Indigenous Peoples and Human Rights

Down to Earth No 60  February 2004

By Novi Siti Julaeha*

"When people are deprived of their rights, then it is natural to resist. And when injustice is purported to become law, then resistance is justified and it becomes their duty"(1)

Indonesia has a population of 201,241,999 people according to the 2000 census. The fourth largest country in the world after China, India, and the US, Indonesia is also a multi-ethnic society with 1,072 ethnic and sub ethnic groups(2). They are spread from Aceh to Papua and many still live in remote areas. This ethnic diversity and cultural wealth is promoted as an asset supporting state unity, as reflected in the national slogan Bhinneka Tunggal Ika, 'unity in diversity'. During the Soeharto period, the 'unity' part of the slogan was emphasised and interpreted as uniformity and standardisation. Efforts were made to limit expressions of ethnic identity through development policies and programs which emphasised uniformity and were oriented towards economic growth. Focusing on ethnic identity was considered dangerous to state unity.

Indigenous peoples were variously identified as 'native people', 'isolated people', 'swidden farmers 'and 'forest squatters'. More recently the terms 'adat [customary] community' or 'adat law community' have been used. The term 'isolated people' was defined by the government as "groups of people who live or are nomadic in geographically remote and isolated areas and are socially and culturally alienated and/or still underdeveloped compared to other Indonesia communities in general". 'Underdeveloped' in this case was in regard to health, education, housing, clothing, and ways of life.

The term 'isolated people'(3) has negative connotations for indigenous peoples. At the first Congress of Indigenous Peoples of Archipelago, indigenous peoples defined themselves as 'masyarakat adat', which means 'a community living together based on their ancestral origins on adat land, who have sovereignty over the land and the natural resources, whose socio-cultural life is regulated by adat law and adat institutions which govern the sustainability of community life. This term focuses on communities who still live on their ancestral land, have their own values, ideology, economic, political and cultural system, structure and social life, and who practise customary law. Based on these criteria, the Alliance of Indigenous Peoples of the Archipelago (AMAN) estimates that there are about 50-70 million peoples living in these communities. Membership of AMAN is by community or indigenous institution. Adat community organisations currently listed by AMAN are spread over 24 provinces in the outer islands, plus Java.


Indigenous Peoples and Development

The many social and political tensions during the Soekarno regime made it difficult to implement development programmes. Nationalisation policies scared off foreign investors and economic bankruptcy was a factor in Soekarno's downfall.

Soeharto's New Order agenda was economic rehabilitation. Through the IMF's Structural Adjustment Programs, the government kick-started the economic development process by opening up natural resources to investors. This was done without considering the indigenous peoples who lived in and owned these(4).

To make investment easier, the New Order regime passed the Foreign Investment Law (UU No 1/1967 Penanaman Modal Asing). A later Government Regulation (20/1994) permitted foreign investors to hold 100% of shares in Indonesian companies and allowed them to go through governors, mayors or district heads instead of the Investment Coordination Bureau (Badan Koordinasi Penanaman Modal). This law paved the way for investors to establish companies or factories in resource rich areas. Investors could obtain land use rights within 22 days and they could buy land through a mechanism which set prices lower than market rates. With this easy access for investors, land turned into a strategic commodity and made Indonesia an attractive investment target. In addition to good land access, the government also provided tax breaks, investment guarantees and other incentives. To ensure political stability and security, the government restricted political action and organisation by civil society and censored criticism.

The government based its right to control natural resources on Article 33 of the Constitution. In other words, the government assumed control over the forests and claimed community land, which is considered as `empty land' for the state. This showed that the state did not recognise Indigenous Peoples' rights to access and manage natural resources. Similarly the Forestry Act 41/1999 defined customary forest as state forest, thus denying the existence of communal rights.

This kind of legislation has led to the eviction of indigenous peoples whenever the state wanted to use their land. Since 1997, the Moronene People of Southeast Sulawesi have been evicted many times by the provincial government, the military and police, because their territory was declared a national park. The Moronene people have faced intimidation; they have seen their crops destroyed; they have been jailed, threatened, and have seen their homes burned down. This situation has also been faced by Wana[/Tau'taa] living in the Morowali conservation area. Their way of life has been threatened since the government declared 225,000 hectares as a protected area in the 1908s. They were prohibited from logging, hunting and fishing and were labelled forest destroyers.

