Indigenous communities in Indonesia integrate community-led development with customary practices

by Anggita Indari

Lenny Patty is the chairperson of the Indigenous Peoples Alliance of the Archipelago (AMAN) Maluku and one of the Global Advocacy Team (GAT) Members.

*This article is also available in Bahasa Indonesia.

It takes a 30-minute boat ride from Ambon, the capital of Maluku Province, Indonesia, to reach Haruku Island. Upon arriving at the dock of Haruku, local people can easily be discovered selling sea catches and vegetables or fruits at the curbs. This is not surprising given the fact that this island is surrounded by water and has a dense forest ecosystem.

The area of Haruku Island is administratively known as Haruku District in Maluku Tengah Regency in Maluku Province, Indonesia. This is where Lenny conducted the community-led research activity with the Haruku indigenous community as part of the Global Advocacy Team (GAT) — a collective initiative convened by the International Accountability Project (IAP). The GAT initiative enables 8 activists and community organizers from around the world to learn and implement community-led development. Besides Indonesia, other GAT members come from Armenia, Haiti, India, Kenya, Paraguay, the Philippines, and Zimbabwe.

Lenny is the current chairperson of the Aliansi Masyarakat Adat Nusantara or AMAN (Indigenous Peoples Alliance of the Archipelago) in the Maluku Region. She was first elected to lead the alliance in 2015 and was re-elected for the second term as the chairperson in 2020. AMAN is an independent organization that focuses on advocating the rights of indigenous peoples in Indonesia. Through 8 years of involvement in AMAN, she has witnessed the significant role of local wisdom and customary law that has been implemented from generation to generation in Haruku Island. The Haruku indigenous community still upholds local knowledge to protect and utilize their ancestral territories in a sustainable manner.

Local wisdom protects Haruku Island

“Haruku is the living example to other villages in Maluku because the communities still devotedly practice customary law and local wisdom to regulate natural resources management and development in their ancestral land,” said Lenny.

The customary institution called Saniri Negeri has been existing on Haruku Island since the 17th century. Raja Negeri Haruku (translated: King of Negeri Haruku) holds the highest authority in the community, followed by the local ranger popularly known as Kewang. Long before the community talked about sustainable development and conservation, Kewang has been far ahead in implementing customary rules called Sasi.

Kewang is in charge of defending the sea and forest ecosystem sustainably. Sasi, is the customary rule that Kewang uses to protect the natural resources in ocean, land, and freshwater,” Lenny explained.

Sasi is a set of rules that bans natural exploitation. Through Sasi, community members in Haruku Island are prohibited from taking or using natural products from particular areas within a certain period. They usually open the area within the agreed time to harvest the natural products. The aim is to let nature recover after being utilized by humans. If it is violated, the involved community members will have to be on customary trial and be subject to agreed penalties.

People gathered during the ceremony of opening Sasi. Haruku women were seen harvesting lompa fish (Thryssa baelama spp).

Lenny explained that Kewang did not face many obstacles in implementing Sasi, “there’s no obstacle, like banning of customary rules like Sasi since it’s been existing for centuries and upheld to date.”

While there is no regulation that recognizes Sasi in Indonesia, the local government has shown support for the tradition, mostly for tourism purposes. Usually, the Haruku community celebrates the opening of Sasi with festive ceremonies. Lenny explained that the ceremony of opening Sasi is the most unique part of Sasi, which has attracted many tourists to come to Haruku Island for decades. This once caused tension between the Haruku community and the government because of the government’s decision to take over the ceremony of opening Sasi. “Between 2015 and 2016, the government once selected the date to open Sasi without even informing Kewang. Of course, their Sasi ceremony failed as it was against our customary law. The government has never been involved in the Sasi ceremony since then. They are now giving support by attending the Sasi ceremony and encouraging other communities in Maluku to implement Sasi intensively.”

Besides implementing Sasi, Kewang also has the authority to issue a permit for any construction project in Haruku Islands, especially if it uses the natural resources in the area. This rule applies even to private property owned by the villagers.

The local wisdom and customary law play a central role in Haruku. Lenny explained that gold potential in Haruku Islands once attracted mining investors and companies, but the communities upheld strong values against extractive and destructive mining. “In 1996, mining companies, particularly gold mining, desired the gold beneath our ancestral land that we occupied and used. We said no to that. We were definitely against that. Then, they gave up on exploring the islands.”

The view of Haruku coastal area following the tidal flood in July 2022.

