NGO support for the indigenous peoples' movement

Down to Earth Special Issue, October 1999

The 1999 Congress was the result of a three year period of planning and organising involving indigenous peoples' groups and local and national NGOs which had supported indigenous communities' fight for their rights over a number of years.

By the mid-1990s there were an increasing number of opportunities for indigenous peoples to express their own views at international forums and to contribute to policy decisions by important multilateral development banks like the World Bank and Asian Development Bank (ADB), yet the indigenous peoples of Indonesia had no organisation through which they could speak to the international community in a truly representative way. Furthermore, there was no body which drew indigenous peoples together at the national level, so they could press their case for a greater say in their future with the Indonesian government. In the words of one activist "Those who oppress indigenous people are organised. If the indigenous peoples themselves are not organised, how can they win?"

In general, central and local government efforts to supplant adat systems with a uniform system of control have eroded the power of traditional community leaders and prevented customary practices which protected local culture, land rights and natural resources. Nevertheless, many indigenous communities in Indonesia have maintained their integrity through strong traditional institutions and customary laws. Among the best known are the Baduy people of West Java, who do not even permit participation in national censuses or general elections. In recent years, a small number of regional indigenous alliances had grown up within Indonesia, such as AMA in West Kalimantan and JAGAT in East Nusa Tenggara.



The Indigenous People's Advocates Network (JaPHaMA) grew out of a workshop organised by WALHI in 1993 where participants decided a network was needed to help protect, defend and study the rights of indigenous peoples in Indonesia. JaPHaMA's work only really took off a couple of years ago when the policy advocacy NGO ELSAM provided the network's secretariat with a base in Jakarta and one member of staff. Over thirty Indonesian NGOs, individuals and community groups have now joined the network, which played a leading role in making the 1999 Indigenous People's Congress possible. It will now continue to provide support for the newly formed Indigenous People's Alliance, AMAN.

JaPHaMA's activities fall into four main categories:

Strengthening indigenous communities, by organising meetings with and between indigenous peoples; conducting strategic planning and doing studies with them on their use and management of local resources.

Building support, by identifying relevant participants for the network, promoting the network's ideals, spreading information and forming an alliance to support indigenous peoples.

Critically analysing polices relating to indigenous peoples' rights and the relationship between the State and indigenous peoples, and drafting alternatives.

Capacity building of network participants, including organisation, management, communications and advocacy.

JaPHaMA can be contacted via ELSAM,
Jl. Siaga II No. 31, Pasar Minggu, Jakarta 12510, Indonesia
Tel: + 62 21 79192564, 7972662. Fax: +62 21 79192519

Working with indigenous groups

Some community leaders or younger educated people also had set up NGOs in their own areas in order to improve local livelihoods and strengthen their decision-making capacity. These include Baileo in the Moluccas and Walda in the Toraja region of Sulawesi. During recent years, networks of NGOs have formed around issues of vital concern to indigenous peoples - such as the Participatory Mapping Network, JKPP (see DTE 41 Supplement); the land rights consortium, KPA and the consortium supporting community-based forest management systems, KPSHK – in addition to well-established NGOs like the Indonesian Environmental Forum, WALHI. Many of these NGOs and indigenous peoples' organisations also belonged to the Indigenous Peoples Advocates Network in Indonesia, known as JaPHaMA (see below).

A wave of optimism accompanied the downfall of Suharto in May 1998 as environment, development and human rights activists at last saw a real possibility for change. This provided a new stimulus for the indigenous peoples' movement. Several networks already had their own plans for large indigenous peoples' meetings, but organised around the issues central to each. Finally, in September 1998, thirteen indigenous organisations and NGO networks agreed to join forces. Key people from community groups and NGOs set up a Steering Committee and over several meetings drafted the outline for the Congress, including its aims and guidelines for its organisation. This was then circulated around other groups in the regions for discussion over the next few months. Right from the start, the aim was to hold a gathering of indigenous people, not a conference about them or on their behalf. The NGO initiators were determined that their role should be as facilitators not organisers. They should only take care of the logistics and provide a framework within which indigenous representatives could share their views and come to their own decisions.

"Those who oppress indigenous people are organised. If the indigenous peoples are not organised, how can they win?"

