Unfortunate Tale of Umalulu People

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  • TEMPO.CO, JakartaA sugarcane plantation and refinery owned by a subsidiary of the Djarum Group in East Sumba took over traditional lands. Indigenous people’s rights continue to be ignored.

    INDIGENOUS people are always in a weak position when facing companies supported by the government. They are easily forced off the land of their birth by business concessions. This is what has happened to the Umalulu people in East Sumba, East Nusa Tenggara.

    The people there are trying to keep their customary land safe from the business expansion of Muria Sumba Manis. This company, in which Djarum group subsidiary Hartono Plantation Indonesia has a 75 percent shareholding, was awarded a 52,000-hectare sugarcane plantation concession in 2015. The concession area overlaps indigenous lands, including water sources, rice fields, cattle grazing fields, and ritual sites of the Umalulu people's ancestral belief system, Marapu.

    The Muria sugar refinery, which has a capacity of 12,000 tons of sugarcane per day, has been in operation since April 21, 2018. The government claims that the refinery contributes to the national demand for sugar. The construction of the factory has led to the eviction of people from six subdistricts and 13 villages since 2017, when the company had only just obtained a location permit. Protests and complaints from members of the local indigenous community to the East Sumba Regional Legislative Council simply vanished into thin air.

    The sugarcane plantation and refinery also damaged the Bulla protected forest at Wanga village. Initially, the East Sumba forestry office borrowed the forest from local people under a forest-area-loan agreement. However, it turns out that the government gave the land to Muria for the construction of a reservoir to supply water to irrigate the sugarcane plantation. Even traditional faith rituals have been disrupted. The Katuada Njara Yuara Ahu ancestral prayer site at Patawang village is frequently submerged as a result of the soil excavated by the reservoir project. For the Umalulu people, the sugarcane plantation has left a bitter taste.

    Rather than acknowledging indigenous people and their rights in line with the Constitution, the government often makes wrong decisions concerning the areas where these people live. Indigenous areas are seen as uninhabited and therefore the government gives rights over the land to companies.

    This nation does not yet side with indigenous peoples. The House of Representatives (DPR) and the government have failed to pass a special law to implement their constitutional rights. The indigenous people's bill has been stuck in the DPR for 10 years and has twice failed to be passed into law.

    Under the land bill, the rights of indigenous peoples will be recognized as long as they still exist, as proved by meeting a number of conditions. This provision is in line with the articles of the Forestry Law that were the subject of a legal challenge by the Alliance of Indigenous People in Nusantara (AMAN) and two groups of indigenous peoples filed at the Constitutional Court. The court found for the plaintiffs in 2012 and ruled that customary forests are not state forests. The articles in the law were deemed to be in violation of the Constitution. However, this ruling has not improved the position of indigenous peoples with respect to the state.

    The government did not immediately improve the administration as part of the endeavor to protect local peoples from various threats despite the fact that there is much that it could do. For example, it could provide basic services so that these people can obtain identity cards and land deeds. Remember that indigenous peoples have had these rights since birth.

    The government often wrongly manifests its acknowledgment of indigenous peoples only by using their symbols. For example, President Joko Widodo once wore a traditional dress from Sumba -- the region where the Umalulu live -- when he gave his national address at the commemoration of Independence Day in August, but also let the unfortunate fate happened to this tribe. 

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