Indonesia’s indigenous peoples

Last of their kind

A forest community on Halmahera Island, North Maluku, is facing displacement by land-hungry businesses, threatening doomsday for a timeless hunter-gatherer lifestyle

WHY WE WROTE THIS: Because unique ways of living should not be threatened by economic development.

Andre Barahamin
November 14, 2019
Last of their kind
Relatives of the Akejira Tobelo Dalam visited their fellows who still live within the forest. Photo: Andre Barahamin

During September, as cities across Indonesia reeled from huge protests against new criminal code restrictions and the curtailing of Indonesia’s anti-corruption commission, the central part of Halmahera, an island in North Maluka in Indonesia’s far east, saw the various Tobelo Dalam peoples engaged in a largely-unknown but arguably more profound struggle: How to survive the onslaught of nickel mining companies encroaching on their lands. 

Even as the wave of urban student protests crested and ebbed away, the Tobelo Dalam’s struggle roared on, emblematic of Indonesia’s long-running dilemma about how to reconcile harnessing its natural resources with the rights of peoples who have long claimed customary domain in lands coveted by big businesses.

Protesters (R) confront police (L) outside the local parliament building in Surabaya on September 26, 2019, during a rally against the government's proposed change in its criminal code laws and plans to weaken the anti-corruption commission.
Protesters confront police outside the local parliament building in Surabaya on September 26 2019. Photo: AFP/Juni Kriswanto

The lifestyle of the Tobelo Dalam, a grouping of 21 peoples who depend entirely on forest resources, is considered a log on the railroad for Indonesia’s fast-moving development train. Leaning completely on nature is seen as backward and synonymous with anti-development, leaving many of the Tobelo Dalam groups facing expulsion from forests that have been theirs for generations, where they have lived by mirroring the migration patterns of animals and the growing seasons of the forest fruits. But paved roads and the exploitation of the country’s plenteous natural resources are deemed more important than the long-held lore of forest ancestors.

The Tobelo Dalam are among the last sets of hunter-gatherer communities in the Halmahera wilderness. They established a pattern where smaller groups live separately in certain areas in the forest. The culture is to respect these natural boundaries, usually rivers and mountains, meaning no hunting or gathering plants in the territory of other groups. Breaking these unwritten rules can lead to violators being killed.

According to Burung Indonesia, an Indonesian wildlife conservation non-profit organisation, there are around 21 Tobelo Dalam groups inhabiting the Halmahera forest. For decades, many of them have been the target of Christian and Muslim proselytisers, as well the government’s efforts to put an end to their hunting and gathering and force them to live more conventional settled lifestyles.

Christianisation began in 1982 when a mostly Western team from the New Tribes Mission, a group of evangelical Protestants, landed near the mouth of the Lili River in the hopes of converting the Tobelo Dalam. Four families – from the United States, Australia, New Zealand – and Indonesia – spent five years learning the local Lili dialect so they could preach to the peoples near the river. 

The O Hongana Manyawa is one of the five last remaining nomadic groups  in Indonesia and is categorised as endangered.

During those five years, they were also involved in various projects, which could be considered as forms of “community development” – including teaching Indonesian and implementing literacy programmes. The missionaries gave coconut seeds to some of the Tobelo Dalam – perhaps an attempt to persuade the recipients to abandon hunting in favour of agriculture. 

The Christianisation was seen as a success, to the point of replication of this model – with its modifications – by Islamic groups said to be connected to boarding schools on Indonesia’s most populous island of Java.

Indonesian workers stand outside a gold mine in West Java in November 2013. Photo: EPA/Bagus Indahono
Indonesian workers stand outside a gold mine in West Java in November 2013. Photo: EPA/Bagus Indahono

The biggest cultural challenge faced by the many of the Tobelo Dalam peoples was resettlement – the construction of villages that came with the arrival of the Barito Pacific timber company in 1989. The projects were aimed at groups living within or around logging concessions and were part of the government’s arrangements with the company allowing the logging to take place.

This led to the building of a settlement of 60 houses, three wells, a school, a church, an athletics field and other facilities. Barito Pacific also assisted the village in various development efforts – such as providing tree seeds and other seeds for gardens.

The name Tobelo Dalam entails an anthropological dilemma caused by half-hearted attempt to distinguish the forest peoples from coastal settler groups who also call themselves Tobelo. So the Tobelo Dalam call themselves O Hongana Manyawa, which means “forest people”.

According to the Indigenous Peoples Alliance of the Archipelago (AMAN), the main representative organisation for Indonesia’s indigenous peoples, the O Hongana Manyawa is one of the five last remaining nomadic groups in Indonesia and is categorised as endangered.

