Indigenous Women's workshop at AMAN Congress

Down to Earth No. 74, August 2007

The position and role of indigenous women facing development aggression.

By Devi Anggraini1


Why does the government issue licences for investors to take away our livelihoods? We can't exist without our livelihoods. For without land, we cannot eat. (Aleta, West Timorese participant in indigenous women's meeting, KMAN III)

The Third Congress of the Indigenous Peoples of the Archipelago (KMAN III) took place in Pontianak, West Kalimantan from 17 to 20 March 2007 (see also DTE 73). This, the biggest celebration of indigenous peoples in Indonesia, was organised by the Alliance of Indigenous Peoples of the Archipelago, AMAN. One of the congress events was the Indigenous Women's Workshop, which ran parallel to ten other workshops. The day-long meeting, attended by 70 participants, had the theme of Indigenous Women and Development Aggression. Its aims were to bring together indigenous women representatives to describe their situation in their own areas; to examine and find strategies to strengthen the role of women in decision-making both in the community and in the national political system; and to create critical awareness among indigenous women of their role in natural resources management in the context of the development process. They then went on to discuss recommendations to KMAN III on the position of indigenous women within AMAN.

The participants came from all over Indonesia and included young and older women from a wide range of backgrounds including adat organisations, women's organisations involved with literacy, education and health projects, weaving and farming co-operatives (including oil palm plantations) teachers and health workers, survivors of violence in Aceh, Papua and Poso and activists from the North Sumatra land rights group, BPRPI (see DTE 63).

The whole workshop was facilitated and presented by women from indigenous communities. The topics selected were raised by women directly affected by the problems. These were: indigenous women and militarism (Nurjamaliah, from Aceh Indigenous Peoples' Network - JKMA); indigenous women and mining (Aleta Ba'un, from West Timor); indigenous women and traditional knowledge in natural resource management (Rukmini Paata Toheke, from the Ngata Toro community in Central Sulawesi); the role of indigenous women in decision-making at community level (Den Upa Rombelayuk, Toraja community, South Sulawesi); indigenous women and conflict resolution (Mariam Bombong, Mamasa community, South Sulawesi); and indigenous women and parliament (Ida Ayu Bagus Agung Mas, Member of the Regional Representative Council, or DPD, from Bali). The chairperson was Romba' Marannu (Toraya Indigenous Peoples Alliance, Toraja, South Sulawesi). Joan Carling from the Cordillera Peoples Alliance, was the guest speaker, who shared her experiences and described the situation of indigenous women in the Philippines.

The workshop was participative and interactive. There was a strong sense of trust and co-operation throughout the day and people who had never met worked well together in small groups. From the experiences shared and the ensuing discussions - which the participants contributed to with great enthusiasm - there emerged a distinct picture of indigenous women's position in Indonesia's development process.

It was clear that indigenous women's main role in the community is to safeguard the sustainability of community life. This is shown by the crucial roles that women play and is made possible by indigenous women's capacity to develop collective ways of working, both in their own groups and in the community in general. Indigenous women regulate food security - it is they who decide when to begin planting. They regulate community wealth, especially protection of agrarian resources (forest, water, conservation areas etc). Indigenous women make the final judgement in decision-making on social affairs.

We cannot give birth to land. If the men sell the land for plantations, where must our children live?

(Participant from Arso, West Papua in the discussion on Gender and Natural Resources Management)

In several parts of Indonesia, women traditionally play an important role in natural resources management. In Aceh, collecting shellfish in the mangrove forests is part of indigenous women's daily routine. In Maluku, women work the productive tidal area (called 'meti'), where they also collect shellfish. In Kalimantan, women generally look after the cultivation of medicinal plants. And there are many other examples from different parts of the country where there is an interaction or link between women and their resource management areas (Anggraini, 20062).


State neglect

State control over indigenous peoples' natural resources is based on a misinterpretation of Indonesia's Constitution. The state's duty to manage and distribute benefits justly for the whole Indonesian people was interpreted as 'the state's right to control'. The land, rivers, sea and sky and all natural wealth were treated as a productive asset to be commercialised, while ignoring the ideals of achieving the greatest prosperity for all. The state abused its position and denied that its right to control should be limited by people's rights, whether individual or communal, over land and natural resources.

The state's trust in the capacity of large-scale industries to manage natural resources, resulted in large corporations taking control of areas where indigenous peoples lived. Timber companies, plantation developers, the illegal logging mafia and mining companies took over huge swathes of indigenous lands.

The state's marginalisation of indigenous peoples began with this 'development' process and a parallel attempt to 'modernise' indigenous peoples, focusing on their management of natural resources. Development policies which depended on the paradigms of industrialisation and capital accumulation left no room for the traditional knowledge used by indigenous peoples in their resource management practices. The systematic destruction of indigenous communities' identities devastated their natural resources management regimes and the social order which sprang from them. (Anggraini, 20063).

