JAKARTA, March 17 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Thousands
of Indonesian indigenous people gathered on Sumatra island on
Friday to call on the government to protect their land rights as
fears grow some tribes could become extinct.
A sprawling archipelago with more than 17,000 islands,
Indonesia is home to an estimated 50 to 70 million indigenous
people, but many do not have formal title to the land their
families have lived on for generations.
For decades they have been locked in bitter battles with
logging, palm oil and mining companies that have been expanding
into their homelands in the resource-rich Southeast Asian
President Joko Widodo has pledged to improve their lives,
but activists say his ambitious plans to boost infrastructure
and energy production - including by building dams - mean more
tribes are at risk of being displaced.
"Even though the government has nice policies on paper, we
continue to face land grabs... and forced evictions throughout
Indonesia," said Rukka Sombolinggi, deputy head of the
Indigenous Peoples Alliance of the Archipelago.
"We are willing to share, but development has to be done
with our consent," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
More than 5,000 people from 2,000 indigenous communities
convened in Tanjung Gusta village outside North Sumatra's
provincial capital Medan. The gathering is organised by the
alliance and held every five years.
Indonesia's Constitutional Court ruled in 2013 indigenous
people have the right to manage forests where they live, in a
verdict hailed as a victory for indigenous land rights.
The government last December announced it would return
13,000 hectares of customary lands to nine indigenous
communities, and committed to giving back a total of 12.7
million hectares - roughly the size of Greece - to local and
Indonesia's environment and forestry minister reiterated on
Friday the government's commitment to indigenous rights.
"It was only a start and not the end of this struggle," Siti
Nurbaya Bakar told the gathering, referring to the December
announcement to return customary lands.
Campaigner Sombolinggi, of the Sulawesi island's Toraja
tribe, lauded these developments but said legal reforms have
More than 230 indigenous leaders and activists are currently
on trial for battling to save their homelands, she said, while
at least six tribes face the threat of extinction as a result of
"Our livelihood and our existence are being affected. When
we are evicted from our land, what else do we have?" she asked.
(Reporting by Beh Lih Yi @behlihyi, editing by Alisa Tang.
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