Difficult choices

This was easier said than done. There are thousands of different indigenous communities throughout the Indonesian archipelago: to have even one representative from each would require a huge venue and a vast budget. Eventually it was decided to have a strict limit on the number of participants from each province. Regional meetings were then held so that indigenous communities could learn about the forthcoming event, discuss their priorities and demands and select their delegates. The location was also a sensitive issue: to bring everyone to the capital is very much the government way of doing things. Also, Jakarta is a completely alien, hostile environment for many indigenous peoples – especially those from small remote islands. On the other hand, if the voices of indigenous people were to reach decision-makers in the Indonesian government, this first Congress had to be held in Jakarta.

Similarly, for the Steering Committee to leave the aims and format of the Congress completely open to be determined by the delegates on their arrival in Jakarta could be a recipe for disaster. It also made fund-raising virtually impossible. On the other hand, the more the input from NGOs, the more valid the charge that they were stage managing the whole event to fit their own agenda.

The result was a compromise. NGOs and other outsiders would have input into two days of workshop sessions on issues as varied as human rights and politics, regional autonomy, mining, palm oil and genetic resources. Here delegates could gain more information, gain confidence in expressing their views in front of many strangers and get used to listening to other indigenous peoples facing similar problems in very different areas. The agenda for the Congress proper was deliberately left quite fluid. The Steering Committee drafted a framework providing time for delegates to identify key issues, discuss the underlying causes and arrive at some consensus for a plan of action. Time was also allocated for sessions for delegates to meet government ministers and representatives of the new (and old) political parties. Finally, there would be a press conference. Induction sessions were held for the indigenous representatives who were to facilitate group or plenary sessions. The rest was up to the indigenous delegates. Whether or not members of the Steering Committee, observers and local NGO supporters were allowed to attend sessions was also decided by them. In the event, all the plenary sessions and most of the working groups were open to all (except to the press) while some - including the selection of AMAN's Executive Secretary and the regional Board representatives were exclusively for indigenous participants.


The International Alliance of Indigenous-Tribal Peoples of the Tropical Forests

The International Alliance is a network of indigenous peoples' organisations in Africa, Asia and the Americas. It was was set up in Penang, Malaysia in 1992 following a conference which drew attention to the similar problems which forest peoples from all these regions faced and the growing realisation of the international links between the policy-makers responsible for many of these problems.

The Alliance has a regional structure with seven key organisations acting as focal points for activities in different regions of the world. Indigenous peoples' organisations from each region appoint one member to a co-ordinating committee which shares out its responsibilities to several working committees, again made up of representatives of forest peoples' organisations.

At the AMAN Congress, the International Alliance was represented by Hubertus Samangun, who comes from the island of Yamdena in the Tanimbars (SE Moluccas) and has also spent a year in London at the organisation's small international secretariat.

Through a workshop session and a panel discussion, Hubertus explained how indigenous peoples organisations can use the UN system, international conventions and other international instruments to gain greater protection for their rights. Concerted advocacy by the Alliance has ensured that new international environmental standards recognise the rights of indigenous peoples already accepted in international human rights law. New standards adopted by the InterGovernmental Panel on Forests, the World Conservation Union and the World Commission on Protected Areas now recognise indigenous peoples' rights to own and manage their lands and territories and higlight the value of indigenous peoples' knowledge in natural resource management.

Equally importantly, in line with the commitment made at the Earth Summit to treat indigenous peoples as a 'Major Group' to be centrally involved in achieving sustainable development, the Alliance has fought for and helped win political space for indigenous peoples to participate in future for a such as the Convention on Biological Diversity and the Commission for Sustainable Development.

The Alliance is now in a process of consolidating these gains through strengthening regional networks. The goals are to gain wider exposure for local struggles and ensure that the commitments made by governments and other international agencies at the international level translate into policy reforms and practical change at the national and local level. Closer ties between AMAN and the Alliance should help this two-way process.

The lasting effects of the Congress have yet to be seen. That such an event took place at all is an amazing achievement on the part of the NGOs and indigenous groups which formed the Steering Committee. It is also owes much to the international funding agencies – including USAID, BSP-Kemala, CUSO, OXFAM and HIVOS - who were convinced that this dream could realised. But the real measure of the success of this first Indigenous Peoples' Congress is seen in the indigenous delegates' comments.