Indigenous rights activist wins Magsaysay award

The Jakarta Post
28 July 2017

Abdon Nababan Courtesy Aliansi Masyarakat Adat Nusantara (Aman)

It never occurred to Abdon Nababan that his persistence in fighting for indigenous rights and campaigning for the environment in the past two decades would result in his being honored with the prestigious Ramon Magsaysay Award.

Abdon, one of the country’s most prominent environmental activists, is among this year’s six recipients of the award, which honors leadership in solving society’s most intractable problems and is regarded as Asia’s Nobel Prize.

“This is a pleasant surprise because this award is not only for myself, but is also dedicated to the thousands of people who have fought with me in the last 24 years in the indigenous people’s rights movement in Indonesia,” Abdon said in a statement received by The Jakarta Post on Thursday.

“The thousands of [indigenous] people who [have] suffered poverty, marginalization, being viewed as rebels, anti-government, antidevelopment and in some regions [even] seen as separatists, are the recipients of the Magsaysay Award,” the 53-year-old added.

Abdon Nababan with President Jokowi on june 25 June,2015

Abdon began his environmental work in 1989 when he joined the Indonesian Forum for the Environment (Walhi), two years after graduating from Bogor Institute of Agriculture (IPB).

After the fall of the authoritarian Soeharto regime in 1999, Abdon, along with several others, organized a congress that formed the Indigenous People’s Alliance of the Archipelago (AMAN), an organization that has about 115 local offices across the country advocating indigenous rights, and which he led for 10 years before he left office in March.

One of his greatest achievements was when he led an AMAN team that won a judicial review case at the Constitutional Court in 2013, which granted indigenous people the right over customary forests and stipulated that customary forests no longer belonged to the state.

For the first time in the country, following the ruling, the central government recognized the rights of nine indigenous communities to over 13,000 hectares of customary forests in December last year, a small part of the 8 million hectares of customary forest that have already been mapped by AMAN.

“I am only a representative or symbol of [indigenous people’s] suffering and struggle. I hope they can also see that this award is to appreciate and give them an honorable place in front of the world’s eyes as defenders of indigenous people’s rights,” said Abdon, who was born in North Sumatra.

In its announcement on Thursday, the Ramon Magsaysay Award board recognized Abdon, for “his principled, relentless, yet pragmatic leadership of the world’s largest indigenous people’s rights movement.”

The board found the six award recipients coming from various Asian countries had helped to transform their societies through their commitment to the larger good, with Ramon Magsaysay Foundation chairman Carmencita Abella saying that “all have refused to give up, despite meager resources, daunting adversity and strong opposition”.

“Their approaches are all deeply anchored in a respect for human dignity, and a faith in the power of collective endeavor,” Abella said in a statement.

Rukka Sombolinggi, Abdon’s successor at AMAN, said Abdon deserved the award for his bravery in advocating and voicing the aspirations of Indonesia’s indigenous communities.

“He has proved his leadership quality in AMAN. I could tell that it was not easy for him to experience the transition from confrontation to an engagement strategy when he took over a big organization like AMAN, but in fact he was able to do it,” Rukka said.

Under Abdon’s leadership AMAN was also able to push for the customary land map to be recorded as a thematic map with the Geospatial Information Agency and for a national inquiry into the violation of indigenous people’s rights in customary forests, conducted by the National Commission on Human Rights (Komnas HAM).

The group was also active in campaigning for a bill that is expected to recognize and protect the rights of indigenous people, which has been listed in this year’s national legislation program at the House of Representatives.


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