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Against the tide: Indonesia's Orang Rimba refuse to give up their land

April 19, 2023
topic:Indigenous people
tags:#Indonesia, #indigenous people, #forest, #conservation, #industrial agriculture
by:Leo Galuh
Government policies and corporate activities are decimating the Sumatran rainforest, home of the mobile, animist Orang Rimba people.

In February, Mijak Tampung, 35, was accompanied by four other Orang Rimba tribe members to the Jambi Governor’s office. They were trying to voice their concerns over the ongoing land and human rights violations they face in the province.

The conversation did take place, but the five left the office with a sense that not much would change on the ground. Speaking to FairPlanet, Tampung said they urged local authorities to take action against a private palm plantation firm, Andika Permata Nusantara, which grabbed thousands of hectares of their customary land without consent.

The firm intended to produce crude palm oil (CPO) on Orang Rimba's property, which is rich in food produce such as fruit and honey, as well as numerous species of trees.

"It violates the human rights of indigenous peoples regarding their territories," Tampung said. "As a result of being plundered by many people from outside, life is becoming increasingly difficult for the Orang Rimba." Every Orang Rimba conserves and maintains at least two trees in the jungle as part of the tribe’s custom, he noted.

Orang Rimba means "people of the jungle," which underscores their intimate relationship with the forest. The largest concentration of Orang Rimba in Jambi is in the Bukit Dua Belas National Park area. And while there is no specific data on the population size of the Orang Rimba, according to research by the Environmental Group Warsi Indonesian Conservation Community (KKI Warsi) there are around 2,500 of them.

Their people are matrilineal, animist, hunter-gatherers and swidden cultivators in the Sumatran rainforest, which they call home. But over the last few decades, the size of the forest has diminished drastically, as monoculture CPO plantation businesses have encroached further and further into its territory, devastating the Orang RImba's customary land and homes in the process. 

Obtaining government recognition

Tampung believes that education access (which many Orang Rimba tribe members do not have) plays a critical role in enabling the tribe to defend its land, and added that its people have been victimised for years by government programmes, particularly the transmigration policy. 

Indonesia’s transmigration policy was introduced during the Dutch colonial era in the early 20th century, and was taken over by the Indonesian government after gaining independence. The policy aimed to move millions of Indonesians from the densely populated islands of Java, Bali and Madura to the archipelago's more sparsely populated islands in order to secure a more balanced demographic development.

In addition, the transmigration policy sought to combat poverty by providing land and new income opportunities for landless settlers, according to a scientific report published by Down to Earth Indonesia.

Under former Indonesian President Soeharto’s "new order" regime, transmigration became even more central to the government's agenda, as "smiling general" Soeharto - as he had come to be known -  strove for robust regional development, nation-building and national security.

However, this policy resulted in the violation of customary land rights and forced assimilation of indigenous people and forest dwellers, and led to significant environmental damage, the Down to Earth Indonesia report added.

Customary law bears the same legal status as general law in Indonesia; the difference is that customary law only applies to indigenous Indonesians and is unwritten.

Around two decades ago, the Indonesian government was expanded area of Bukit Dua Belas National Park from 28,707 hectares into 60,500 hectares. However, in 2012, the Constitutional Court issued Constitutional Court Decision No. 35/PUU-X/2012, which emphasised that customary forests are not state forests.

Furthermore, the Constitutional Court directed the government to conduct an examination of planting and forestry licenses given on land and woods that are part of the Orang Rimba's home and have been a source of contention.

But the government's pledge to guarantee living and traditional land management for the Orang Rimba has yet to be delivered. Meanwhile, their ancestral land has been taken over by palm agriculture companies, and the Orang Rimba find themselves having to live on palm plantations, which causes disputes between them and the corporations.

Experiencing these hardships first-hand, Tampung set out to become a lawyer in order to assist not only his fellow Orang Rimba tribe members, but also other people in need of legal assistance. He is currently nearing the completion of his thesis research on the government's ambivalence towards the Orang Rimba population.

"We Orang Rimba require official recognition to get public services such as identity cards and family cards," Tampung told FairPlanet.

He chose to study law at Jambi's Muhammad Azim Institute of Islamic Religion after gaining experience advocating on behalf of the Orang Rimba through Perkumpulan Hijau - a non-governmental organisation campaigning for and educating farmers about environmental and land conflict concerns at the grassroots level.

"Wherever we are, we must obey customary law and other rules. That is why the people require legal assistance," Tampung explained.

A Social transformation

Speaking with FairPlanet, Perkumpulan Hijau director Feri Irawan said that shifts in the forest's function have led to a major social transformation among the Orang Rimba.

Years ago, when they resided near Bukit Dua Belas National Park, they could still find places to live and gather food, Irawan said. However, the CPO plantation has now caused numerous environmental issues that harmed the habitat of Orang Rimba, he noted.

"Roaming and hunting grounds are fewer, and crude palm plantation pollutes the water," Irawan told FairPlanet.

As part of their culture, Orang Rimba constantly move from one area to another to gather food, Irawan added, and take at least six months to return to the original spot they started at. Upon their return, the tribe members would expect to find that particular patch of the forest regrown. 

But now, as the forest slowly disappears and they are surrounded by palm plantations, the Orang Rimba's mindset is changing, according to Irawan. "They are shifting into farming. This means that they have changed into a farming society. Even planting palm," he sighed.

Irawan, however, finds a ray of hope in Tampung’s community's desire to benefit from education, and commended Tampung's tireless efforts to secure the Orang Rimba's legal and political rights, equitable access to public health and education and the right to a home.

His dreams

Tampung was formerly a student of Butet Manurung, the founder of Sokola Rimba (Jungle School), a literacy programme providing alternative education for indigenous people in remote areas of Indonesia, notably in Jambi, with the goal of imparting literacy and equitable opportunity, according to a Friedrich Naumann Foundation report.

Tampung believes that in the present day, both customary law and the forest must be protected. He emphasised that many Orang Rimba people still remain in the jungle and have no knowledge of how to survive in modern times. He acknowledged, however, that the Orang Rimba are not immune to external pressures, which is why he believes customary and government regulations are both essential.

A different Orang Rimba traditional rule prohibits the cutting of some trees and the pollution of river water, which they consume. They are therefore not allowed to use any chemicals that might find their way into the river, and do not relieve themselves in it.

Tampung told FairPlanet about his future plans to establish a Orang Rimba customary hamlet outside of the Bukit Dua Belas National Park area. He expects that this community will strengthen the economy, food sustainability and culture of the Orang Rimba.

"I really wish it happens soon," he said.

Article written by:
Leo Galuh
Embed from Getty Images
Andika Permata Nusantara, a private palm plantation firm, had grabbed thousands of hectares of the Orang Rimba's customary land without consent.
Embed from Getty Images
The government's pledge to guarantee living and traditional land management for the Orang Rimba has yet to be delivered.
Embed from Getty Images
Orang Rimba traditional rule prohibits the cutting of some trees and the pollution of river water, which they consume.
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