Indonesia is one of the world’s most ethnically diverse countries, and its indigenous peoples (IPs) are estimated at seventy million, or nearly 30% of the country’s population. However, the question of who they are, where they are, and what rights they can claim is contentious in light of state policy that, in the name of national integration and unity avoids facing the realities of ethnic division.
This is the challenge that an IP movement in Indonesia has taken up, and in this movement one person has played a strategic role. ABDON NABABAN, a Toba Batak from Sumatra, began his social advocacy as a student and continued as a non-government organization (NGO) officer after graduation. In 1999, after the fall of the Suharto regime, he was one of the organizers of a congress that launched AMAN (Aliansi Masyarakat Adat Nusantara, or “Indigenous Peoples Alliance of the Archipelago,” a mass-based organization that today has over 115 local chapters and 21 regional chapters throughout the country’s thirty-four provinces; collectively, AMAN represents over 17 million members. As AMAN executive secretary and later its secretary-general, NABABAN has led what is now Indonesia’s largest, most influential non-state organization.
When AMAN started, Indonesia’s indigenous peoples—masyarakat adat—were defined by state policy in a way that limited their official recognition to only one million people. AMAN’s major challenge was to represent the actual vast population of masyarakat adat, totaling fifty to seventy million, and thus become a real, autonomous force. AMAN also needed to build its strength as a movement to a level where it could effectively influence state policy. Under NABABAN’s leadership, AMAN’s legal challenge to existing forestry laws finally won in 2012 a landmark constitutional court ruling which decreed that forests in IP territories are not “state forests,” thus returning some fifty-seven million hectares of government-controlled forest land to indigenous communities.
In a related initiative, NABABAN shepherded a massive effort to produce “One Map” of the country’s vast IP territories, after AMAN and supporting NGOs launched the Ancestral Domain Registration Agency in 2010, to create a single data base for verifying land/forest claims on ownership, use, and tenure in view of incomplete, inaccurate and conflicting government data. By 2016, AMAN had submitted to government “indigenous maps” covering 8.23 million hectares. But NABABAN’s arduous crusade continues: the constitutional court ruling and AMAN’s maps still await implementation.
Still AMAN under NABABAN’s dynamic guidance, has raised the bar in declaring that IPs will no longer be placeless and invisible. Equally important, AMAN has built up its membership from 200 communities in 1999 to 2,342 communities in 2017, representing a constituency of seventeen million individuals. It raised its public visibility and worked collaboratively with government in legal reform, conflict settlement, and economic empowerment. In the 2014 election of President Joko Widodo, AMAN delivered 12 million votes for Widodo after he made six commitments to address the IP sector’s needs. While government still has to deliver on these campaign commitments, AMAN has proven that it is a political force that cannot be ignored.
Acknowledged as the single most important person in Indonesia’s IP movement, NABABAN has worked tirelessly for twenty-four years, braving great difficulties and at tremendous cost to himself and his family. Before AMAN, he was not really conscious of what it meant to be an indigenous person until, working in an anti-logging campaign, he realized that the land taken over by a big industrial lumber estate was actually ancestral land that belonged to his grandparents and other Toba Batak families. He has since raised this discovery of IP identity and responsibility to involve millions of others. Speaking with quiet force he says, “It’s about self-identification. You have to make people understand: ‘This is about me. This is about my forest, this is about my land, this is about my water.’”
In electing ABDON NABABAN to receive the 2017 Ramon Magsaysay Award, the board of trustees recognizes his brave, self-sacrificing advocacy to give voice and face to his country’s IP communities, his principled, relentless, yet pragmatic leadership of the world’s largest IP rights movement, and the far-reaching impact of his work on the lives of millions of Indonesians.
I receive this award with infinite gratitude to the creator of the universe, God almighty, and the ancestors who protect, accompany, and guard me always. I would also like, from the bottom of my heart, to thank all my friends in AMAN. This award is for us.
I dedicate this award to my parents, my wife Devi, and my daughters Meilonia, Mena, and Mayang, who are at home but with me here, too.
Me and my family, we’ve been through a lot. There were even times when I was scared. But, everytime, we overcame. And we grew.
I became an activist in the late ’80s, opposing the all-too-powerful New Order Regime. In the ’90s I realized that I was also a victim. I am one of millions of indigenous peoples in Indonesia. At the time, I—an activist, a victim, an indigenous person—fought an industrial forest company in our ancestral lands. That company, however, was just a front for the real oppressor: authoritarianism and developmentalism. For them, we, the indigenous peoples, were not wanted. We are to be oppressed, to be eradicated, criminalized, impoverished, victimized. Devi, you knew all this, through the years of our frugal life together. You stood by me every time, with trust, hope, and love.
From the very beginning, I have been on assignments given by my people and constituents: to initiate and lead organizations and alliances for the oppressed and for the environment. Because those assignments come with hope and trust, too. My latest assignment is from the indigenous peoples in North Sumatra—that is, to run for governor. This is a province so corrupt and violent.
It took me and my family a long time to finally overcome the fear for our physical, financial, political, and social well-being with this assignment. Again, because of the trust and hope placed upon me, I said, “Yes, I am running for governor of North Sumatra.”
Ladies and gentlemen, tonight is also a night to ask ourselves: where do we come from? What values, what spirit can we offer our society and our earth?
When differing opinions or interests manifest into violent conflicts, when the misuse of religion causes more killings, when developing the economy means destroying the environment, standing here before you, I offer the values and spirit of indigenous peoples to tackle present-day problems of our society and the environment—inequality, crimes, climate change—in a way that is not violent, but humane and sustainable.
And let our countries, Indonesia and the Philippines, lead the world towards peace, where the well-being of people, plants, animals, water, soils, and air prevail.