Claiming Indigenous Community: Political Discourse and Natural Resource Rights in Indonesia

By Afiff, Suraya; Lowe, Celia | Alternatives: Global, Local, Political, January-March 2007 | Go to article overview

Claiming Indigenous Community: Political Discourse and Natural Resource Rights in Indonesia


Afiff, Suraya, Lowe, Celia, Alternatives: Global, Local, Political


In late Suharto-era Indonesia, "indigeneity" became a solution to the problem of political representation in popular natural-resource struggles. Using examples from Sumatra and Sulawesi, we examine how the concept of indigeneity was used as a means to strengthen community rights over and against state and corporate claims. In Sulawesi, scientists studied Togean Island peoples' "indigenous knowledge" as away to affirm residents' rights to inhabit a new national park. In Sumatra, Sosa people became "customary law" peoples (masyarakat adat) as a means to claim rights to oil-palm lands that had been taken over by state and private corporations. In each case, the formation of communities as customary or indigenous was a response to the possibilities and limitations of political discourse in Indonesia, rather than a natural outcome of a certain affiliation between communities and land, place, or tradition. The political nature of this solution becomes apparent in comparing this contemporary strategy with the way claims made during the early Sukarno years in newly independent Indonesia. In 1950s Indonesia, "class" was the rubric that united communities in land struggles. KEYWORDS: indigenous knowledge, customary law, class, Indonesia

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  I ask how we might conceive and chart power in terms other than logic,
  develop historical political consciousness in terms other than
  progress, articulate our political investments without notions of
  teleology and naturalized desire, and affirm political judgment in
  terms that depart from moralism and conviction.
  --Wendy Brown, Politics Out of History

When she was a girl growing up in Java, Laksmi, an Indonesian biologist, had read German novelist Karl May's fictional accounts of Native Americans of the western United States. Unlike the depictions of the valiant cowboy and treacherous Indian of US film and literature, May painted a picture of a noble Indian under siege by the savage cowboy. Laksmi sympathized with Winnetou, the Native American protagonist in May's books, and she began to compare him in her mind with Indonesia's many marginalized ethnic peoples. Her desire to equate a fictional representation of Native Americans with an equally imagined understanding of Indonesia's marginal groups was facilitated by the Indonesian state's own framing of permissible forms of ethnic difference of the "song and dance variety." (1) Many scholars of Indonesia have written about the state's instrumental use of "culture" and of its efforts to aestheticize and depoliticize ethnicity during Suharto's New Order period. (2) But unlike these official ways of framing acceptable cultural difference, Laksmi's imagination was also informed by a deep dislike of inequality.

In the minds of many Indonesians, the Native American and the Australian Aboriginal stand in for the "remote" and "backward" peoples of Indonesia, especially those agrarian and fishing peoples found outside of Java, Bali, and Sumatra. In Palu, the capital of Central Sulawesi, when one author presented her research proposal at the Department of Social and Political Affairs, she was told, "You have your Indians, and we have our Bajau." Yet, among some Indonesian scientists and activists, the Native American experience was also a guide to what should not happen in Indonesia. Many Indonesians with populist concerns were aware of how Native Americans had been expelled from park lands by the United States Army to create spaces of Arcadian wilderness, and they used this as evidence that Indonesia needed different solutions to the problem of nature conservation. Scientists like Laksmi were interested in how it might be politically feasible to fight for popular resource rights in the face of authoritarian state rule.

Claims to resource access and land tenure necessarily entail acts of political representation and the conceptual articulation of forms of community empowered to make claims. …

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