Palopo, South Sulawesi/Jakarta. When Mahir Takaka arrived in Tonangka, he was greeted with the warmth and familiarity of an old friend just dropping in to say hello. It was 9 a.m. on a Saturday, and about 40 people ― some seated in plastic chairs, others standing with sarongs covering their heads ― had gathered at the hamlet chief’s home.
Mahir and the two members of his campaign team distributed pamphlets to the audience after exchanging greetings. He then took a seat at a table facing the crowd, a smile on his face and a stack of durians at his side.
As people skimmed the handout, Jalisman, a village leader, raised his hand to signal the start of the meeting. A strong, pot-bellied figure, he introduced Mahir as a man who needed no introduction: his campaign stickers adorned various corners of the house, displayed alongside family portraits and traditional carvings.
“You may already know his name and his face, but some of you may have not have seen him in person,” Jalisman said. “Pak Mahir is a good friend of mine. We have known each other since 1997. He sleeps in a house just like this one, and knows what people like us need. He is a worthy representative, and he can make our voices heard.”
Jalisman spoke for about 10 minutes ― lauding Mahir’s background, his honesty and clean style of political campaigning ― before Mahir took center stage.
Mahir addressed the crowd in a softly spoken but firm manner, touching on the many issues people in their position are facing: the struggles with gaining access to their own customary forest, the push to revise various regulations within the Ministry of Forestry and the need to fight the vote buying that undermines the rights of Indonesia’s thousands of indigenous communities. The crowd listened patiently, occasionally nodding in agreement between pensive drags of clove cigarettes.
After Mahir concluded his speech, the durians were cracked open. He took questions and pressed the flesh. He was the first and only legislative candidate to visit Tonangka, a tiny hamlet in the 1,600-person Kalotok indigenous territory in Luwu, South Sulawesi, known for its honey production.
“I think Pak Mahir is the right candidate to give our village a voice,” resident Maria Penta said after the speech. Other members of the community echoed her sentiment.
Mahir continued to mingle and strolled around the hamlet. He admired the cacao and jambu air trees lining the dirt roads, and joined some villagers for lunch. Mahir's day had just begun, and he had many more villages to visit.
“It’s a challenge to get people to vote,” Mahir said. “They don’t understand why it’s important to participate in the DPD [Regional Representatives Council] elections. So I have to convince them. It’s a chance for me to provide political education at the grassroots level.”
The rest of the day, Mahir and his team drove from village to village, occasionally slowing down to avoid potholes and riding down dusty roads to meet with community members, hand out stickers and fliers and sip obligatory cups of coffee. All the while, he gently reminded members of indigenous communities near and around Luwu ― Masamba, Lara Tua ― that he was candidate number 24 on the ballot for the April 9 legislative elections and that he would fight for their rights if voted into office this year.
Although Mahir, 43, is conducting a modest yet vigorous campaign, he is not alone in his mission to politically mobilize Indonesia’s indigenous communities: he is part of an ambitious initiative spearheaded by the Alliance of Indigenous Peoples of the Archipelago (AMAN) for this year’s legislative elections.
Founded in 1999, AMAN, according to its website, was created as a forum for indigenous peoples to “enforce their customary rights and position themselves as a major component of the nation’s life.” The organization represents 15 million people across over 2,000 of Indonesia’s indigenous communities.
Indonesia has had a tumultuous relationship with its indigenous populations: land disputes, a damaging transmigration program and a history of violent oppression of many communities have informed the state's relationship with its indigenous inhabitants. The country even went so far, when called out by the 2012 United Nation's Periodic Review, to claim that the country "supports the promotion and protection of indigenous people worldwide, [but] given its demographic composition, Indonesia, however, does not recognize the application of the indigenous people concept."
“When we talk about the development for indigenous peoples in Indonesia, it’s like a nightmare,” said AMAN’s deputy for advocacy, law and politics Rukka Sombolinggi, a native of Tana Toraja, South Sulawesi. “[In the name of] of development, people can easily grab our land ― for concessions, even for transmigration, or any other government projects. Why? Because we are not there when decisions are made.”
