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Indigenous Indonesians want EU support on land rights

Enno Hinz
November 9, 2022

As the EU and Indonesia work on a free trade agreement, one tribe is seeking European help to secure its rights. Many Indigenous peoples are at risk of losing their land as economic development increases.

A man in tribal dress holds a pole
Indigenous people on Indonesia's Aru Island protest for land rights Image: Maritjie

Threatened Indigenous communities in Indonesia are turning to the European Union for support in light of diplomatic visits and negotiations between the bloc and Jakarta on a potential free trade agreement (FTA).

A few weeks ago, Indigenous human rights defenders from the remote Aru Islands addressed the European Parliament to draw attention to a legal battle over land rights, which is currently before Indonesia's national court.

Activists say development of the archipelago located on the eastern margins of Indonesia has become a prime example of land-grabbing and violations of Indigenous peoples' rights.

"If we lose the case, we will lose everything. We will lose our people, our culture, traditions and our fauna," Indigenous human rights defender Maritjie told DW. She asked for her last name not be revealed for security reasons.

Social media campaigns have been launched on Twitter, Facebook and other websites under the hashtag #SaveAru to amplify the work of Indigenous activists. However, since 2021, it has become more difficult to voice criticism of the government.

"In Indonesia, we have the Information and Electronic Transaction Law (ITE Law). It is not easy for us as human rights defenders to raise our voices on social media. Sometimes when we criticize the government, we are recognized as rude people," Maritije said.

A person holds up a piece of paper reading 'Save Aru'
Aru people have taken to social media in support of their legal fight for land rightsImage: Maritjie

Aru Islands on the development frontier

For decades, the Aru Islands have escaped the attention of companies that have cleared Indonesia's rainforests. But there are signs the Aru Islands could be the next victim of Indonesian deforestation.

According to data from Global Forest Watch, Indonesia lost 9.95 million hectares of primary forest between 2002 and 2021, making it one of the top five countries globally for forest loss over the past two decades.

Several groups are interested in developing the archipelago. These include the Menara Group, a conglomerate that wants to clear forests for a sugarcane plantation, and the Indonesian Navy, which wants to use the land for military purposes.

"The seizure of customary lands by the Indonesian Navy and National Development Projects will eliminate the main source of livelihood for Indigenous people," Eko Cahyono, senior researcher at the Sajogyo Institute, an NGO, told DW.

According to Cahyono, Indigenous peoples in Aru and across Indonesia have a close relationship with the forests, seas, mountains and natural resources and depend on them. Seizing their land could ultimately destroy their lives, he added.

A cleared rainforest in Indonesia
Activists say Indigenous people are better at protecting the land from deforestation Image: Georg Matthes/ DW

Asking Europe for support

Maritije urged European representatives to put pressure on the Indonesian government to leave land in Indigenous hands.

"We are rich in all the things we own. But the government of Indonesia thinks we do not know how to manage our land. Even if we do not know how to manage it, we can learn," she said.

Yance Arizona, lecturer at the Faculty of Law at the Gadjah Mada University in Jogjakarta, told DW that the negotiations on a free trade agreement give the EU the opportunity to use its leverage to support Indigenous rights. 

"I think that there is a chance for Europe to include the protection of Indigenous peoples' rights as part of the trade agreement. The idea of an inclusive trade that ensures that the FTA not only benefits the business of both partners, but also more vulnerable people, like the Indigenous peoples," Arizona told DW.

In August 2022, on the International Day of the World's Indigenous Peoples, the EU announced it would invest €7 million ($7.04 million) in supporting Indigenous peoples' rights worldwide as part of the Global Gateway investment package.

"The EU will invest in enabling Indigenous communities to monitor and report human rights abuses and environmental damage," a statement said.

'Mussel village' residents risk losing their livelihood

No legal protection of Indigenous rights

Indonesia is home to an estimated 50 to 70 million Indigenous people (18% to 19% of the total population), according to the International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs (IWGIA).

Arizona said that Indigenous communities are not reluctant to develop. "Especially in areas like Sumatra, I have found many local communities welcome investment. What they oppose is the loss of their land," law lecturer Arizona said.

However, there are no legal protections for Indigenous peoples' rights in Indonesia, which means that they are not part of the decision-making processes.

"To fully understand the situation of Indigenous peoples' rights in Indonesia, one must look beyond the constitution. The government is not serious about developing a legal framework for the protection of Indigenous rights in Indonesia," said Arizona.

The current legal procedure for Indigenous peoples in Indonesia on customary land rights is complex and involves many state actors, Arizona said. 

In the case of the Aru Islands, the community must obtain legal status as an Indigenous group and a decree from the government on their land and forest rights, which takes a long time.

If the Aru people hope to succeed in their land rights struggle, legal reform is necessary. "If they do not have a legal basis for their land rights, it is easy to dismiss them. A good law is a precondition for resolving many Indigenous land conflicts in Indonesia," Arizona said.

Edited by: Wesley Rahn