Issues for the future

Down to Earth Special Issue, October 1999

Logistically and tactically, the Indigenous Peoples' Congress was a tremendous achievement. It generated hope, confidence, new insights and useful connections amongst indigenous peoples facing similar problems right across the archipelago at a time when there are real possibilities for more democracy and equity in Indonesian society. Politically and organisationally, these are early days for Indonesia's indigenous movement. If AMAN's demands are to be realised, indigenous peoples must develop strategies to address some difficult questions.

How are demands for rights to land, control of natural resources, recognition of customary law, and acknowledgement of the right to self-governance to be made reality? What new laws, institutions and policies will be needed. What lessons can Indonesia's indigenous peoples learn from each other and the indigenous movement in other parts of the world? These issues are already being discussed in the regional meetings of AMAN which have been taking place since the Congress in March (see DTE 43). The following points offer some food for thought.


1. How is 'unity in diversity' possible?

Indonesia is vast and there is a huge diversity of indigenous peoples and circumstances. Systems which work for one ethnic group or region may not work for another. Indigenous peoples must seek room for local differences by pushing for change against a centralised state system.


2. What kind of land rights or title to land?

Indigenous peoples' customary systems of inheritance, land ownership, natural resource management and use are poorly understood by the authorities and do not fit with the national legal and administrative scheme.

Experiences in other parts of the world have shown land rights recognition can be problematic. Individual land ownership may be an alien concept in some communities, whereas others may not favour communal systems. Land titling may parcel up lands into saleable lots. New laws may freeze systems of land ownership to individuals, families or communities in ways which may not be appropriate for the future.


3. How to change the laws?

Indigenous peoples' rights to own control and manage their territories are now recognised in existing and emerging international law. However, many government departments are reluctant to lose their control over large areas of land. Communities facing immediate threats to their lands cannot wait for a long-term struggle to achieve optimal legal reform, but settling for less may create serious problems for the future. Meanwhile, the agendas of powerful urban communities or peasant farmers may be at odds with the indigenous peoples' movement.


4. Who has the right to negotiate and enter into contracts?

Under Western laws, people usually enter into contracts as individuals, corporations or other legally recognised associations, whereas indigenous peoples prefer legal recognition of their own customary institutions. the lack of clear legal identity can allow unrepresentative groups to gain control of communal resources. Without checks and balances, local elites may not act in the interests of the whole community.


5. How can adat law be revived and adapted to new conditions while keeping its cultural significance?

Adat lies at the heart of most indigenous communities' identity. However, under Dutch rule and the Indonesian government, many aspects of customary law have been frozen in time. The social and economic problems indigenous communities now face are very different. Indigenous women are demanding change in some communities. International human rights standards may require re-evaluating customary practices which involve violence.


6. What does autonomy within the Indonesian Republic mean for indigenous communities?

In other parts of the world, devolution of authority for access to land and natural resources from central to local government has increased pressure on indigenous peoples. Regional elites may be more corrupt and have even less regard for human rights and national laws than elites in Jakarta. Transparency, accountability and effective democratic institutions are essential to protect against this in all levels of government.