• Indigenous peoples in Indonesia

    Indigenous peoples in Indonesia

    Indonesia is home to an estimated number of 50-70 million indigenous peoples. Indonesia has adopted the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Still, the government does not fully accept the concept of indigenous peoples.
    Indigenous peoples in Indonesia are increasingly experiencing criminalisation and violence, often related to investments in indigenous territories.
  • Peoples

    Indonesia is home to an estimated number of 50-70 million indigenous peoples.
  • Rights

    Indonesia has adopted the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, but the government does not fully accept the concept of indigenous peoples
  • Challenges

    Indigenous peoples in Indonesia are increasingly experiencing criminalisation and violence, often related to investments in indigenous territories.

WEST PAPUA IW 2019

West Papua covers the western part of the island of New Guinea and comprises the two Indonesian provinces of Papua and West Papua (Papua Barat).

Fifty percent of its 2.7 million inhabitants are of indigenous Melanesian origin and 50% are Indonesian migrants, many of them drawn to West Papua by the large-scale transmigration programme pursued by the Indonesian government following the incorporation of the former Dutch colony in 1963.

Geographically and culturally, West Papua is the most diverse region of Indonesia, with more than 250 different indigenous linguistic groups. The official language is Indonesian. In terms of religion, while Indonesian migrants are generally Muslim (38.4%), the indigenous population are Protestant Christians (53.7%) albeit with traditional beliefs still widely practised. The forests of West Papua cover 42 million ha, or 24% of Indonesia’s forested area, and are home to 54% of Indonesia’s biodiversity. The region is also rich in mineral resources and is home to the largest gold mine and the third largest copper mine in the world.

Despite this natural wealth, West Papua has the lowest Human Development Index (HDI) in Indonesia: 60.1, while the national average stands at 70.2 (2016). In 2016, poverty affected 27% of the population (11% for Indonesia), with rates seven times higher in rural areas than in some urban zones. As for other social parameters – maternal mortality, illiteracy, HIV infection etc. – the rates for the region are all clearly higher than the national average.

Papuans have always demanded their autonomy. The hopes that were raised with the enactment of the Law on Special Autonomy for West Papua in 2001 and the adoption of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples by Indonesia in 2017 have, however, thus far been frustrated. Their socio-economic situation remains alarming and the creation of a new province in the western part of the island in 2003 – the province of Papua Barat –was seen as dividing the region and a violation of the law on special autonomy. Oppression on the part of the security forces is ongoing.

Visit of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights to Indonesia

The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Mr. Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, visited Indonesia in February 2018. During a press conference in Jakarta on 7 February,1 he raised the situation in West Papua and expressed his deep concern at the poverty and malnutrition in the two provinces, with large multinational logging and mining companies being responsible for serious violations of indigenous communities’ rights. The High Commissioner stated that, “Open dialogue and consultation are clearly necessary and such projects must not be undertaken without the free, prior and informed consent of the communities affected.2

The High Commissioner also called on the Indonesian government to “ensure the protection of human rights defenders, who must not be punished or prosecuted for having exercised their right to freedom of expression and freedom of peaceful assembly”. He expressed his concern at the increasing evidence of an excessive use of force by the security forces, along with harassment, arbitrary arrests, and detentions.3 During the 37th (March 2018) and 38th (June 2018) sessions of the Human Rights Council, the High Commissioner again expressly stated his “concern at the living conditions in West Papua”.4 At the end of June 2018, the Indonesian government cancelled its invitation to the High Commissioner, made during his February trip, to visit the two provinces of West Papua.

Critical food and health situation results in the deaths of 72 children in Azmat

Ms Hilal Elver, UN Special Rapporteur on the right to food, visited Indonesia from 9 to 18 April 2018. At the end of her visit, she made a statement in which she referenced West Papua:

I would like to draw your attention to one very tragic incident. In recent months, 72 children have died in the Asmat district of West Papua: 66 from measles and six directly from malnutrition. The deaths were caused by a number of factors, particularly problems of chronic food insecurity and a lack of access to appropriate health services. Their deaths were avoidable but were allowed to happen.5

In addition, the preliminary observations of the Special Rapporteur take into account other issues related to West Papuans’ right to food, particularly large-scale agriculture, illegal mining activity and the conversion of forests into oil palm plantations.6