Communities who were once able to organise their resource management models independently, based on informal agreements, were in a weak position when development projects entered into their areas. These required formal arrangements, usually favoured the individual, and were biased towards men as head of households in indigenous community life.

Eventually, the development process resulted in the multiple marginalisation of indigenous women. This takes two forms: firstly, marginalisation due to government policies, which fail to recognise indigenous peoples' rights to land and natural resources. Development policies have never treated indigenous women as a part of the community in their own right, meaning that, both in planning stages and implementation, they have neglected the interests and opinions of indigenous women. Through these policies, the government has effected the exclusion of women's roles and the limitation of women's room to manoeuvre within their own communities.

Secondly, there is marginalisation due to lack of decision-making power. Generally, indigenous women do not have access to decision-making at any level. Important decisions affecting the future sustainability of the family and the community, including decisions about indigenous women themselves, are taken without women's involvement.


Making a difference

Some indigenous women have started to oppose the denial of their political, civil, social, cultural and economic rights, as was manifest in the workshop. One example came from the Ngata Toro community, where they have used efforts to revitalise adat as a means of strengthening women's rights. Women's customary decision-making roles had been greatly reduced by state intervention in village administration in the 1970s. The stimulus for this initiative was the struggle to regain control over Ngata Toro's customary lands, much of which had become part of Lore Lindu National Park. (see box)

A proposal to create the new districts of Arale, Tabulahan and Mambi within South Sulawesi province led to conflict which has not been resolved to date. Religion and ethnicity are being used by an elite group to divide the indigenous communities. In this context, groups of women started making house-to-house visits, in an attempt to initiate reconciliation, and set up a meeting between people who are for and against the new districts. Another meeting was planned for June 2007.

In West Timor, groups of indigenous women, working together with youth groups from 36 villages mounted a campaign to oppose marble mining in their customary area. The decision was taken by the community that the women would be in the front line of the campaign. But the struggle was not easy: it was difficult to convince the community - especially the men - to oppose the mine. The women convinced them by arguing that they were trying to save the future of their families and the community.

These examples discussed at the workshop were empowering for women participants, who were encouraged to get more involved in making decisions about sustaining the life of their communities. A common theme of speakers through the day was that women should be more proactive and put themselves forward for representation in government and non-government bodies. Several of the workshop participants were members of village councils (BPD) and one was a candidate to become a village head. In one speaker's words "Women are extraordinary, but we are never given the opportunity (to show this)."

There was some debate over whether it was time to establish a new indigenous women's organisation or a wing of AMAN to promote the interests of indigenous women. In the event, the participants decided on a strategy to strengthen the role and position of women within AMAN as well as in indigenous communities and their customary areas. The Indigenous Women's Workshop produced the following recommendations to KMAN III:


Indigenous Women's Recommendations

Indigenous Women and Natural Resources Management


  1. Increase the role of women in the equitable management of natural resources by guaranteeing the participation of indigenous women in decision-making about the use of the areas that indigenous women manage in AMAN's member communities.
  2. Facilitate equitable, indigenous community-based financial institutions.
  3. Increase the technical capacities of indigenous women to process and market products from natural resources.
  4. Guarantee access to information for indigenous women on funding from a variety of sources.

Indigenous Women and Politics

  1. Include indigenous values in the formal education curriculum to ensure that the indigenous inheritance is passed to the younger generation.
  2. AMAN to facilitate indigenous women's entry into parliament, from regional up to central level, from AMAN's member communities.
  3. AMAN to guarantee representation of indigenous women in the structure of customary institutions and village administration, in AMAN member communities.
  4. AMAN to lead the debate on the Draft Law on Natural Resources and the Draft Law on Indigenous Forests.
  5. AMAN to actively make contact with members of the legislature and supply them with information about indigenous peoples.


  1. AMAN must establish a special department for indigenous women's affairs.*
  2. Draft a special budget for indigenous women in AMAN.
  3. Facilitate leadership training and strengthen the capacity of indigenous women.
  4. Change the Article which regulates the composition of AMAN's Council so that each province must be represented by one man and one woman.

*The recommendation on the special department for women has already been implemented. Rukmini Paata Toheke has taken up the position of Director, Indigenous Women's Directorate, with its office in Palu, Central Sulawesi. The recommendations which came out of the Indigenous Women's workshop should provide the basic thinking for framing the directorate's work. May these aspirations become reality. Women, keep up the struggle!


