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aerial shot of forested Mentawai Islands
Mentawai Islands, Indonesia

Indigenous Groups in Indonesia's Mentawai Islands Resist the Exploitation of their Territories

Barnabas Saerejen, the 50-year-old chief of the Saerejen tribe, was relaxing at his home in the Sirilangi hamlet of Mentawai Islands one afternoon in June. He had just returned from a 15-kilometer journey from his farm in Sigogoluk, where he grows areca, durian, and coconut among other crops. 

Nearly 80% of the current population of Mentawai, which stands at 87,623 in 2021, is Indigenous, according to the Central Statistics Agency (BPS). 

The Saerejen tribe owns Sigogoluk, along with Ukunen and Omai: lands in North Siberut subdistrict that were recently recognized as the tribe’s indigenous area. 

These three regions were demarcated as their Indigenous area by a decree issued on August 7, 2020 by the Mentawai District Chief Yudas Sabaggalet, implementing a district regulation known as Perda PPUMA, which recognizes and protects Indigenous peoples of Mentawai Islands. 

Since the issuance of Perda PPUMA, a total of 15 indigenous lands have received recognition in Mentawai Islands. 

This recognition was hard won: a result of years of advocacy. 

Key players 

One figure that played a pivotal role in getting Perda PPUMA passed is Martalina Taikatubut Oinan, 55, a member of the Taikatubut Oinan tribe and Mentawai Indigenous Women, a wing of the Mentawai chapter of the Alliance of Indigenous People of the Archipelago (AMAN-Mentawai). 

She was vocal in pressuring the Mentawai district legislative council to pass Perda PPUMA during an audience with the legislative council on October 6, 2016. She said she got involved because she was worried about the uncertain status of her farm, which at the time was categorized as state forest. 

“As women members of the indigenous community, we took part in the struggle. Indigenous communities were already there and the state only came afterwards. We would fight for our rights and as long as we do not fight for that, we are merely temporary occupants of our own land,” said Martalina.

Another key organization that was instrumental in the issuance of the Perda PPUMA is the Yayasan Citra Mandiri (YCM) Mentawai Foundation, a non-governmental organization that has been advocating for the rights of Indigenous peoples since 1995. (Editor’s note: The YCM Mentawai Foundation is a media grantee of the Earth Journalism Network.)  

“The mapping of Indigenous lands and the arrangements needed to meet the requirements were facilitated by YCM Mentawai. This was really important because we do not want our hereditary land to be taken away by others,” said Jeses Samongilailai, 55, chief of the Samongilailai tribe.  

Unpaid fees 

In 2016, a conflict broke out between Mentawai Islands’ tribes and the Pruimanuaijat multi-business cooperative (managed by the logging conglomerate PT Sawit Sumbermas Sarana or PT.SSS, which was granted a concession by Indonesia’s forestry minister to exploit timber from a natural forest of 48,420 hectares on Siberut Island, from 2004 until 2049). 

The Pruimanuaijat multi-business cooperative is a marketplace established by the predecessor of PT SSS, where community members are able to purchase daily goods such as sugar, rice and cigarettes. Timber companies use such cooperatives to bridge communications with Indigenous peoples, including to influence them to give up their land.  

The cooperative would promise payments of timber fees, and tribes in Mentawai saw this as an opportunity to purchase goods on credit against money thought they would receive. 

The conflict was a result of several disagreements surrounding the calculation and payment of timber fees, and served as an impetus to getting the Perda PPUMA passed four years later. 

Based on the quantity of timber logged from their lands, the Saerejen tribe requested a timber fee of Rp 80 million, while the Samongilailai tribe demanded Rp 300 million; the Satanduks and Sakelutuks each demanded Rp 40 million. 

Initially, the tribes asked for the timber fee orally, then in writing. The cooperative promised to pay, but said it had to wait for the money to arrive by ship from the provincial capital of Padang. As agreed, representatives of the four tribes met with people from the cooperative at the Pokai harbor in North Siberut when the ship arrived, but the cooperative still refused to pay the fee. 

“People from the cooperative even shouted at us, and a brawl would have erupted if it had not been prevented by many people there,” Barnabas recounted. 

a man holds up an official document
Barnabas Saerejen, a resident of Sirilanggai, Malancan Village, North Siberut Subdistrict, Mentawai Islands, shows the decree on the Determination of Indigenous Territories issued the District Head of the Mentawai Islands / Credit: Bambang Sagurung.

Disappointed and angered by this treatment, members of the tribes blocked the cooperative’s timber transportation route from the concession to the log pond. On November 9, 2016, they cut off the bridge on the Terekan Hulu river in Tomilanggai with chainsaws.  

Their action caused a three-day delay to the company’s timber transportation and forced the district authorities to mediate between the two sides on November 12, 2016. A document on the settlement of the dispute obtained by Mentawai Kita showed that the company finally agreed to pay the Saerejen tribe the Rp 80 million it was owed in cash. 

