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Indonesia: Forest Rights of Indigenous Peoples Affirmed

(June 3, 2013) On May 16, 2013, the Constitutional Court of Indonesia gave indigenous people the right to manage the forests in which they live. It has been reported that this decision will block the government from selling such lands to private businesses. (Indonesia Court Ruling Boosts Indigenous Land Rights, JAKARTA GLOBE (May 17, 2013); Case No.35/PUU-X/20 (May 16, 2013), Mahkamah Konstitusi Republik Indonesia [Constitutional Court of the Republic of Indonesia] website [click on “Klik Disini” to get text in Indonesian].)

The case had been filed by the National People’s Indigenous Organization, the Aliansi Masyarakat Adat Nusantara (AMAN), in March 2012. (Constitutional Court Agrees on Review of UUK (May 16, 2013), AMAN website.) AMAN objected to the 1999 Forest Law, which, it alleged, allowed the government to sell permits for exploitation of the land to companies interested in mining and the production of palm oil, paper, and timber.

The Forest Law stated that “customary forests are state forests located in the areas of custom-based communities.” In accordance with the decision, the legislation will be revised and the word “state” deleted. (Chris Lang, Indonesia’s Constitutional Court Returns Customary Forests to Indigenous Peoples, Redd-Monitor website (May 17, 2013); Law No. 41, 1999, on Forests [in Indonesian], Ministry of Energy and Mineral Resources website (last visited May 21, 2013).) Judge Muhammad Alim of the Constitutional Court said that “[i]ndigenous Indonesians have the right to log their forests and cultivate the land for their personal needs, and the needs of their families.” (Indonesia Court Ruling Boosts Indigenous Land Rights, supra.)

Among Indonesia’s 237 million people, the government has identified 365 ethnic groups and subgroups that it calls komunitas adat terpencil (remote indigenous communities). Those ethnic groups in total have about 1.1 million members. AMAN uses the term masyarakat adat (indigenous peoples) to refer to those groups. Some estimates count 30 to 40 million people as masyarakat adat. (Indigenous People in Indonesia, International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs (IWGIA) website, (last visited May 21, 2013); IWGIA is an international human rights organization founded in 1968, International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs, IWGIA website (last visited May 21, 2013).) AMAN’s Secretary-General, Abdon Nababan, speaking after the decision was issued, referred to 40 million indigenous people now having rights over their customary forests. (Constitutional Court Agrees on Review of UUK, supra.)

Environmentalists welcomed the decision, but pointed out that it may result in an increase in disputes over land rights. An official of the Ministry of Forestry echoed this concern, stating that it would be some time before the decision could be implemented through local government decrees. (Id.)