Representatives of some of Indonesia's indigenous groups at a 2017 AMAN meeting held outside Medan in the north of Sumatra, Indonesia. Photo: Simon Roughneen
Representatives of some of Indonesia’s indigenous groups at a 2017 AMAN meeting held outside Medan in the north of Sumatra, Indonesia. Photo: Simon Roughneen

However, the name “Tobelo Dalam” is still considered preferable to the titles seen in much of the historical literature, from government documents to anthropology, which usually refer to O Hongana Manyawa as the Tugutil.

The government has used  “Tugutil” to denote any “isolated tribe” or remote traditional community on Halmahera Island. As a result, Modole speakers of the Modele language in Kao district in the north of Halmahera, several Weda-speaking groups in Central Halmahera, and Tobelo-speaking forest dwellers in various locations, are all classified under this name. 

This confusion became even more apparent when government documents arbitrarily carried classifications such as Tugutil Lino, Tugutil Modelo, Tugutil Sheep – without identifying differences between the groups other than geographic.

The use of Tugutil is considered derogatory, based on a discriminatory view that indigenous communities are barbarian, uncivilised and uncultured. Using Tugutil as a name to identify Tobelo Dalam is a form of colonialism, a racism that implicitly dismisses the uniqueness of a cultural system.

Such discrimination means the level of trust among the Tobelo Dalam for outsiders is very low. This can be seen in how they communicate with outsiders, with the exchanges often tinged with suspicion. The Tobelo Dalam community in the Akejira area would not answer questions from outsiders they had just met, a protective attitude derived from the trauma of past experiences.

Most Tobelo Dalam are unfamiliar with agriculture, such as growing cassava, pineapple, sugar cane or rice – they usually eat sago and forest tubers, as well as hunting and fishing. Crops such as bananas, cassava, pineapple, and sugar cane are usually taken from the gardens of villagers who have they have a good relationship with.

Displacing the Tobelo Dalam

The O Hongana Manyawa collective in Akejira is one of 21 groups of Tobelo Dalam peoples who live around the headwaters of the Akejira river. Their interactions with outside communities started when mining companies explored the Akejira forest.

Tupa, the elder, and leader of the Akejira group. Photo: Andre Barahamin
Indonesian students hold pictures of sick children during a protest in Jakarta against pollution allegedly caused by a mine in North Sulawesi. Photo: EPA/Mast Irham
Indonesian students hold pictures of sick children during a protest in Jakarta against pollution allegedly caused by a mine in North Sulawesi. Photo: EPA/Mast Irham

Their nomadic lifestyles, now, however, are in danger of being destroyed by a coalition of mining companies – namely PT. Indonesia Weda Bay Industrial Park (IWIP), PT. Weda Bay Nickel (WBN) and PT. Tekindo Energy, which are eyeing the Akejira forest as a source of profits. 

The peoples of the Akejira forest, the ancestral domain for many O Hongana Manyawa, remain threatened with eviction, because of the apparent wealth of nickel underground. The companies involved did not adhere to the principle of Free, Prior and Informed Consent – which the UN describes as “a specific right that pertains to indigenous peoples and is recognised in the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples”- and started building roads to support their mining.

Although the Tobelo Dalam of Akejira rejected the mining work, the companies are building roads through the forest to make the mining areas accessible. With the support of the police, resistance and protests can easily be suppressed by companies – such as the disbanding of a street blockade mounted by some Tobelo Dalam in Akejira.

Efforts to expel the Tobelo Dalam from Akejira constitute violations of human rights under international frameworks such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. The expulsions also go against Article 18b of  Indonesia’s 1945 Constitution, which “recognises and respects traditional communities along with their traditional customary rights as long as these remain in existence and are in accordance with the societal development and the principles of the Unitary State of the Republic of Indonesia and shall be regulated by law”. 

More recently, a Constitutional Court ruling in response to a petition filed by AMAN in 2012 gave indigenous peoples the right to manage the forests in which they live and blocked the government from selling such lands to businesses.

The treatment of the O Hongana Manyawa in Akejira is no less than an act of destruction through eviction, relocation, and the effective prohibition of an ancient way of life.

n a photo shortlisted for the prestigious Sony World Photography Awards 2017, Indonesian photographer Sugiarto Sugiarto captures members of the Mentawai Tribe in Sumatra Barat Indonesia. These indigenous people still adhere to the customs and culture of their ancestors
In a photo shortlisted for the prestigious Sony World Photography Awards 2017, Indonesian photographer Sugiarto Sugiarto captures members of the Mentawai Tribe in Sumatra Barat Indonesia. These indigenous people still adhere to the customs and culture of their ancestors.

Andre Barahamin is freelance researcher-journalist and columnist with interests in indigenous peoples and environment in Indonesia.





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