The Sakaletuks also obtained Rp 40 million, but in the form of a waiver for the debts tribe members owed to the cooperative. The payment to the Samongilailai and Satanduk tribes, Rp 300 million and Rp 40 million respectively, were deferred because the two were still in conflict with other tribes over land ownership claims.  

Jeses said the company’s refusal to pay the timber fee, further weakens the Indigenous people’s bargaining position. The company had set a timber fee of Rp37,000 per cubic meter, while the market price of timber was at Rp 2 million per cubic meter. 

“People were powerless; if we want to take it to court, we do not have the funds,” he said. 

The Perda PPUMA, however, gave Jeses a boost as the tribe’s territory and rights are now legally recognized.  

But the protection afforded by the Perda PPUMA is not enough. Now, the tribes await a decree from the Ministry of Environment and Forestry Affairs that would recognize indigenous forests, which according to YCM Mentawai, are spread around 400,000 hectares.  

This decree from the central government would give Indigenous communities the right to decide whether or not their land could be managed by companies. The communities would also have a stronger legal foundation to demand the exlusion of Indigenous land from concessions to companies. 

Rifai Lubis, the director of YCM Mentawai, said the ministry had already completed the administrative paperwork, and all that was left to be done was a site verification. That had been scheduled for 2021, but the COVID-19 pandemic forced the authorities to refocus operational funds to deal with the public health crisis.  

Still, the fight for the right over their forest and livelihood would not cease with the issuance of a ministerial decree. 

The Omnibus Law vs Indigenous Peoples Bill 

YCM Mentawai Legal Officer Surya Purnama said the recent  passage of Job Creation Law Number 11 of 2020, otherwise known as the Omnibus Law, diluted the district-level recognition and once again made it easy for the appropriation of indigenous land for government programs or through the granting of concessions to timber companies. 

The Omnibus Law is one of the most recent controversial laws aimed at boosting Indonesia’s competitiveness, creating jobs, and easing investment in the country. 

According to Human Rights Watch, the law will not only reduce protections for workers, but weaken existing environmental laws and legal protections for Indigenous groups, raising concerns about land grabbing. 

The issue of Indigenous Peoples’ protection gets even murkier with the continued delay in passing the Indigenous Peoples bill, which entered the National Priority Legislative Program in 2014.  

Tommy Adam, head of the Department of Advocacy, Studies and Campaigns at Wahana Lingkungan Hidup Indonesia, or WALHI (the Indonesian Forum for the Environment) in West Sumatra, said that the bill on Indigenous Peoples has been discussed since the regime of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono but has not yet been approved by the country’s House of Representatives (DPR).

It re-entered the legislative program in 2021, with no clear indication of where it’s headed.  

Rapot Pardomuan, Chairman of AMAN-Mentawai, said that the bill on Indigenous Peoples, if approved, would strengthen the process of getting indigenous communities recognized and protected. 

“The bill also regulates the compensation of land for indigenous areas that are used for development purposes, and Indigenous peoples are given compensation with the principle of FPIC (Free Prior, Informed Consent) which means that there must be consent without coercion if their indigenous area is to be managed by another party,” he said.

Rapot said that as long as the bill is not passed, the country’s priority projects, including the food estate, a project to promote food security and end reliance on food imports as defined in the Omnibus Law, would harm Indigenous peoples because parts of the land allotted for the food estates are indigenous areas, where Indigenous Peoples currently farm, live, and thrive. 

WALHI’s Tommy criticized the government’s plans for food estates as they promote large-scale agriculture that will heavily rely on public-private partnership. 

“These projects will only accelerate deforestation and damage the environment. Based on experience so far, the release of forest areas often ends up in the destruction of the environment,’ Tommy said. 

He added that WALHI has not yet noted any effort by the government to inform the public, much less Indigenous peoples whose lands are in question, about activities related to these food estates, let alone involve them in the process. 

The struggle continues 

Despite these many challenges, Mentawai Islands’ Deputy District Chief Kortanius Sabeleake said that the Perda PPUMA was still important because it provided protection for the Indigenous people of Mentawai and their ancestral land.  

“One of the characteristics of the people of Mentawai is that it is their land that binds them as a tribe,” he said. “Who would recognize that land if the Perda was not there? If [the regulation] was not there, the extinction of a tribe would only be accelerated.” 

Kortanius called on the people of Mentawai to always defend their land and manage the land well, so that it can continue to be a source of livelihood and assure food self-sufficiency. 

This story was supported by Internews' Earth Journalism Network. It was originally published in Bahasa Indonesia on 1 October 2021 in MentawaiKita and in English on 15 October in Ekuatorial. It has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Banner image: Indigenous and settlement areas of Sirilanggai tribe, Malancan Village, North Siberut Subdistrict, Mentawai Islands, West Sumatera / Credit: YCM Mentawai.