Abdon Nababan: Defender of Indonesia's indigenous peoples

JAKARTA, Indonesia — At first glance, Abdon Nababan looks like a regular man.

He is slim, and neither tall nor broad-shouldered. He wears a neatly-trimmed mustache and horn-rimmed glasses. There is nothing particularly remarkable about his appearance.

One would never guess that Nababan is someone who can sit at home listening to an old indigenous woman’s complaints one minute, and negotiating with the World Bank the next. Or someone who is just as comfortable helping villagers push a row boat into the ocean, as he is masterminding a strategy that transformed a small group of activists to a mass-based organization that now represents over 17 million members.

But a few words with him, and seeing him in his element, then it becomes clear this man is special.

Nababan is a long-time activist of the rights of Indonesia’s indigenous peoples and former head of the Indigenous People’s Alliance of the Archipelago (AMAN). He is also the recipient of this year’s Ramon Magsaysay Award – widely known as the Nobel Prize in Asia – for being "the single most important person in Indonesia's IP [Indigenous Peoples] movement."

When Rappler met him at AMAN's office in South Jakarta on Tuesday, August 15, he had just recently returned after spending 3 weeks in North Sumatera, where he met with various indigenous communities to ask for their blessing to run for governor in his home province.

It is predicted to be a tough race, with Indonesia's major political parties pulling out their big guns. But Nababan seemed untroubled. He said he was optimistic. "Very optimistic," he added for emphasis.

His colleagues seemed to share his optimism. During his 24 years fighting for indigenous peoples' rights, Nababan has cultivated what Mina Setra, AMAN's Deputy Head for Socio-Cultural Affairs, calls "an aura of influence." His confidence is infectious.

"He has this power to make his dreams into reality," added Setra. And his dreams have not changed much for nearly a quarter-century. 

Nature lover

Nababan's long advocacy of indigenous peoples started with his drive to protect the environment. He'd been a nature lover since childhood, though he says he didn't know it then.

"I was a village kid, so I enjoyed my village. I didn't like staying at home - I roamed around the fields, the lakes, I played with the water buffalos in the river."

When he went to university at the Bogor Agricultural Institute, he initially joined the Catholic students' organization but was soon bored by the indoors discussions and meetings. The nature club proved a better fit.

While still in university, Nababan became active in environmental causes and helped develop a training program for the Green Indonesia foundation, teaching high-school and university students about ecology and how to apply concepts they learn in school in the field.

By the time he graduated, Nababan was committed to environmental activism. For a couple of years, he worked short stints at seed and cattle companies across Java to gain experience and "to understand the issues."

He returned to Jakarta in 1989 and joined the Indonesian Forum for Environment or WALHI. It was there that he became aware about the issues faced by Indonesia's indigenous peoples.

At WALHI, Nababan ran a program to train activists to do 'forest investigations' - seeking out evidence of environmental damage caused by corporate wrongdoing. While monitoring these investigations, Nababan found that it wasn't just the environment that was being harmed.

"In the field, I saw that the problem of forest destruction did not just have an environmental aspect - it wasn't just about the flora and fauna. In some places, environmental and forest issues could not be separated from cultural issues," he said.

"I saw that our conservation and environmental paradigm was very Western, very liberal. I realized that if we treated our environmental issues as purely environmental, we wouldn't get anywhere."

He became one of the first activists to push for the integration of environmental and socio-cultural issues. WALHI did not share his views on the matter and in 1993, he left and started a new organization called the Sejati Foundation that focused on the plight of indigenous peoples.

One of them

CRUCIAL. The Ramon Magsasay Award Foundation calls Nababan u0022the single most important person in Indonesia's IP [Indigenous Peoples] movement.u0022 Photo by Karina Maharani/Rappler.

A defining moment in Nababan's activism happened in the early 90s when a PT Indorayon, a paper milling company, built a pulp mill in the small village of Porsea, North Sumatera, not too far from Nababan's own hometown of Siborong-borong.

"When they were resisting the seizure of their ceremonial lands, I realized, there's no difference between me and these people from Porsea," he said. "I thought, 'That means I'm an indigenous person too!'"

Nababan said he had been holding himself aloof from the people he was advocating for. "Before that, I was acting as if I was an angel. I was this educated, well-connected person who was going to save these people.

"The Indorayon case brought me to the realization that this is a personal issue - one that concerns me, my hometown, my clan, my ancestors. After that, I became more dedicated than ever."

"The Indirayon case is what destroyed the barrier between me and the indigenous peoples."

Strategic moves

One of the achievements mentioned in the Ramon Magsaysay Award citation, and one that Nababan considers among his most important, is moving AMAN from a purely adversarial relationship with the government to a more collaborative one.