This year’s elections mark a particularly important turning point for the country’s indigenous peoples: in May last year, the Constitutional Court — Indonesia's highest authority on constitutional law — made a historic ruling on the 1999 Forestry Law and effectively voided the state’s control of customary forests in Indonesia. However, implementation of the ruling has lagged, and indigenous land is still very much at the mercy of the Ministry of Forestry, which officially controls 75 percent of Indonesia’s forests, including some small islands.
“We need to reclaim [our position in Indonesia]; we need to get into the decision making process,” Rukka said.
To that end, the group has endorsed 185 legislative candidates from various indigenous groups to contest this year’s elections. Nine of its candidates are running for spots in the DPD — a representative body that can recommend, but not pass, legislation — while seven are aiming to be elected to the country’s House of Representatives (DPR). The remainder are running at the provincial and district levels, and some of its candidates are members of most of Indonesia’s major political parties, including the National Democratic Party (NasDem), the Great Indonesia Movement (Gerindra) party, the ruling Democratic Party and the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P).
AMAN sees the opportunity for an “indigenous caucus” if enough of its candidates are elected, said Mina Setra, AMAN’s deputy for institutional development, information-communication and resource mobilization and a member of the Dayak Pompakng community in West Kalimantan. The aim would be to establish a voting bloc in parliament to push through legislation to better the interests of the country’s indigenous peoples.
"This can improve our political system, which tends to be centralistic and elitist," Andrinof Chaniago, a political analyst at the University of Indonesia, told the Jakarta Globe on Monday. "This awareness among local communities — that they need to empower themselves — is a positive trend. It would create a better democracy for us. It would also give indigenous peoples more access to public policy."
Mahir, an independent candidate in this year’s contest, has been affiliated with AMAN since 1999. From 2002 to 2007, he served as the organization’s secretary for its South Sulawesi branch. This is his second time running for the DPD, but his first time under AMAN.
“In 2009, I just wanted to test it out,” he said. “I focused more on marginalized peoples rather than exclusively on indigenous peoples.” Mahir added that he was not planning to run again this year until he was approached by AMAN to do so.
He is a member of the Seko community from North Luwu, and is aiming to fill one of the province's four seats in the DPD. If elected, he would represent 19 indigenous communities in the province.
"It’s about land rights: the territory of the indigenous people,” Mahir said. “Mining concessions and plantation concessions are being given away in customary forests to private companies. The government has claimed ownership over the forest and indigenous communities cannot access their own land.”
Among the communities Mahir would represent if elected is the Karonsi’e, an indigenous group of East Luwu, which has struggled over land usage against Vale Indonesia, the Indonesian subsidiary of the Brazilian mining giant, despite the community relying on its ancestral forest for farming, hunting and other resources for generations.
Another one of AMAN’s candidates, Nus Ukru, 54, is a member of Maluku’s Teon Nila Serua community. Formerly the coordinator of the Ambon-based Baileo Maluku Foundation, an NGO concerned with local customary communities‘ rights, he is vying for a seat in the Central Maluku DPRD (Regional Legislative Council).
“I ran for the DPD seat in the 2004 elections, but I lost,” he told the Jakarta Globe via telephone on Friday while campaigning on Seram Island in Maluku. “I also attempted to establish a new party, the People’s Union Party, in 2007, but it failed to meet the [necessary] requirements.”
Since forming a political party in Indonesia is no easy task — aspiring parties need representation in half of Indonesia's 34 provinces and the country's over 500 districts and municipalities — Nus joined the Democratic Party in 2012. Like Mahir, Nus wants to garner the support of the province’s various indigenous groups to increase their representation in the Indonesian government and take back control of their ancestral lands.
