Apr 17, 2024 Last Updated 3:10 AM, Apr 15, 2024

Who benefits?

For the Forest Tobelo people, regional autonomy is a mixed blessing

Christopher R Duncan

In some parts of North Maluku, perceptions about what new regional autonomy legislation might provide have reached almost millenarian levels. Everywhere people are making plans on how to use the riches that decentralisation is expected to bring, and newly elected regional leaders are eager to demonstrate their independence.

The indigenous rights movement hopes that regional autonomy will allow indigenous minority communities throughout Indonesia to retain, or regain, control over their land and their natural resources. But how will autonomy and the wealth it could bring to the regions affect small indigenous groups such as the Forest Tobelo in Halmahera, North Maluku? These groups historically suffered the most under centralised rule from Jakarta. What will decentralisation mean for them?

Return to local custom

When Indonesia passed decentralisation legislation in 1999, one of the main selling points was that it would provide more opportunities for local communities to participate in government. Many ethnic minorities have seen these opportunities as a chance to return to local forms of governance and resource management that were ignored or discouraged under Suharto. Older laws requiring a standardised form of village administration throughout the archipelago have been repealed, and villages can now implement forms of government based on adat (local custom). After decades of authoritarian rule by national legislation that often regarded local beliefs and customs as a hindrance to development, a return to adat promises more attention to local needs and local culture.

Forest-dwelling communities in particular see the new legislation as a welcome change. The Suharto government largely viewed these groups as ‘primitives’ who needed to be brought into ‘mainstream’ Indonesian society. The government set out to achieve this goal through social engineering programs that included forced resettlement and assimilation. However, these programs were often more about accessing natural resources than helping local communities.

During the last decades of the twentieth century many Forest Tobelo were resettled into coastal communities, as their land was taken for development projects. In the 1980s the entire island of Halmahera was divided up between several major timber companies who proceeded to deforest vast tracts of land. After the timber was harvested, government-sponsored transmigration schemes and forest plantations often followed. All of these developments disregarded Forest Tobelo land claims.

The search for new revenues

The process of decentralisation is centred on two issues: increased regional control over government and a redistribution of revenues and budget responsibilities. Beginning in 2001, regional governments were given authority over areas such as education, village governance, and land tenure. They were also given greater control over natural resource extraction and now receive a percentage of revenues from these activities. For example, the district of North Halmahera will now receive a percentage of revenues generated by an Australian-owned goldmine. District governments will also receive a substantial income from timber concessions in the island’s remaining forests.

The new autonomy brought about by decentralisation also empowers regional leaders with the ability to turn down large development projects that they think will be harmful to their constituents. The ability to refuse projects devised by businessmen and bureaucrats in Jakarta represents a major step forward in local people’s ability to defend their land rights. The new legislation also allows local communities to contest projects proposed by the district government. These benefits, however, are offset by the new financial responsibilities that have been transferred to regional governments.

The hopes that many have placed on the promises of decentralisation have raised the pressure on local governments to generate new funds. One quick and easy way to bring in revenue is to issue new permits for logging or plantations. The danger is that regional leaders will choose short-term growth over long-term sustainability. In Halmahera, efforts to open, or re-open, timber concessions do not bode well for the Forest Tobelo. The national government has long disregarded Forest Tobelo claims to forest land and it seems unlikely that regional officials will be any more likely to recognise these claims than their Jakarta counterparts.

Another threat to Forest Tobelo land is the expected rise in corruption at the local level. Prior to regional autonomy, large-scale corruption was limited to a small number of powerful people in Jakarta. But now, as one official in North Maluku noted, corruption will be decentralised like everything else, and local elites will be able to get rich too. The Forest Tobelo could lose their land as corrupt politicians try to maximise their income by auctioning land off to the highest bidder.

Local power is not good for all

Many ethnic minorities in Indonesia are faring better under decentralisation. In Kalimantan for example, politically powerful indigenous groups have been able to regain control of land and resources that they had lost under previous governments.

In contrast, the Forest Tobelo have not been faring well, because they are not organised politically. Instead of providing more access to government, decentralisation has simply strengthened pre-existing power relations. In 2002 local elites promised that the Forest Tobelo would no longer lose their land to development projects, but these promises have proven to be empty. Planned resettlements of Forest Tobelo continue as the government seizes their land for new projects. In fact, forestry and mining projects have accelerated since decentralisation, and now threaten some of the last remaining forests in which the Forest Tobelo live.

A further danger faces indigenous minorities in North Maluku who have been resettled into hamlets under the jurisdiction of a larger village. Since the new legislation allows villages to control access to their land, the leaders of these villages can sell off usage rights to Forest Tobelo land. For example, one resettled Forest Tobelo community in eastern Halmahera has been placed under the jurisdiction of a nearby village of transmigrants. These transmigrants live on land taken from the Forest Tobelo in the 1980s. Decentralisation essentially gives them control over remaining Forest Tobelo land and allows them to sell off usage rights to others. It is unlikely that the Forest Tobelo will receive any of the resulting revenues.

Too early to say

It is too early to assess the long-term effects of decentralisation on the Forest Tobelo and other ethnic minorities in eastern Indonesia. But it is clear that the impact of decentralisation will depend on the group in question. Groups that have strong local leaders and are organised politically are more likely to benefit. Groups that live in areas with high natural resource potential will face huge challenges. Unfortunately, the new system favours those groups that were well integrated into the political system prior to regional autonomy — and the Forest Tobelo simply don’t fit that model.

Christopher R Duncan (modole@hotmail.com) is a cultural anthropologist and currently a visiting research fellow at the Program in Agrarian Studies at Yale University.

Inside Indonesia 82: Apr-Jun 2005

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