being forced to respond to nation-level projects entering their areas, such as REDD (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation).

Using information on their customary areas compiled by BRWA, AMAN SULTENG (AMAN Central Sulawesi) has made strong recommendations to the UN REDD project planned for the Togean area. They are requiring the project to apply the principle of Free, Prior and Informed Consent (FPIC) and to use the UNDRIP (United National Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples) as a framework for working with the indigenous community.


Future challenges

To meet future challenges, BRWA needs wide-ranging support and a strong organisational infrastructure in the regions. BRWA has spread information about its work - especially among indigenous peoples organisations and NGOs, by working together with AMAN. This "socialisation" is not just about forming regional offices for BRWA, but also about paying attention to inputs from indigenous communities about the agency.

Interestingly, indigenous peoples who already have, and use, maps believe that BRWA is an important development. Community documentation and mapping initiatives are continuously under development and don't just stop when a map has been produced. Indigenous communities need to consolidate the maps to make it clear which areas belong to separate communities.   A different issue is that NGOs are still wary of using these published maps. Dodo says this concern should not prevent indigenous communities and their organisations taking up advocacy opportunities through BRWA.


Sulawesi and Kalimantan

Currently, BRWA has one regional office in Central Sulawesi, and two more are in the process of being set up in West and Central Kalimantan. These regions were chosen because of the extent of land already mapped, among other reasons.

Central Sulawesi has been a centre of participatory mapping on the island of Sulawesi for a long time. Several success stories of indigenous community advocacy to secure land, have become case studies for different groups in the region.

West Kalimantan  pioneered the participatory mapping  movement in Indonesia, facilitated by the community mapping group PPSDAK, led by the Dayak organisation Pancur Kasih. The indigenous villages mapped cover 7% of the total land area in the province. PPSDAK has also helped mapping efforts in neighbouring Central Kalimantan.

Following Regional Regulation no 16 year 2008,  the provincial government issued a Governor's Regulation (13/2009) to protect local communities' socio-economic and cultural interests connected to forest resources and land. This acknowledges that  forests are not just trees with economic value, but an integral part of culture, as well as providing home, workplace, and sacred places for part of the local community. This regulation is an opportunity for AMAN Kalteng (AMAN Central Kalimantan) to identify the extent of indigenous land in the province and build protection for the indigenous communities there.  A lot of mapping has already been done in the upriver areas, and here villages have maintained a strong indigenous identity and continue customary practices.    

BRWA's development has also been supported by JKPP, the participatory mapping network, through setting up contact points, or nodes, to serve BRWA in different regions. So far, these have been created in Riau, East Kalimantan, South Sumatra and Papua.

Apart from strengthening the organisational infrastructure of JKPP and BRWA, setting up the contact points aims to speed up regional facilitation of participatory mapping and ancestral domain registration.

Currently, participatory maps are being done in twenty indigenous villages in Tana Luwu, South Sulawesi.


Non-indigenous land

JKPP is also developing registration for land managed by people outside indigenous areas. This is aimed at identifying land occupied by farmers or managed by local communities. One example is the land reclaimed by local people in East Java, organised by the Lumajang Peasants Union. "The land there claimed by Perhutani3 as former plantation land under the Dutch colonial government, is de facto owned by local farmers" said Junaidi, Secretary General of Lumajang Peasants' Union. It would be best to give the land to the people, he said, rather than to rich entrepreneurs.4   


  2. BPRPI (Badan Perjuangan Rakyat Penunggu Indonesia) or the Indonesian Group for the Waiting People's Struggle was founded in 1953, shortly after Indonesian independence. The unusual name of the organisation stems from its history. The word 'penunggu' usually means watchman, guard or attendant. In this context, the word reflects the fact that these people are waiting for justice and for return of their land. See DTE 63 and DTE 68 for more background
  3. Perhutani is the state forestry company operating in Java.
  4. Suara 24/Sep/10.