In late July, the Forest People’s Programme (FPP), a nonprofit that works on behalf of indigenous communities around the globe, helped coordinate a submission to the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (UNCERD). Zachary Frye specially for the ASEAN Today.
The report alleges that displacement of indigenous populations is occurring in Kalimantan, the Indonesian part of Borneo, a large island divided between Indonesia and Malaysia.
Along the two countries’ border, private companies backed by local government are developing the area by putting in roads, plantations and mining operations in a manner that disrupts local communities and their way of life.
According to the report, some 1.4 million Dayak, an umbrella term for local ethnic groups with ancestral ties to the land, live in the area where the development is taking place. More than 300,000 people are at risk of displacement if no action is taken to halt the operations, says FPP.
Speaking with ASEAN Today, Angus MacInnes, an FPP consultant, said that a complaint was made with UNCERD to raise attention to the issue and seek justice for local communities.
He also said the complaint was addressed to UNCERD because of the position of indigenous populations in Indonesia.
“[Since] indigenous peoples face disproportionate barriers to accessing land, this discriminatory treatment is exacerbated by the fact that their livelihood and food sources depend on the free use of their land,” he said, making the case that development is directly hurting local lives and livelihoods.
Deforestation and the degradation of indigenous communities are connected
Dayak indigenous communities in Borneo have faced down displacement and encroachment from development for decades, especially since their home is located in dense rainforests deemed fertile for agriculture and rich with natural resources.
According to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), most of the island was covered in forest a century ago, making it one of the most biologically diverse locations on the planet.
Years of deforestation are now taking their toll on the island. A WFF study claims that only half of the island’s former forest coverage remained in 2012 and that the rate of deforestation would slash coverage to merely 24% by 2020.
More recent reports indicate that deforestation continues to be a major problem in many locations throughout the island.
For generations, indigenous groups such as the Dayak have made their home in Indonesian rainforests. Their lives as minority cultures living in the forests, however, have too often made them an afterthought in the eyes of national and commercial development organizations.
Explaining the displacement process, MacInnes says that government mechanisms to register indigenous lands should provide legal cover to local communities, but a burdensome bureaucratic process and poor follow-through from the government make it difficult for many communities to prevent displacement.
“In the eyes of the law, these communities only have secure land tenure if they map and register their customary lands. [It’s] an onerous and burdensome process that can take over five years based on current processes,” MacInnes said.
He also noted that a bill that would officially recognise the rights of indigenous peoples in Indonesia has languished in the legislature for almost a decade, suggesting that the government is showing little initiative on local land rights.
“All the while, the state continues to grant huge concessions over indigenous peoples’ lands,” MacInnes added.
“From our experience on the ground, communities are never aware that a concession has been granted over their lands until company personnel turn up with pen and paper requesting them to sign away their lands. The dice [are] already loaded,” he continued.
Private developers earn contracts with local government agencies to expand operations
According to the FPP, the private developers that are largely responsible for much of the displacement in the area are palm oil companies, including subsidiaries of PT Ledo Lestari, Golden Agri Resources and Harita Group.
Even though companies are the ones allegedly moving in without the consent of the communities, local government agencies are the ones giving companies the authority to move in.
FPP argues that local security forces often side with the company in situations of conflict with communities, especially since the company ostensibly has the legal backing to proceed with operations.
“Private companies would not be able to operate without the support of the state,” added MacInnes. “The Ministry of Agriculture is aware of how unsuitable the borderlands are for oil palm development following the recommendations by UNCERD in 2007.”
A previous UNCERD decision in 2007 noted the Kalimantan border region was unsuitable for development due to the danger to indigenous communities, but local government agencies and companies continue to commercialise the area.
Developments should only occur with the consent of local populations
Although the newest UNCERD submission is an important step by allied organisations to shed light on the problem of indigenous displacement, a ruling in their favour is unlikely to be a panacea.
FFP and the other local human rights groups are calling for an immediate end to the expansion of palm oil and logging in the area, as well as for the speedy passage of the legislation on rights of indigenous groups, formally known as the Bill on the Recognition and Protection of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. They’re also calling for an acceleration of local legal instruments to prevent displacement, among other recommendations.
These are lofty goals, but the issues that surround them are highly contested by companies and public agencies in the country. While a successful decision could help build the legal case for indigenous rights in Indonesia, it will be up to national authorities to ensure that the rights of local communities are respected and maintained.
Their track record thus far leaves much room for improvement. Without the blessing of local communities, development and deforestation on indigenous lands is little more than a land grab, no matter the certification from local agencies.
It is imperative that Jakarta make the necessary moves to ensure the rights and wellbeing of all communities within its borders, including those living in the forests.