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A voice for Indonesia’s indigenous peoples

Abdon Nababan, winner of the 2017 Ramon Magsaysay Award, has worked tirelessly to fight for the rights of his country’s marginalised communities

Image Credit: Ramon Magsaysay Award Foundation
Abdon Nababan (left) receives his award from Leni Robredo, vice-president of the Philippines, and Ramon del Rosario, Jr, chairman of Ramon Magsaysay Award Foundation, in a ceremony at the Cultural Center of the Philippines on August 31
Gulf News

What inspires a person to eventually find his or her goal in life is difficult to say. But for Abdon Nababan, the 2017 Ramon Magsaysay award winner, it was an incident in the 1990s — a paper milling company seized a piece of land belonging to the Toba Batak, an ethnic group of indigenous peoples, close to his hometown in North Sumatra, in Indonesia. Being a Toba Batak himself, the anti-logging campaign made him realise that he could no longer be just an activist. He needed to do more. That’s when his journey to make people aware of the importance of self-identification began.

In 1999, after the fall of the Suharto regime, Nababan was one of the organisers of a congress that launched AMAN — Aliansi Masyarakat Adat Nusantara, or “Indigenous Peoples Alliance of the Archipelago,” — a mass-based organisation that today has over 115 local chapters and 21 regional chapters throughout the country’s 34 provinces; collectively, AMAN represents more than 17 million members.

It is his phenomenal work with AMAN that won him Asia’s version of the Nobel prize — the Magsaysay. AMAN works with the government and other local communities to bring about legal reforms in the country’s forestry laws. The organisation’s main challenge is to get legal recognition that forests in IP (indigenous peoples) territories are not “state forests.”

Under Nababan’s leadership, AMAN has grown from strength to strength. From being its Secretary General in 2007 and then getting re-elected for another five-year term until 2017, Nababan has helped make it Indonesia’s largest, most influential non-state organisation. “AMAN’s responsibilities and workload has increased along with its number of members — from 900 communities in 2003 to 2,342 communities today. To defend, protect, and serve the members, AMAN currently has 21 regional administrators and 120 local administrators spread throughout the country,” says Nababan.

Own their land

AMAN aims to get official recognition for the indigenous peoples so that they can rightfully own their land. In the beginning, the state policy was drafted in such a way that only one million people were identified as being indigenous. AMAN’s struggle began with proving that approximately 70 million indigenous peoples needed to be recognised.

With that task on the agenda, Nababan spearheaded a massive campaign called ‘One Map’. It is a single database for verifying IP land and forest claims on ownership, use, and tenure vis-a-vis the government data. With the assistance of supporting NGOs, AMAN set up an Ancestral Domain Registration Agency in 2010. Thanks to that, activists are able to map the forest area legally belonging to the indigenous peoples. “By accelerating participatory mapping, the results are integrated into the One Map policy now already available with the government. Till date, AMAN has submitted 8.23 million hectares of indigenous territorial maps to the government under the One Map initiative,” says Nababan.

In 2012, his advocacy won AMAN a landmark judgement which declared that IP territories are not state forests, further mentioning that the government needs to return almost 57 million hectares of state-controlled forests to the indigenous communities.

Unfortunately, even though the highest court ruled in favour of the masses, the implementation of the order as well as of the One Map is still not complete. Despite this setback, AMAN began working with the government in legal reform, conflict settlement, and economic empowerment. It is also focusing its energies on making sure that indigenous peoples will no longer be invisible in the government statistics. The fight did bear some fruit when Indonesia’s President Joko Widodo recognised the rights of nine indigenous communities measuring up to 13,100 hectares of forest reserves in 2016. But this was not enough for Nababan.

He started thinking about entering the political arena himself so as to push for substantial governmental reforms. After all, during the 2014 presidential election, AMAN helped Widodo garner 12 million votes after he made six promises for the IP movement, particularly of awarding 12.7 million hectares for the IP community. Until now, not even 2 million hectares have come their way.

So, when other activists urged him to consider seeking a government post for leading the community, Nababan agreed. He is running as an independent candidate for governor of North Sumatra, one of the biggest provinces of Indonesia, and more importantly, his home province. Though he never aspired to political office, this is a conscious decision to facilitate the implementation of several of the government’s assurances which are yet to be delivered. He says, “My primary intention is to build models and examples of local governments taking sides and implement existing legislations and regulations.”

Running for a political position will surely be a first for him. And understandably, he is apprehensive of the same. Yet, the necessary support required to win the seat does not seem impossible. The indigenous peoples population of Indonesia is approximately 70 million. Today, thanks to the single-minded efforts of Nababan, AMAN boasts of over 17 million members.

Even though Nababan is fighting for the rights of the indigenous peoples, he is not against development. His only concern is who gets to control the development. As long as there are no vested interests, he feels there should be no problem. Basically, the local community needs to steer its own growth instead of the western world which is bound to look after its own interests under the guise of development. He feels that for indigenous peoples, development and consolidation work together. Hence, to limit the involvement of external agencies so that the development agenda benefits the indigenous peoples first, they need legal protection from the government.

What makes Nababan’s IP movement unique is the fact that it is happening in a place like Indonesia which is one of the world’s most ethnically diverse countries. To successfully lead millions of people to a particular goal, provide them with an identity, infuse in them a sense of responsibility towards their rights, gather a nation-wide momentum against bureaucracy, and achieving all this single-handedly while braving personal threats, is simply remarkable.

There is no denying that the path Nababan is pursuing is an arduous one. He explains the hard work such an IP movement has to go through. “The challenge in indigenous peoples’ movement goes beyond the issue of identification of indigenous rights. It is the overlap of various sectoral legislations and regulations issued by the government which makes the administration for the recognition of indigenous rights complicated.”

“Another challenge is the influx of culturally diverse entrants and interests that makes it difficult for indigenous peoples to build consensus as a social unity as indigenous rights holders,” he says.

Manasi Mathkar is a writer based in Manila.