Restrictions on freedom of information

The Indonesian authorities are systematically preventing foreign journalists and human rights observers from visiting West Papua. These restrictions are despite an announcement made in 2015 by the then recently-elected Indonesian president, Joko Widodo, stating that accredited foreign media would have unhindered access to West Papua. The access restrictions that have been imposed for decades in West Papua are due to the government’s suspicions of the reasons as to why foreigners’ wish to report on the region, affected as it is by a small-scale pro-independence insurrection, widespread corruption, and environmental degradation. The security forces are thus rarely held responsible for violations committed against government critics, particularly the murder of peaceful protesters.7

At the start of February 2018, Rebecca Henschke, a BBC journalist, and her team of photographers were forced to leave West Papua for having allegedly offended members of the armed forces on her Twitter account. Henschke was in the Asmat region covering the health situation following the deaths of at least 72 indigenous children. She published a photo on Twitter of goods standing in a warehouse at the port explaining that “These are humanitarian supplies intended for malnourished children in West Papua – instant noodles, soft drinks and sweet biscuits”. The army complained, stating that the journalist had hurt the feelings of soldiers who were intending to help the inhabitants of Asmat district, and that Henschke’s photo actually showed deliveries intended for local stores not humanitarian supplies.8

Pro-independence activist arrested and insulted

On 3 January 2018, at Jakarta Cengkarang airport, five air force officers arrested Filep Karma, former political prisoner and pro-independence activist, for wearing a Morning Star flag pin badge – the symbol of cultural identity used by the Papuan independence movement. He was questioned for nearly two hours during the course of which one member of the army insulted him and called him a monkey. Following this, Filep was taken to the neighbouring police station where police officers began to write out a Police Investigation Report (PAP), which usually leads to prosecution. With the help of civil liberties defender, Uchok Sigit Prayogi, the police never completed the PAP and had to release Filep Karma given that there was no legal basis on which to pursue a case.9

Forty-five students illegally arrested

On 4 April 2018, members of the local police force, intelligence service (BIN), “BRIMOB” special police unit and “Kodim 1701 Jayapura” military district command raided several houses in the “Perumnas III Waena” residential district of Jayapura and detained 45 students despite having no arrest warrants. During the raid, the police confiscated 35 motorbikes along with laptops and the Morning Star flag. The students were held at the Jayapura district police station. According to the director of the Papuan Association of Human Rights Advocates in West Papua (PAHAM Papouasie), the members of the security forces resorted to unnecessary physical violence against some of the students. At least eight of the students arrested were members of the National Committee of West Papua (KNPB), part of the political indigenous movement that supports the Papuan people’s right to self-determination.10

Mass layoffs at the Freeport–McMoRan mine

Conflicts have been ongoing for several years between thousands of miners, most of them Papuan, and the Freeport Indonesia Company.11 The current conflict dates back to 2017 when Freeport introduced a programme of furlough leave affecting around 12,000 full-time workers and 20,000 contract workers – i.e. a reduction in 10% of the total number of staff. This measure was taken without any prior notice or negotiation between union representatives (PUK SPSI) and management and resulted in a strike. Declared illegal by Freeport, the company took the opportunity of this strike to lay off 4,200 miners on the pretext that they had “voluntarily resigned”.12 No mediation has succeeded to date and the situation remains extremely tense.

On 28 August 2018, hundreds of miners protested outside the offices of Freeport in Jakarta. The security forces repeatedly tried to disperse the demonstration without success. On 29 August, eight representatives were authorised to attend a meeting with the Freeport management. On 30 August 2018, with the support of the human rights defence organisation LOKATARU, based in Jakarta, the workers reported the Minister for Employment, Hanif Dhakiri, to the Office of the Ombudsman in Jakarta for poor administration, given that the Minister had not remained neutral in the conflict and had never responded to a request for a meeting from the miners.13

Greenpeace denounces international company involvement in deforestation

A survey undertaken by Greenpeace has revealed that Mars, Nestlé, PepsiCo and Unilever are all buying palm oil from a group whose subsidiary is responsible for the illegal destruction of tropical forests in West Papua.14 This is despite these companies being committed to a policy of “no deforestation, no peat, no exploitation” that should prevent them from obtaining palm oil from companies whose production is not sustainable. Greenpeace published a video and photographs taken in March and April 2018 showing that PT Megakarya Jaya Raya (PT MJR), a palm oil concession controlled by the Hayel Saeed Anam (HSA) group, had cleared around 4,000 ha of tropical forest – an area almost half the size of Paris – between May 2015 and April 2017. After a pause of four months, the clearing began once more in September and October 2017. Part of the area affected is protected peatland. These protected zones were established by the Indonesian government in response to the devastating forest fires of 2017 and they prohibit any rainforest from being cleared within these areas. Although PT MJR is no longer producing palm oil, two other HSA subsidiaries Arma Group and Pacific Oils & Fats have provided palm oil to Mars, Nestlé, PepsiCo and Unilever, according to information published by the brands themselves earlier this year.

