Posted by: maximos62 | March 1, 2018

Encountering the #Indigenous people of #Riau proved cause for wider reflection

My interest in the rights of Indigenous people dates back many years. As an Australian, of European descent, I acknowledge the prior ownership and customary land rights of Australia’s Indigenous nations. This is an interest that I’ve revealed elsewhere on this blog and one that was well expressed by our former Prime Minister, Paul Keating.

I’ve included this as a reflection on the Australian context, part of the wider reflection that writing this post has prompted.  If your interest is principally Riau, read on and watch this later.

European Parliament Resolution

On 9 March 2017, the European Union passed a motion on palm oil and deforestation of rainforests.

The motion, “Calls on the Commission to adopt binding regulations on agricultural commodity importers’ supply chains, in order to ensure a fully sustainable palm oil supply chain by 2020”, citing many areas of concern rendering palm oil without RSPO certification unsustainable. It notes that:

  • the deforestation of rainforests is destroying the natural habitats of more than half of the world’s animal species and more than two-thirds of its plant species and endangering their survival;
  • multiple investigations reveal widespread abuses of basic human rights during the establishment and operation of palm oil plantations in many countries, including forced evictions, armed violence, child labour, debt bondage or discrimination against indigenous communities;
  • a substantial part of global palm oil production is in breach of fundamental human rights and adequate social standards,
  • child labour is frequently being exploited, and
  • there are many land conflicts between local and indigenous communities and palm oil concession holders;

What stood out for me was “forced evictions, armed violence, child labour, debt bondage or discrimination against indigenous communities” and “conflicts between local and indigenous communities and palm oil concession holders”. It stood out because I knew so little about the specifics. Apart from the Dayak peoples and the forest dwellers of the Mentawai Islands, I hadn’t realised that there were many indigenous people in Sumatra. It’s ironic because from where I live, Sumatra is clearly visible.

Investigation the status of Indigenous people

When I began investigating this subject I soon discovered that, like Australia where many Indigenous people were labelled with the one label Aboriginal, in Riau the generic term was Siak. Writing in the Jurnal Antropologi: Isu-Isu Sosial Budaya in Desember 2017, Takamasa Osawa observes that “The eastern coasts of Sumatra, Indonesia, are low and marshy lands, which are divided by numerous brackish rivers, and covered by vast mangrove forests. This region was a largely unpopulated area where some orang asli (‘indigenous’) groups and a few Malay people lived before the colonial era.”[1]

Figure 1: Sumatran peatlands

While there is some nipa palm swamp and mangrove on the margins, most of these low and marshy lands are swampy peatlands that originally supported closed canopy rainforests. They also stabilised the Pleistocene coastline of East Sumatra.

Osawa continues observing that “The Suku Asli are Austronesian speakers living on the coasts of eastern Sumatra in Riau province, who were recorded as the Utan (Orang Utan; forest people) in past records.

As this name implies, they were semi-nomadic (coastal) forest dwellers who engaged in hunting, gathering and fishing in the forest, distant from the political centre of the state. Before the nineteenth century, this region was characterised by low population density, such that the Suku Asli moved freely from place to place in this low and marshy region using canoes, and lived on the banks along channels and brackish rivers that run complexly between and within the islands. Therefore, their settlements have been scattered over the islands and coasts of a vast area around the estuary of the Siak and Kampar Rivers until the present.”[2]

Encountering Riau’s Orang Asli

On my first visit to Sungai Tohor, on Tebing Tinggi island in the Meranti group. I remember my friend Yi Han explaining the dangers of fire on peatlands. We stood along a rough track cut through land that had been burned two years before by a palm oil company.

Suddenly the sound of a motorbike reminded us we were on what passed as a local road. Moments later our small group was forced to part, opening the way as a solitary man on a step-through Honda moved between us. I wrote about this earlier. It was a common event in many parts of Indonesia, but the man rode with a small sway-back pig trussed and draped in front of him.

“Strange that he’s carrying a pig. Isn’t everyone here Muslim,” I asked the young man standing beside me.

“He’s from the forest.  His people don’t have a religion,” he replied.

“None, at all?”

“No, they believe in forest spirits.”

“Where is he going?”

“Into the forest. His people live there.”

This simple encounter prompted my interest.

When I began discussing this with my friend Prayoto he was quick to supply me with leads.  Soon I had some key documents on the history and culture of Riau’s Indigenous people.  Since he is cartographically skilled he produced the map in Figure 1. showing the distribution of Riau’s Indigenous groups.

Our encounter with the man on the step-through Honda was in the yellow shaded area.

These classifications are based on generalised Ethnonyms applied to the respective Indigenous groups, first by the Dutch and then assumed by the Republic of Indonesia (RI). They are not the terms used by the people themselves. The process and the misnomers that arise are similar to what has taken place in Australia.  Generally speaking, the names assumed by the people themselves related to the specific biogeographic niches they occupied.  In the riparian systems so dominant in Riau, these names often reflected the particular part of the system they inhabited.

