Indonesia's Indigenous Peoples form new alliance

Down to Earth Special Issue, October 1999

This Special Issue of Down to Earth reports on the first ever Congress of Indigenous Peoples of the Archipelago, held in Jakarta in March 1999, and the progress of a new alliance of Indigenous Peoples -AMAN- established at that event. It draws largely on Congress materials and statements from AMAN.

Located in the very centre of Jakarta, the Hotel Indonesia has witnessed many important events in nearly forty years of Indonesia's history, but the Congress of the Indigenous Peoples of the Archipelago must count among the most remarkable. Usually, barefoot, traditionally clothed people from the 'Outer Islands' are only present at such luxury hotels to provide light 'ethnic' entertainment for wealthy Indonesians and international visitors. This was different.

The Congress, which took place from March 14th-22nd was the first meeting of indigenous peoples ever held at national level. Their very presence at such a venue underlined the Congress' theme: "Challenging the position of Indigenous Peoples vis-à-vis the State" .

For over a week, the lobbies, conference rooms and dining areas thronged with representatives of indigenous communities from all parts of Indonesia and some disputed territories. Groups of men and women from Sumatra, Sulawesi, Kalimantan, Moluccas, Java and the Sundas plus Aceh and West Papua were to be seen sitting together on the plush carpets, often smoking clove cigarettes or chewing betel nut, sharing experiences from their different ancestral homelands, continuing discussions from earlier sessions, relaxing or giving press interviews. When they did choose to wear traditional dress, dance or sing, it was as an expression of pride in their identity, not for outsiders' entertainment.

Overall, nearly 500 people were involved in the Congress. Most important were the 208 indigenous delegates from 22 provinces of Indonesia. Only these representatives, selected by their communities, were allowed to speak at Congress sessions. Each group of delegates was accompanied by a supporter from a local non-governmental organisation (NGO). Activists, mainly from environment and development NGOs based in Jakarta and Bogor, were allowed to attend as observers with a handful of international colleagues. Some 30 NGO staff, researchers and academics facilitated workshops before the main Congress began.

An exhibition in the hotel lobby helped to emphasise the message of the Congress and the wealth of indigenous skills to many other other visitors through displays of photographs, posters, leaflets, traditional handicrafts and local produce, including woven cloths, jewellery, carvings, honey and nutmeg syrup.

During the Congress, indigenous delegates expressed their frustrations and expectations through workshops, plenary sessions, discussion groups, dialogues with government officials and representatives of political parties, press statements, media interviews, demonstrations and a congress news sheet. Meetings, formal and informal, went on from early morning until late into the night. The whole event culminated in the formation of the new organisation AMAN, the Alliance of Indigenous Peoples of the Archipelago.

For an update on recent developments, see DTE 43.