This is not the first time that Unilever, which claims to be a pioneer in the use of sustainable palm oil, has purchased palm oil from companies that are deliberately destroying Indonesia’s tropical forests. In 2015, the Indonesian government identified dozens of companies responsible for millions of hectares of burnt forests and peatlands. The RKK palm oil company – a plantation company of the Makin group, which is a Unilever supplier – was prosecuted for arson. The examples show that palm oil production can never be totally sustainable. These cases also raise serious doubts over the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO). RSPO policy requires its members to have no unaffiliated palm oil divisions. Although PT MJR and the other concessions of the HSA group are not direct members of the RSPO, numerous other oil palm-producing companies in the HSA group are RSPO-certified.

The Indonesian government is currently negotiating a free trade agreement with the European Union. The trade in palm oil is a dominant feature in these discussions. International environmentalists fear that the EU-Indonesia FTA could result in an increase in national oil palm production due to growing demand from the European markets. This would lead to increased deforestation in areas of primary rainforest and a proliferation of land conflicts with local communities.

Commemoration and clashes

On 1 December, Papuan and Indonesian students organised a number of peaceful demonstrations to commemorate the 57th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence of West Papua,15 involving waving the Morning Star flag and demanding an independence referendum. More than 500 people were arrested across 10 towns. On 2 December, an armed group affiliated to the National West Papua Liberation Army killed at least 17 people, including one soldier, who were working on a construction site at Nduga, in the Central Islands. A punitive operation comprising more than 100 police and army officers was unleashed against the activists.16 As feared, and as has often been the case, the operation resulted in serious excesses and abuses on the part of the security forces. In the absence of independent observers and journalists capable of gathering testimonies and verifying the events on the ground, the full impact will not be known until later this year.

Notes and references

  1. OCHCHR: UN Human Rights Chief ends visit to Indonesia – Full statement. 7 February 2018. http://bit.ly/2IE96lF
  2. Ibidem
  3. See also Amnesty International, Report “Indonesia police and military unlawfully kill almost 100 people in Papua in eight years with near total impunity”, 2 July 2018. http://bit.ly/2IHiuoz
  4. See Minority Rights, May 2018 at http://bit.ly/2IH123u
  5. See International Coalition for Papua – (ICP), 24 April 2018 at http://bit.ly/2IHizsn
  6. Amnesty International, cit.
  7. Human Rights Watch, 20 June 2018 “Letter on Indonesia’s New Counterterrorism Law to President Joko Widodo and Speaker Bambang Soesatyo” http://bit.ly/2IHW86q
  8. International Coalition for Papua – (ICP), 1st Quarterly Report 2018. http://bit.ly/2IE9iBp
  9. Ibidem
  10. ICP, 2nd Quarterly Report,
  11. See, for example, Pataud Célérier Philippe, «En Papouasie, la grève oublié des mineurs». Le Monde Diplomatique, 19 October 2011 at http://bit.ly/2IE9jFt. See also IWGIA Yearbook 2015. http://bit.ly/2IG1sr7
  12. See ICP, “Update on Freeport’s mass layoffs dismissed laborers report Employment Minister to Ombudsman” October 2018 at http://bit.ly/2IG1Rd7
  13. Ibidem
  14. See Greenpeace, “Final Countdown Report 2018” at http://bit.ly/2IHWBFI
  15. The Netherlands had promised independence and created a parliament, the “Council of Western New Guinea”. It was this council that raised the flag in 1961 and this event was interpreted as a declaration of independence when, in fact, the territory was still under Dutch sovereignty. The transfer of the territory to Indonesia took place in 1963. See ICG Asia Report N° 23 op.cit., 9.
  16. Human Rights Watch, 9 December 2018 at http://bit.ly/2IHWF8q

Patrick Kulesza, is the Executive Director of GITPA, the Groupe International de Travail pour les Peuples Autochtones (www.gitpa.org). He conducted an Information Mission to Papua in November 2018, resulting in the production of a web documentary that can be found at: http://bit. ly/2U0VtSd

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IWGIA - International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs - is a global human rights organisation dedicated to promoting, protecting and defending indigenous peoples’ rights. Read more.

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