Figure 3: Peatland during the wet season along the Siak Kecil river. The Indigenous people of this system were called Siak by outsiders. (1°.08749, 101°.66885)

The Dutch and then the RI used the simple names as a way of distinguishing between the Indigenous peoples and Malay settlers.

The myth of emptiness

Understanding Indonesia as a country with a densely settled core, Java, Madura and perhaps Bali, and empty spaces beyond that were ripe for resettlement, was an idea that took hold during the period of Dutch colonialism.  While some socialists in Holland advocated a future for Indonesia based on an industrialising centre, a view also adopted by the first Vice President Hatta, what prevailed was an approach to development based on resettlement of these ’empty spaces’. This doctrine of empty spaces was akin to the principle of Terra Nulius adopted by Australia’s European colonisers. Both concepts are based on myths and a failure to recognise prior customary rights to land. A map of Indigenous groups in Australia provides a clear sense of the pre-colonial diversity.

Transmigrasi (Transmigration)

From the end of the 19th century, the Dutch began to implement what was called the ‘Ethical Policy’. It rested on the ideas of ‘irrigation, emigration and education’. Rather than attempting to promote population controls in Java, they saw value in promoting emigration to the ’empty’ periphery.  This also sat conveniently with the chance to exploit the resources of the outer islands.

After Indonesian independence, the doctrine developed as the policy of  Transmigrasi (Transmigration).  Now families were relocated from the ‘overpopulated’ core and sent to the ’empty’ margins on a much larger scale. The approach received an added stimulus with the increased military power following the 1965 coup, which caused great disruption, Irian Jaya now West Papua being a particularly prominent example.

Transmigration is discussed in detail in by Riwanto Tirtosudarmo in his PhD thesis Transmigration and its centre-regional context; the case of Riau and South Kalimantan Provinces, Indonesia (See Google search). He quotes from, Tjondronegoro, S. M. P. 1972 ‘Land Reform or Land Settlement: Shifts in Indonesia’s Land Policy, 1960-1970‘, Land Tenure Centre Paper, No. 81, Madison, University of Wisconsin.

Figure 4: Population distribution by province: Indonesia 2014. Ministry of Internal Affairs

Relocating transmigrants

Commenting on the period 1965 to 1985  Mariel Otten wrote: “Initially, in order to avoid the more populated regions, transmigrant families were predominantly relocated in cleared forest areas. Indonesia has about 140 million has. of tropical forests, constituting 60 % of the total land area. In 1979, however, the clearance of these forests for transmigration purposes was banned by General Suharto who immediately cancelled six proposed projects. At the time, clearing of rainforests was considered to be ecologically unwise and attention shifted to swamp reclamation in the coastal regions of southern Kalimantan and eastern Sumatra and to non-irrigated rainfed land in other provinces of Sumatra, Kalimantan and Sulawesi.” [3]

Subsequently, there was an idea that Indonesia’s swamplands could be developed with resettlement.

I’ve covered much of this in my blog post Competition for land in Riau Province: Pressure from Oil Pal and Wood Pulp Corporations. In that post, I traced the focus brought to bear on swampland, principally peatlands.

The World Bank’s Role

Otten observes that in 1987 the World Bank claimed “A recent survey indicates that Indonesia has some 40 million hectares of coastal lowland or tidal swamps of which some 3.3 million hectares are already occupied. More significantly it is estimated that a further 5.6 million hectares are suitable for agricultural development. This is larger than the total irrigated rice area in Indonesia today. Furthermore, this area has a greater agricultural potential per hectare than most of the remaining upland rain fed areas. If managed properly, lowland swamps can support a wide variety of food and non-food crops and yield a higher income per hectare than can normally be expected under upland food crop conditions. There are substantial technical, managerial and institutional problems to be overcome in tapping this potential, such as defining suitable land and water management practices for peat areas and areas with adverse soil conditions caused by oxidation of acid sulphate soils, applying of appropriate drainage criteria in the light of more diversified agriculture, and ensuring integrated single.”  Such land stretches from West Papua to Aceh.[4]

While the World Bank made this claim it does not seem to have valued or understood the complexity, diversity and interdependence supported by peatland ecosystems, much less their role as carbon sinks and stabilisers of coastlines. This was despite the already published claims by experts such as Tjondronegoro, already claiming that “swamp reclamation will, in the end, be more expensive than settlement on other sites, because of declining soil fertility.”[6]

the World Bank inspired settlements went ahead on the basis that there was a future for swamp reclamation and settlement on tidal areas.

The role of the Five Year Plans (Repelita)

In Repelita IV, Indonesia’s fourth five-year plan (1984/85 – 1988/89), despite projected shortages of trained ‘manpower’ within plantation agriculture priority was given to rubber, oil palm and coconut planting. The Government aimed to plant about 1.4 million ha of these crops on public estates and smallholder schemes, a 150% increase. Tree crop programs were seen to offer substantial benefits offer substantial benefits as export earners, sources of employment and regional development, and therefore deserve priority in the allocation of investible resources. The government envisaged that in the case of oil palms development should be concentrated on new block-planting in areas where new Settlement is warranted. In the plan, new irrigation development on the Outer Islands, including swamp reclamation for transmigration sites were emphasised.