The companies which invested capital in the forestry, mining, plantation and fishery sectors did not allow indigenous peoples into their concessions. If this rule was violated, the security guards would arrest community members and charge them with stealing company property. Consequently, they could not cultivate, hunt, mine, gather food or even conduct acts of religious worship anymore.

"The women were catching fish in the river in the middle of an oil palm plantation when suddenly a security guard came and shouted to them, "Return all the fish to the river! None of you has the right to catch the fish here. This river does not belong to you anymore but to the company." Then the women returned their fish to the river and, with a heavy heart, walked home in silence."
(Stephanus Djuweng, 1999)

Soeharto's seizure of power was effected by the military. As a reward, the military played its 'dual function' role in the state system. As well as defence, the military was allowed to participate in social and political life. These functions gave the military ample opportunity to increase its power, and act with impunity in its own interests. Military men gained strategic positions in government agencies and in state-owned companies or became directors and chiefs of government agencies. Lower-level military personnel became company security guards.


Bulukumba - indigenous rights violations post-Suharto

Reformasi led to a change of leadership. However, since the fall of Suharto, the condition of indigenous peoples can't be said to have improved. There are still many violations of indigenous rights and the state continues to deny these rights. Recently, on July 21st 2003, five indigenous people taking part in a demonstration against oil palm plantation company PT Lonsum in Bulukumba, South Sulawesi, were shot by police. Around 1,000 people took part in the demonstration, including women and children. After the shooting, police carried out house-to-house searches. Many people, fearing arrest, fled the area. The shooting left 2 people dead. The national human rights commission has stated that the police violence constitutes a human rights violation and that it will investigate the case.

The South Sulawesi police headquarters has accused NGO activists of provoking the community to stage a demonstration. According to the police, the activists promised 1 hectare of land to community members. As there were no community land rights in the Lonsum Plantation area, they say,the demonstration was a means of occupying Lonsum land.

In reality, the community has been trying to get back its land for many years and the Lonsum operation has a long history of violence. In 1980 the company started by taking over and destroying the indigenous community's houses and land. This was then legitimised by a government certificate - an HGU (Land Use Licence). In 1982, the Bulukumba community tried to resist by bringing the case to court. They demanded back their land, which was occupied by Lonsum. The High Court found in favour of the indigenous community, after checking and measuring their land, which covered 564 hectares. This was the basis for establishing a legal decision in the community's favour. But Lonsum didn't accept that decision and pressed the court to review the decision. The community was threatened; their houses were again burned down and their land was taken over.


Indigenous Peoples and Natural Resources: An Easy Target

Indigenous peoples believe the earth is a common good whose sustainability must be protected. They have their own knowledge systems for how to manage natural resources. For instance, they divide their land according to use: forbidden land, graveyard, cultivated land, hunting grounds and so on(5). Natural resources carry a wide range of meaning for indigenous peoples, from religious and socio-economic to political. Indigenous peoples believe the earth provides what they need to survive as well as social status in the community(6).

When they realise that some external forces destroy the cultural meaning of their land and natural resources, Indigenous communities resist in various ways. These include: sending petitions to reject the incoming company; calling for mass demonstrations; occupying the company base camp; destroying or burning the base camp; or building a dialogue with company management. Unfortunately, their struggles have not resulted in success as the company tends to respond with intimidation, terror, kidnapping or by sending them to prison(7).

These violations relate to military's role in providing company security guards. The protests of the Amungme and Komoro peoples of West Papua against Freeport [the huge US-British owned gold mining operation] were answered with human rights violations by the military. Opponents were labelled as belonging to the OPM (Organisasi Papua Merdeka/Papua Freedom Movement). This label also served to legitimise Papua as a military operations area. Numerous human rights violations occurred such as kidnapping, arbitrary arrest, detention without legal process, torture, rape and other forms of sexual violence. These military operations were stopped during Wahid's presidency but the rights situation has deteriorated again since Megawati became president.

