Tongam Panggabean

Role: Director at Bakumsu
Active in Country: Indonesia
DTP Alumnus: 23rd Annual Human Rights and People's Diplomacy Program in Timor-Leste, 2013

I'm working now as director for the legal and human rights organization Bakumsu, which has been advocating for human rights for 20 years. We work on structural human rights issues – right now we are particularly focusing on the Indigenous right to land. I started there as a community organiser, doing grassroots work, helping victims organise and living with them.

There is a structural problem because at the national level, Indonesia doesn’t have any regulations protecting Indigenous people. Even though our constitution includes rights of Indigenous people, at regulatory and legislative level those rights do not appear.

Then at ground level we are also facing a problem that Indigenous people don’t hold any land title. They are living in area of forests, designated by the government as state forest. When Indigenous people try to exercise their rights, they face conflict because there is no clear regulation at regional or local level for them.

There are also issues of business and human rights, which is a subject I studied as part of my Masters degree in the Friedrich Alexander University (FAU), Germany. The problem is the combination of state and company conflicting with Indigenous people. The company craves the land; the state then gives land concessions to the company, giving them legal standing to conduct activity on the land. Actually, it is grabbing of Indigenous people’s land.

One of the most current developments we are facing right now is a zinc mining company in North Sumatra called PT Dairi Prima Minerals. A Chinese company owns about 51% of the shares; the rest are owned by an Indonesian company. We are advocating about it to the central government because it's not only impacting Indigenous peoples’ rights and local community rights, but also the environment because of its underground mining methods in disaster-prone areas.

We are trying to increase support from others, from NGOs, not only at local level but also at international level. To pressure the Chinese government and also to pressure other companies – like banks – that are supporting the mine. This is only one of many companies we are focused on. North Sumatra is a centre for land-grabbing. Typically, in the mountains, it’s mining, while in the valleys it’s palm oil plantations.

It is very tricky to engage with government in Indonesia. I can say that because at a procedural level they are welcoming to us, always welcoming. Indonesia is, by image, a democratic country. Everything seems transparent and participative, but the level of execution of policy for Indigenous people or other human rights issues, it's very slow.

However, we have had success from our collaborations with local NGOs and local government. We focus on domestic regulation because it gives us a little bit of a chance for advocacy. Since 2009, because Bakumsu has a speciality in legal matters, we have been drafting local regulation on the protection and rights of Indigenous people. We have been doing diplomacy, negotiating with the local government and parliament. The local government discussed it and then appointed some academics to discuss the draft. Finally, in 2018, they approved the regulation, and it has become law in the district, granting 5.172 hectares of forest area to the Indigenous people who had been fighting for this since 2009. We have now helped establish at least two local regulations operating at district level.

I did the DTP training in Dili in 2013.  I think it is one of the most meaningful experiences I have ever had in my life. It was the first time for me to meet with other activists, human rights activists from other parts of Asia and the Pacific. I’m still in contact with those people; sometimes we share information and that sort of thing.

An especially useful aspect of the course was diplomacy. Learning how to promote human rights was very important for me; I was already engaged with rights, but I needed to upgrade my knowledge, my skill to promote it to relevant stakeholders, such as government at local, national and international level. How to frame human rights issues to be acceptable or convincing for stakeholders. This was the most important aspect I got from the DTP program.


Profile written May 2021