Verdict in Indonesia: Government must return ancestral lands

A woman carrying a child and a megaphone

May 27, 2013

The indigenous peoples of Indonesia and its advocacy group, AMAN, have scored a great success: the Constitutional Court ruled that the government must recognize the land rights of forest dwellers. It may no longer class their customary forests as “state forest areas” and lease them to loggers or plantation operators.

It was a long battle for the alliance of indigenous peoples in Indonesia (AMAN). On May 16, 2013, the Indonesian state news agency quoted Justice Muhammad Alim’s ruling as follows: “Members of customary societies have the right to clear forests belonging to them and use the land to fulfill their personal and family needs. The rights of indigenous communities will not be eradicated, as long as they are protected under Article 18b of the Constitution.”

The Constitutional Court’s landmark ruling is an important step toward recognizing the rights of Indonesia’s 40 million indigenous inhabitants, who have used the forests sustainably for generations.

The ruling bars the government from opening the land to exploitation by designating indigenous land as “state forest” and granting lucrative concessions to influential companies.

The Indonesian Ministry of Forestry has recognized that the rainforest dwellers have practiced sound conservation for millennia using knowledge handed down from generation to generation. Sumarto, a spokesman for the Ministry of Forestry, told the Jakarta Globe that “the Ministry of Forestry considers indigenous peoples living in a certain area as being part of the forest itself. They cannot be separated. Custom-based societies are on the front lines of forest management.”

The environmental organization Walhi is now urging regional governments to draft bylaws to specify which areas belong to indigenous societies. This is the best possible option for protecting Indonesia’s rainforests. Walhi activist Zenzi Suhadi: “In many cases, the customary forests of the indigenous communities are better managed than protected forests owned by the government.”

Rainforest Rescue has supported its Indonesian partner organizations for years in the struggle for indigenous land rights and preservation of tropical forests.


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