The International Conference of Forest Tenurial, Governance and Enterprises in Lombok, Indonesia, is purportedly a forum at which all stakeholders can discuss their issues over forest land and try to work out the best solution. But according to the Indigenous Peoples of Cek Bo Cek from Sumbawa, not all stakeholders are welcome.
“The Forest Ministry as the host, tries to ease every pain off the conference. We try to respect that, and that’s why we are not fighting to get into the conference. Instead we held a peaceful mass protest outside the conference area,” said Agus Hde, Regional Secretary of AMAN, a nongovernmental organization (NGO) that advocates for Cek Bo Cek. Hde was part of the mass protest himself.
A peaceful mass protest for the Cek Bo Cek meant dressing in traditional attire, dancing, and performing a ceremony in front of the conference venue. It was more a hybrid of protest and performance art, an attempt to attract the attention of Indonesian Vice President Boediono, who opened the five-day conference, which ran from July 11–15. Cek Bo Cek’s leaders wanted to hand the vice president a map of Cek Bo Cek’s traditional forest lands—a map of the tribe’s life or livelihood.
Since 2001, the Cek Bo Cek and Newmont Inc., a Canadian mining company, have been at odds. The Indonesian government gave Newmont permission to explore 10,000 hectares (24,711 acres) of forest in South Sumbawa that is rich in gold and to establish what could become the country’s second-largest mine.
But for centuries, this 29,000-hectare (71,661-acre) forest has been the Cek Bo Cek’s ancestral land. The people manage and live off it—hunting, collecting honey and making palm sugar, known as “jalit.”
The woodlands are also home to the Cek Bo Cek’s burial grounds and the site of a sacred annual ceremony to honor their ancestors. However, the land is legally registered as state-owned forest, and the Indonesian government doesn’t recognize those traditional rights.
In fact the government says the Cek Bo Cek are “illegally living on the state-owned land,” as Indonesian Forest Minister Zulkilfi Hasan put it during the conference. By that he meant that the state, not the Cek Bo Cek, owns rights to the land and can give permits to anyone it wants to.
Indonesia has a troubled history when it comes to recognizing Indigenous People’s rights. It started with the Dutch colonial era in the 1800s, when the Dutch Western tenure system was created, comprising the 1865 Forestry Law and 1870 Agrarian Law. The Forest Law covered woodlands, and Agrarian Law covered other land.
Dismissal of indigenous land rights continued throughout the 1960s, when newly independent Indonesia used the same legal categories as the basis for its new land-use laws, but with a twist: The Agrarian Law recognized traditional indigenous claim to the land, but not the Forest Law, which claimed common forest to be solely state-owned.
This meant Forest Law recognized the existence of the ancestral forest, but held that the state owned the land, not the people, which gave the government the right to kick out anyone, with no legal recourse.
The trouble escalated during the 1980s when the Forestry Ministry declared 141 million hectares (348.4 million acres) of Indonesian land as subject to the Forest Law. These lands cover 70 percent of Indonesia. Since the Forest Law doesn’t recognize traditional ownership, it meant that Indigenous Peoples could only attempt land claims in the remaining 30 percent of the country. This was further underscored in 1999 with a new Forestry Law that gave the Forest Ministry complete jurisdiction over the woodlands, known as the Forest Estate, including the traditional forest within it.
This law is largely what kept the Cek Bo Cek shut out of the conference. The Cek Bo Cek have expelled Newmont from the sacred forest many times, most recently in 2010, when the mining company tried to build a helipad.
“We aren’t against any development the government tries to do, as long as it respects indigenous rights and is ecologically friendly,” said Dato Sukanda, chief of the Cek Bo Cek.
To facilitate that the Cek Bo Cek mapped out its traditional forest, showing ecologically sensitive areas, and was eager to hand it to the vice president, having already given it to the district chief and local governor. The map represents the forest that covers 96 percent of the Cek Bo Cek’s land, including its agricultural land, sacred burial grounds, forest and residences. Sukanda said, they hope Newmont and the government will consult with the Cek Bo Cek before bulldozing its territory to make way for a full-fledged mining operation.
“We are one of the oldest ethnics in Sumbawa, having been on the land for centuries before this country even existed,” said Sukanda. “We have rights to our land.”
Unfortunately it did not turn out as they’d hoped. During the conference, Sukanda and other Cek Bo Cek people were unable to deliver the map of life to the vice president. Local police stopped their peaceful protest and threatened to bring them to headquarters before the vice president even arrived. Forced to choose between risking the Cek Bo Cek’s safety in a clash with police or halting the protest, Sukanda asked his people to walk away. They handed their map that day to the vice president’s staff, but just as when they had handed it to local governments, they have heard nothing since.