Strengthening Women's role in Adat

The Ngota Toro community in Central Sulawesi has its own system of managing natural resources that promotes conservation. This includes rice farming (sawah) in the valleys and agroforestry on the hills, plus forest zones (ngakiki) that cannot be used. However, 18,000 hectares of their 22,950 ha customary lands were declared part of Lore Lindu National Park when it was set up in 1993. The community immediately decided to revive adat structures and practices in order to negotiate better with the authorities about the management of this area.

A group of women was involved in documenting the community's traditional knowledge and used this research to transform the traditional women's council, Tina Ngata, into a modern organisation called OPANT (Organisasi Perempuan Adat Ngata Toro). While in the past only women descended from the local nobility were represented in the Tina Ngata, OPANT now recruits members from all women in the community and members vote for their leaders. Also OPANT now plays a more strategic role as part of the decision-making structure of the community.

Two villages have now reached an agreement with the National Park authorities allowing traditional management of customary lands and women have taken a leading part in these negotiations. They are now working with communities from other villages.

More information on the Ngata Toro community and the creation of OPANT is contained in the joint AMAN-DTE publication Forests for the Futur' (forthcoming). Full details of this publication will be posted on DTE's website upon publication.4


Women lead mining opposition

The Molo people are currently battling to stop mining companies extracting marble from their customary lands. There are now 3,000 supporters in four sub-districts of South Central Timor (TTS) where several companies are operating. Some are local NGOs and students, but the majority are ordinary villagers - most of whom are farmers with little or no formal education. The marble is for use in luxury buildings in Indonesia, but is also exported to USA, China, Singapore and Korea.

Indigenous women have played a prominent role in this battle. They see it as their role to provide food for their families even though, under adat law, only men inherit land. Their campaign was based on the view that the community's life was inseparable from their natural resources. Animism is still strong in this area and many people believe that people, animals, water and rocks are all part of one whole.

Gunung Molo is a cool fertile area which is used for farming and raising livestock. It is an important source of water for the western part of Timor. Marble mining leaves whole areas derelict. The operations make the once clear rivers and streams muddy and unfit to drink or wash in, or to use for irrigating crops. Landslides, such as the one at Tunua in December 2005, have become more frequent and more severe, ruining crops and rendering land unsuitable for cultivation.

Interestingly, a reversal of roles took place during this campaign: women went out to fight the mining company and the men stayed at home and cooked. The women have confronted the police and armed security forces employed by mining companies. They have even bared their breasts as a symbolic action to shame the men who opposed them and to remind them that it was women who had nurtured them just as Mother Earth nurtures the community and their environment.

One leading local activist has walked from village to village informing people about the mining threat and motivating them to unite. She has faced intimidation with thugs throwing stones at her house at night and hurling insults at her by day. As a result she had to move to another village with her children who have had to change schools. The police have done nothing to protect her.

This has been a long struggle. In 2001, Molo communities succeeded in driving one marble company from their lands after a two-year campaign in which some women slept out on the rocks night after night to protect the threatened area. They had no funding from anywhere - they just did it because they wanted to protect their environment.

However, the local government has granted permits to several another companies. PT Sumber Alam Makmur started operations in 2003 at Naitapan, above the village of Tunua. Hundreds of women and children set up a blockade and occupied the site in March 2006. Men employed by the company threw stones at them but, when the villagers retaliated, the police arrested activists and local leaders.

Another company, PT Teja Sekawan, began bulldozing fields in Kuanoel - Fatumnasi in November 2006. A large crowd of women protested. Some of women climbed onto the boulders and covered them with tarpaulin, but machine operators tried to cut the rocks away from under the women while armed 'security guards' threatened them with knives and pistols. Three women were covered in dust from the drills (one died several weeks later). Police eventually intervened in the confrontation and the community decided to continue its opposition through legal action.

The local authorities are clearly on the side of the company. The district head of TTS refused to meet protestors even when they occupied his offices in Soe for two weeks last November. Eight truckloads of armed thugs, apparently hired by the mining company, broke up the demonstration in December. Only 50 were there at the time as many others had gone home to plant their fields. Villagers who presented evidence to the court in Soe in late March 2007 were attacked by a crowd of thugs as they left the hearing of their case against the mining company. The police did nothing to stop the violence, during which a women carrying her child was hit, but detained the pick-up truck which the community's lawyer used to carry the villagers to safety.5

For more information on the Moro people's campaign see:;/;

1 Panel Coordinator, Indigenous Women's Workshop, Congress of the Indigenous Peoples of the Archipelago III, Pontianak, 18 March 2007. Devi comes from Riau and has worked with a number of forest advocacy groups. She is a member of the policy advocacy group KARSA (see and has a particular interest in both women's and indigenous peoples' issues. She is a volunteer for AMAN's Indigenous Women's Directorate and Community Support Directorate.

2,3 See Anggraini, Devi, Women and their Resource Management Areas/ Customary Areas, 2004.

4,5 Additional boxes by DTE