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Lack of legal protection puts Indonesian tribals at risk

Calls are growing for much-delayed bill that would offer indigenous people legal redress to be made into law

Lack of legal protection puts Indonesian tribals at risk

In this file photo a farmer pushes his chart filled with palm fruits from his farm in West Kalimantan. There are growing calls from indigenous farmers for parliament to pass a law that will protect them from unscrupulous people and firms seeking to grab land and destroy their way of life. (Photo supplied by Palm Oil Farmers Union)

Rerin Priansah and his friends long for a law that would offer them protection from land grabbers.

The 52-year-old farmer from Muara Enim in South Sumatra province says about 50 hectares of his land was snatched several years ago by PT Musi Hutan Persadha, a company that manages industrial timber plantations.

In 2015, he tried to sue the company in a local court but lost the case as a result of what he claimed was a "conspiracy."

Priansah is now in the process of appealing in the cassation court to regain his land.

"I'm only demanding my rights because the land was inherited from my ancestors," Priansah told ucanews.com.

He had planted rubber trees on the land but he said the company suddenly came and uprooted them and claimed ownership of the property.

"I was intimidated in various ways, which included destroying what I was growing," Priansah said.

He said, no help came from the local government when he appealed to them and that the company is now using his land to grow acacia.

Laws that protect indigenous people's rights, especially over their land, are desperately needed, he added.

A Recognition and Protection for Indigenous People Rights Bill — which has been pending for several years — is listed as a national priority this year and is currently being discussed in parliament.

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If introduced it would convert existing constitutional recognition of indigenous people into policies and practices that would recognize and protect their traditional lands and their way of life.

"We want parliament to pass the bill immediately because it can protect our lands from being taken by mining and palm companies," said Bernardus Mohtar, 38, a farmer, from the Dayak tribal community in Sekadau, West Kalimantan province.

The law would deter big business from muscling in with acts of intimidation, or using duplicitous means to acquire land as it would give victims access to legal redress.

There are at least 21 palm oil plantations in Sekadau district. Mohtar said he and other farmers are facing an uphill battle with one of them to reclaim their ancestral lands.

"Our land was grabbed by the palm company. Now we are in constant conflict not only with the firm we sometimes find ourselves arguing with each other," Mohtar said.

He said these firms either took land or paid ridiculously low prices to purchase plots.

According to Mohtar, many people were duped into giving up their land for about $540 per hectare and in some cases the money was not paid.

Rukka Sombolinggi, general secretary of Indigenous People's Alliance of the Archipelago (AMAN), a group that promotes the interests of tribal communities throughout Indonesia, said the presence of a law to protect tribal communities is important for Indonesia at this time, to prevent arbitrary and harmful actions by big business.

"Many conflicts happen because local governments give permits to companies without the consent of the indigenous people," Sombolinggi said.

She called on parliament to immediately pass the pending bill, which was proposed in 2011, because she said it will help end conflicts affecting so many indigenous people.

Sacred Heart Father Ansel Amo, who heads Merauke Archdiocese's Justice, Peace and Integrity of Creation Commission in Papua, said efforts to remove indigenous people from their lands are becoming more intense.

"Tribal people have been marginalized by investors who invade their land using the power of investment or plantation or mining laws," Father Amo said.

According to him, if the bill is passed, it will be "an answered prayer and solution for tribal societies who have been victimized."

Sulistyanto, deputy of Prevention Bureau of the Corruption Eradication Commission, also expected the bill to be passed soon, to prevent collusion and bribery between company owners and local government.

"Such regulation is needed," he said, adding that the commission has recorded damage to the forest in Papua that was caused by company activities.

Luthfi Andi Mutty, a parliament member, told media recently that parliament has considered the importance of introducing a law to protect indigenous people's rights.

He is optimistic the bill will be passed, and that it was just a matter of time.

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