Transmigration continued in subsequent five-year plans. It brought new settlers that were culturally different to the existing Indigenous communities.  When it was associated with new plantation industries this encroached onto the land of Indigenous communities.  Other issues arose over access to resources when Transmigrants had access to health and education while the traditional landholders didn’t.

Riau’s settlement

Most transmigration in Sumatera was focused on Lampung and although Transmigration settlements were established in Ria, there was also significant spontaneous migration, particularly Christian Batak, with the completion of the Trans Sumatra Highway.

In a previous post on Riau, I offered some background on the Indigenous people (Orang Asli) of Riau. Orang Asli were closely connected with the Rokan, Siak, Kampar, and Indragiri rivers and their tributaries. The pressure of settlement and competition for land, driven both by formal and informal population movements, has had adverse consequences on the health of the biophysical environment and for the survival of Riau’s remaining Indigenous people.

While people of the Siak river system were referred to as Orang Sakai, they preferred the term Orang Batin, meaning the followers of batin or the Pebatin system (see below).

Sakai, Batin or Orang Asli settlement

Prayoto offered this insight: The Orang Sakai are a Malay-dialect-speaking forest-dwelling people. They traditionally practise shifting cultivation of cassava as well as trapping, hunting, and gathering food from the forest and nearby rivers. Many Sakai families today cultivate dry rice. They also collected, and still collect, forest products. Although today most Sakai are Muslim, they are recent converts to the faith. Their Sakai forebears were non-Muslim people living on the margins of the Siak kingdom (Kerajaan Siak). Then as now, they lived in the upstream Mandau (Sungai Mandau Hulu), and its branching minor rivers (Sungai Samsam, Sungai Beringin). The Mandau River is a tributary of the Siak River, which flows by the town of Siak Sri Indrapura, the old kingdom’s political centre, connecting the hinterland with the Melaka Straits

Prior to the establishment of the Dutch East Indes, the Malay Siak Sultanate administered the region.

Pebatin was an ancient pre-Islamic Malay system of administration, imposed by the Siak Sultanate that ruled modern-day Riau from 1723 to 1946 CE before becoming part of the Republic of Indonesia in 1945.Pebatin applied to the non-Islamic forest peoples living on the margins of its territory. There were other Indigenous forest dwellers as well, see Figure 2. “The pebatin system of administration was based on a group of people living in a certain area following a headman whose position was ratified by the Malay sultan of the kingdom of Siak (East-Coast Sumatra). Each batin headman served as the representative of the forest-dwelling people to the kingdom. Election to the batin post followed matrilineal principles, and a successor was usually the previous batin’s sister’s son.” [7]

Traditionally the Batin lived in swidden-clearings (ladang) and in wooded secondary forest areas (bu’luka’). Their houses were set on poles usually consisting of one main room. Walls were usually made of bark and the roof from kopau palm-leaf thatch.

Clusters of related family dwellings were constructed within walking distance to each other. Beyond the houses were swidden fields and areas of regrowth. Beyond these settlements, closed canopy forest remained. Houses were sometimes built on river banks because of the ease of travel using dugout canoes.

Figure 5: Likely a contemporary Batin house set by the Siak Kecil river, during the wet season.

The pebatinan (plural for pebatin) named themselves using the nearest rivers so there were: Pebatin Paoh of river Paoh, Pebatin Penaso of the river Penaso and so forth.

Several observers, including Porath, note that in recent years the Batin have reluctantly accepted the term Sakai though also use the term Orang Asli, to describe themselves.

The other groups

  • The other Indigenous groups. At this stage, I can only rely on Prayoto’s map. He has identified seven Indigenous groups in Riau:
    Kuala Petalangan Sakai; and,
    Talang Mamak.

Figure 6: The people of Penyengat Island, Riau are Orang Akit


[1] Osawa, T. JURNAL ANTROPOLOGI: Isu-Isu Sosial Budaya. Desember 2017 Vol. 19 (2): 109-123. ISSN 1410-8356

[2] Op cit.

[3] Otten, M. Transmigrasi: Indonesian Resettlement Policy, 1965 – 1985. IWGXA DOCUMENT ISSN 0105-4503. pp.80

[4] Op cit pp81

[5] ibid

[6] Porath, N. The Healer’s Madness and the Forces of Social Change, in Behera, M.C. ‘Interventions, Familiarity and Continuity: Dynamics in tribal Communities. COMMONWEALTH PUBLISHERS PTY. LTD. 2016. ISBN 978-81-311-0573-3

[7] Porath, N. The Healer’s Madness and the Forces of Social Change, in Behera, M.C. ‘Interventions, Familiarity and Continuity: Dynamics in tribal Communities. COMMONWEALTH PUBLISHERS PTY. LTD. 2016. ISBN 978-81-311-0573-3

I’ve had much highly professional assistance with this blog post from Prayoto, I’ve included his CV in recognition. He is a man of principle. Working with him is a privilege.


  1. […] Darnley takes a look at the indigenous people of Riau province, the Siak, who have been marginalized by (among […]

  2. […] Encountering the #Indigenous people of #Riau proved cause for wider reflection […]

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