In Aceh, too, protests against oil palm, coffee and tobacco plantations, the pulp and paper industry, the ExxonMobil gas operations, and other foreign investments led to people being labelled as members of GAM (Free Aceh Movement).

Human right violations are not processed appropriately in the courts and the perpetrators are not brought to justice. In the case of Paser community in East Kalimantan, for example, the community's occupation of the logging company base camp and a mass demonstration was treated as a criminal Act and the injustice which led to the occupation was not addressed. Instead, the court charged members of the community with carrying sharp weapons, (although these are the indigenous community's traditional weapons).


Indigenous Rights - a global struggle

Current policies on natural resources and their implementation are leading to serious human rights violations against indigenous peoples. These include violations of land rights, of the right to food and nutrition, the right to a decent standard of living, the right to self-determination, the right to take part in cultural life and the right to have a good quality of physical and mental health(8).

The history of violations against indigenous peoples' rights is not exclusive to Indonesia. The long-term suffering of indigenous peoples has prompted communities in all parts of the world to organise and struggle for their rights. The International Labor Organization (ILO), as one of the UN Bodies, has established ILO Convention No 169, which recognises indigenous rights. The UN has also prepared a draft declaration on Indigenous Peoples' Rights, which includes the concept of self-determination.

*Novi Siti Julaeha works as Program Officer at the Secretariat, Alliance of Indigenous Peoples of the Archipelago (AMAN), Jakarta



  1. Havini, Rikha, "From Victims to Victors: Development Aggression and Indigenous Mobilisation". Proceeding of IWGIA Conferences 1995.
  2. Suryadinata, Leo, Evi Nurvidya Arifin, and Aris Ananta, Indonesia's Population: Ethnicity and Religion in A Changing Political Landscape, Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 2003.
  3. Director General of Social Welfare, Social Department, as quoted by Moniaga and Safitry.
  4. For details of natural resources investment campaign, please read Winters, Jeffrey, Power In Motion: Modal Berpindah, Modal Berkuasa, Jakarta: Pustaka Sinar Harapan, 1999.
  5. Environmental activists believe Indigenous Peoples manage their natural resources according to their customary law in an environmentally sustainable way and already practise conservation.
  6. Beanal, Tom, Amungme, Jakarta: Elsam, 1998
  7. For more on intimidation in land matters see Tahun Kekerasan, Potret Pelanggaran HAM di Indonesia, Jakarta, YLBHI, 1996. For cases involving palm oil plantations see Kirana, Chandra and Hermanto Effendi, ed. 2000, Menanam Bencana, Bogor: Telapak
  8. Moniaga, Sandra, "Hak-Hak Masyarakat Adat dan Masalah Serta Kelestarian Lingkungan Hidup di Indonesia, Wacana HAM No 10.



Beanal, Tom, Amungme, Jakarta: Elsam, 1998

Falk, Richard (1992), quoted from Simpson, Tony, Indigenous Heritage and Self-Determination, Document - IWGIA No 86, Copenhagen.

Havini, Rikha, "From Victims to Victors: Development Aggression and Indigenous Mobilisation". Proceeding of IWGIA Conferences 1995.

Hutabarat, Roberto, "Conflict Between The War Against Terrorism and The Rights To Self-Determination, (unpublished paper).

Kirana, Chandra and Hermanto Effendi, ed. 2000, Menanam Bencana, Bogor: Telapak.

Moniaga, Sandra, "Hak-hak Masyarakat Adat dan Masalah serta Kelestarian Lingkungan Hidup di Indonesia", Wacana HAM No 10/Tahun II/12 Juni 2002.

Supriatma, A. Made Tony (ed), Laporan Tahunan YLBHI 1996: Tahun Kekerasan, Potret Pelanggaran HAM di Indonesia, Jakarta: YLBHI, 1997.

Suryadinata, Leo, Evi Nurvidya Arifin, and Aris Ananta, Indonesia's Population: Ethnicity and Religion in A Changing Political Landscape, Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 2003

Winters, Jeffrey, Power In Motion: Modal Berpindah, Modal Berkuasa, Jakarta: Pustaka Sinar Harapan, 1999.