Threats from Climate Change

Haruku is one of the smaller islands in Maluku Province. With an area of 57.92 square miles, the island is very prone to be impacted by climate change. Lenny said that the sea level rises around Haruku Island has been quite rapid in the past decade. Some coastal areas are now more vulnerable to tidal floods when high tides are happening.

The worst tidal food followed by erosion happened in July 2022. The disaster happened when Lenny and her team were about to begin the GAT community-led research to find out how much climate change impacts the community and figure out community-led solutions to overcome the challenges. At least 200 houses were impacted in which 50 of them were heavily damaged, a bridge collapsed, hampered the land transportation access in Haruku Island, and the seawall built across the coastline was severely destroyed. As a result, 750 community members had to be temporarily displaced. Until now, those who lost their homes have had to live with their relatives whose houses are a bit far from where they earn their livelihood.

In addition, the challenge comes from the weather which has become a bit difficult to predict, especially for the majority of community members who earn their livelihood by fishing. “High tide season or we call it east season usually happens between May to August, but now it can occur until October,” Leny added.

During the community-led research, the community members expressed their worries about climate change impacts on their land. Lenny explained the increasingly extreme weather puts fishermen’s lives at risk, let alone makes their fish catches decline. “Climate change impacts make fishing a difficult job, because of the extreme weather that puts fishermen at risk of being carried away by the current.”

Haruku women who participated in the community-led research process had a focus group discussion in the village hall.

Global Advocacy Team (GAT) is a breath of fresh air

The Haruku community hopes for more climate mitigation activities carried out by the local government. So far, the local government has had a quick emergency response related to disaster relief. However, the government’s initiatives haven’t yet involved much in establishing inclusive and community-led development following the context of Haruku as a small island vulnerable to climate change. “We worry much about the development in Haruku Island that is still not inclusive, that’s why all the effort ends up being in vain. We have different needs from the mainlanders,” explained Lenny.

Like a breath of fresh air, GAT is a turning point for Lenny and the Haruku indigenous community to start planning the development they need. Lenny, as one of the GAT members, invited them to utilize community-led development as tools for their planning. The fear of more natural disasters happening in Haruku Island encouraged them to be involved. “They used not to pay attention to this kind of activity (referring to community activism), but after getting community assistance by AMAN and experiencing the worst impact of natural disasters such as earthquakes or floods, they want to be more involved to figure out how they can participate at least reduce the impact of those disasters in the future,” said Lenny.

During the community-led research process, Lenny used IAP’s community-led research training materials and hosted focus group discussions. From the result, she reflected that each community member now has a different view on development. Some groups believe that development is only a matter of decreasing infrastructure disparity. On the other hand, some view this problem from a broader perspective, that the government should open opportunities for involvement and access to information about development to the broader community. It is important to make sure that the efforts made will be right on target and in line with the needs of the coastal and small island communities in Haruku.

The community-led research also enabled Lenny and her team to capture the community’s concern about mangrove conservation. During the interview, most community members expressed the need for the local government to start doing mangrove conservation instead of constructing a breakwater to address climate change impacts like tidal waves, storm surges, and currents. They feel like it is only a temporary solution.

“They felt the technology wasn’t suitable,” explained Lenny. “The breakwater gets damaged easily and requires annual repairs. The community prefers to plant mangroves for long-term protection, but they were never consulted before the construction of the breakwater began.”

Lenny hopes that the result of this research will be a powerful tool for community members in Haruku Island to plan their development. She believes that a strong development plan along with the strengthening of customary law like Sasi will help them defend their ancestral land.

“During the research process, we gained a lot of insights from the community members including women, youth, and people with disabilities who might not have an opportunity to be involved in public meetings. And they were free to express their concerns and ideas anonymously. We want them to know that their worries and needs can be realized by having a community-led development plan.”

This article is a part of a series that features stories from the 8 community organizers from 8 countries who are part of IAP’s Global Advocacy Team. The Global Advocacy Team initiative brings together incredible community organizers from around the world to conduct community-led research and mobilize their communities to change how development is designed, funded, and implemented. Learn more about the Global Advocacy Team focused on community-led development planning.

IAP’s training materials on community-led research are available in 13 languages, including Bahasa Indonesia.

Anggita Indari works on Communications for the International Accountability Project and is an Atlas Corp Fellow.

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International Accountability Project (IAP)

IAP is a human and environmental rights organization that works with communities, civil society and social movements to change how today’s development is done.