Indigenous Peoples on Java

Down to Earth No 59  November 2003

Interview with Idham Kurniawan


What are the main problems facing Masyarakat Adat [indigenous peoples] in Java today?

The main problem is that they have no recognition of their customary territory and much of this has been taken over - mainly by Perhutani (state-owned forestry company) - for plantations. The second problem is the government's failure to recognise their adat beliefs and institutions. For example, adat wedding ceremonies are not recognised as valid by the state.


How have things changed since the fall of the Suharto regime in 1998?

Now they have gained courage and are more open in demanding their rights. Before they did not dare criticise government decisions which affected them.


Are these problems similar to those faced by indigenous communities outside Java, or are there some problems specific to Java?

Their means of trying to reclaim their rights tends to be different: they don't want to do this in a way that makes a big noise, like protests or demonstrations, because this goes against their adat beliefs.


How are the Masyarakat Adat of Java viewed by the Javanese and other ethnic groups living on Java?

A lot of people in the cities don't know about Masyarakat Adat and their way of life, but people living near them tend to respect Masyarakat Adat. There are also people who think negatively about some indigenous groups, because they don't understand their adat beliefs and customs. For example, some outsiders think that the Osing community in East Java practice a kind of black magic, known as santet, and that this is aimed at killing people, but really santet is aimed at attracting the opposite sex and is harmless.


What are the connections or relations between the peasants movement and Masyarakat Adat in Java?

The connection is that Masyarakat Adat are themselves peasants. Their concerns are implicit in the demands of the peasant movements: so if the peasants demand land for farmers, this includes the idea of Masyarakat Adat reclaiming their land. The two movements have made links and hold discussions on common issues both at local and regional level. Until now there hasn't been any conflict between them.


Do Masyarakat Adat in Java identify with indigenous peoples outside Java and do they have much opportunity to share experiences and discuss ways forward with others?

Yes they do and they are learning from the experiences of other indigenous peoples outside Java. Since the first AMAN meeting in 1999, indigenous groups in Java have been sharing experiences with communities from other areas. This helps them develop their own ideas on how to go about reclaiming their rights. There are meetings specifically arranged by AMAN, at regional level for example, but also through NGOs which organise meetings on forestry, mining, conservation etc, which can then be used by indigenous groups as opportunities to network with each other.


How does AMAN help these groups?

It collects and distributes information - mostly printed because people don't have computers in the villages. AMAN also helps find funding for the groups' activities, provides training for adat groups and provides input for discussions at meetings at regional level.


Are their identities and cultures under threat?

I think they are under threat and there will be unwelcome changes due to outside pressures like westernisation, consumer culture and modernisation, but also because the government does not provide enough protection or cultural space for indigenous groups to maintain their cultures. There are a lot of policies for preserving cultures, identities etc, but these are meaningless when there is no room for indigenous peoples to live their own way of life. Traditions and cultures are rooted in the whole way of life, including spiritual life; they aren't just a physical 'product' like houses, or handicrafts.


Are any aspects of indigenous culture incorporated into the education system?

In Osing, there is an idea to include local adat in the formal education system. In Samin, (Central Java), children are not permitted by customary law to attend formal education provided by the state, but learn how to read and write and learn about their own culture from their parents. In Kampung Dukuh and Kampung Naga (West Java) there is mixture of formal and informal education. In the mornings they go to state school, in the afternoon/evening they have informal education by local leaders.


Do these communities have any representation in government, either at district or national level?

At local assembly level (DPRD) no, but at village level, yes. In the MPR [highest legislative assembly] there is a Badui representative. He is an MPR member, (selected by the government) and is supposed to work for the interests of indigenous peoples, but he doesn't have any real influence.


How easy is it for indigenous peoples to communicate their concerns to government decision-makers?

It's not very easy, because it is sometimes difficult to get access to the government, at local level too, to put across their concerns.


Are indigenous groups able to get their views across in the media? Do they control any media of their own (local radio, newsletter etc?)

Their adat forbids them from promoting themselves so they tend not to use the media to campaign. They don't have any media of their own.


Have they benefited from regional autonomy? Have there been any negative impacts for them?

Until now there hasn't been any change, but we hope there is some potential for positive change.


What kind of assistance or change would help these communities most?

We need to continue to raise awareness within the communities about their rights, and facilitate the strengthening of the networks, fundraising etc. Also, put pressure on the central government to recognise indigenous rights.


Do you think things will improve in the future?

People think that things will improve, if there is a good government. They are thinking long-term, not hoping for immediate changes.