"AMAN was very confrontational from its inception until 2007. In 2007, I decided on a different strategy – to have a dialogue with the government," he explained. "Of course, I didn't immediately go to the ministries that would be enemies. I started with the ministries and agencies that were relatively weaker, but had the same mission as AMAN."

Examples include the Human Rights Commission and the Ministry of Environment and Forestry, which, despite many policies that "did not make sense," in theory shared the same goals as AMAN.


"My strategy was to embrace these 'enemies' which I knew had a good chance of becoming our friends." Nababan sought to co-operate more with these 'friends' while maintaining AMAN's confrontational stance against elements of the government that were "enemies of indigenous peoples."

This strategy culminated in the 2014 Indonesian presidential elections. After many long discussions, AMAN endorsed then-candidate Joko 'Jokowi' Widodo. A commitment to the rights of indigenous peoples was included in Jokowi's "Nine Agenda Priorites" or Nawa Cita, including the passing of legislation protecting indigenous peoples' rights and the formation of a task force to study and propose policies for the advancement of indigenous peoples.

Jokowi won the election and AMAN's position and influence on government policy is stronger than ever.

But it hasn't all been smooth sailing.

Jokowi dissapointment

Nababan is frank about his disappointment with the Jokowi administration's failure to enact the promises enshrined in the Nawa Cita. "If we gave a score from 1 to 10, it would be 3 or 4," he said. "That's a failing grade. A very bad failing grade."

"The good thing about Jokowi is that he is always open to dialogue," he continued, smiling ruefully. "The bad thing about him is that he is always promising things in that dialogue. And those promises keep stacking up." 

This, Nababan says, endangers Jokowi's relationship with the indigenous peoples community. He is unsure whether AMAN will continue to endorse Jokowi in the next election in 2019.

"At the moment, people are inclined to vote for Jokowi because his potential opponent is scarier, not because they are particularly satisfied with him." If a stronger candidate were to appear, Nababan says, it's possible that AMAN would switch their support.

He ticks off the things that he says the administration has failed to deliver on.

"He promised 12.7 million hectares of forests would be set aside as ceremonial forests. Until now, it's not even 2 million hectares," he said. "The Indigenous Peoples' Bill, it's 2017 and there's no movement. The task force, until now, nothing."

This disappointment is part of the reason that he decided to accept AMAN's mandate to run for governor of North Sumatera.

Run for governor

AMAN had appointed him as their nominee back in May, and Nababan struggled with whether or not to accept the nomination for months. He finally made his decision just a few days before getting a call from the Ramon Magsaysay Award Foundation. 

The gubernatorial race, set for 2018, is an uphill battle - Nababan is a relative unknown and would be up against political elites like the head of Indonesia’s National Football Association and a former communications minister. The Magsaysay Award was just the break he needed.

“It was like divine intervention,” he said. "It gave me momentum and improved my visibility."

LEADER. Nababan headed AMAN for the maximum two terms and many asked for him to return for a third one. He is now running for governor of North Sumatera.

The reason that Nababan is "very optimistic" is that he sees a "crisis of leadership" in North Sumatera. Voter turnout in the last few local elections have been less than 50%. In the last mayoral election in Medan, the province's capital, it was less than 30%. He believes that he can get those votes. 

"North Sumatera is one of the dirtiest provinces in Indonesia, in terms of corruption, drugs, pollution, infrastructure. It has the most agrarian conflicts in the whole of Sumatera," he said. "If you compare the low voter turnout with the sad situation there, I think an independent candidate like me is very electable."

He acknowledged that, for the moment, he is still not popular in the province. "That's the challenge - how to become much more popular in a short period of time. The Magsaysay Award is a great help in that regard. It's a real blessing."

"The best leader I have ever met"

Setra, who like Nababan has been working at AMAN since it started in 1999, is effusive in her praise for him. "I have never met a leader like him in all my life," she said, laughing a little. "I know it sounds like I'm exaggerating, but it's true."

Setra was originally an activist at AMAN's West Kalimantan chapter. Nababan brought her to the headquarters in Jakarta in 2007, and she has worked closely with him ever since. 

"When I first came to Jakarta, I was overwhelmed with how fast-paced everything is, how quickly things change. But Bang Abdon has a lot of confidence in his staff, and will just throw people into the deep end," she said.

She told a story of how, just a few months after she came to Jakarta, Nababan asked her to replace him in a panel discussion about the mining industry.

She was panicked, because it wasn't her area of expertise, but he sent her some materials and assured her that she could do it. He didn't even want to check the presentation she prepared. "'No need, I trust you,'" she recalled him telling her. 

That's the kind of leader he is, she said, one that has full faith in the capabilities of the people he's leading. That, and his confidence that anything is possible, she added, "that's why I'm very positive about [his run for] governor." —Rappler.com