“I represent no particular tribe… I represent a movement, an alliance of customary communities defending the rights of customary communities,” he said, adding that nine indigenous communities were currently part of the alliance, while 20 more have expressed interest.
“[Indigenous peoples] haven’t been included in policymaking; they can’t ensure that their rights are accommodated [by local policymakers],” Nus said. “They can’t participate in the development of their own regions ― they haven’t been given means to understand. All this time, only certain people, certain officials, have access to those [development] programs.”
Shoring up support
AMAN says that it chooses which candidates to back based on the will of the people they are representing. The organization said that it whittled its initial candidate list down from 500 to 185 before officially releasing its final endorsements.
“The community first chooses the candidate, so it’s not for us to decide,” Rukka said. “Then we do the background checks. Once they pass the background check, they sign the political contract.”
In order for a candidate to receive AMAN’s seal of approval, he or she must sign a political pledge to ensure that, if they are elected, they will push for two things: the 2011 bill on the Recognition and Protection of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples ― a bill drafted by AMAN and submitted by the PDI-P which has been gathering dust at the House of Representatives since 2011 ― and for the implementation of last year’s ruling on the Forestry Law, better known as Constitutional Court Decision 35. The bill, if passed, would officially recognize the rights of Indonesia's customary communities.
“If I win, the first thing I will do is to make sure AMAN’s agenda will be implemented in parliament,” Mahir said.
Although AMAN provides no monetary support for its candidates, the organization provides a crucial communication base for many of its candidates and provides a thorough vetting system for politicians vying to represent indigenous communities.
“We have social media, we have communication infrastructures, we have radio stations, we have newsletters and we have daily communications with our local chapters,” Rukka said. “We only use communication ― we don’t give money.”
On the organization’s YouTube channel, AMAN has also produced video profiles for many of its candidates to advertise their platforms and increase their exposure.
Mahir’s campaign, for example, while bolstered by AMAN, has been entirely supported by friends, family and fundraising activities. While utilizing the traditional channels of village meet-and-greets, speeches, stickers and buttons emblazoned with his face and campaign number, he has also adopted social media: he runs an active campaign blog and is consistently posting updates on Facebook, of which he says half of the indigenous groups in his province can access.
Sometimes, though, the grass roots campaigning methods utilized by politicians like Nus and Mahir can be derailed by the endemic practice of buying votes in Indonesia.
Mahir aired concerned that the practice has become more rampant ― and sometimes, is even expected. Given the poor conditions in which some of his constituents live in, rival candidates often pander to voters by bringing in rice, or just cash, to campaign events.
“Money politics is a big issue,” he said. “Indigenous peoples are sometimes easy to influence with money and food. My job is to tell those people that that is not a good practice. I want to enlighten people as to why that’s bad practice… I want to spread clean politics in Indonesia.”
Nus's approach also employs this strategy. “In my campaign, I’ve been providing them [indigenous people] with political education, telling them of their political rights to vote leaders at both local and national levels. I don’t give things, I don’t give promises.”
Unity in diversity
Despite trying to unify the aims and desires of thousands of different indigenous groups into a single political agenda, AMAN and its candidates have expressed confidence in the outcome of April’s elections.
“We are quite optimistic this year. Before, we were always at the bottom, and the political parties were way up here,” Rukka said, placing her hand about a half-meter above a table. But now, she insisted, things are changing.
Mina added that recognition from within and even out outside of indigenous communities of the struggle for customary rights is increasing.
“The most interesting process is that there is a rising awareness among [AMAN] members that you have to change policies and local regulations from the inside,” she said. “Even in Jakarta, we are amazed by the level of interest.”
Even with instances of competing land claims and historical differences among some of their constituents, AMAN’s candidates have seen firsthand that more than anything, the indigenous peoples of Indonesia simply want to be heard.
“At this point, indigenous peoples here realized that they need a voice in the system,” Mahir said. “The most important thing is the political education of the people.”
— Erwida Maulia and Josua Gantan contributed to this report