By Beh Lih Yi
JAKARTA, March 17 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Thousands of Indonesian indigenous people gathered on Sumatra island on Friday to call on the government to protect their land rights as fears grow some tribes could become extinct.
A sprawling archipelago with more than 17,000 islands, Indonesia is home to an estimated 50 to 70 million indigenous people, but many do not have formal title to the land their families have lived on for generations.
For decades they have been locked in bitter battles with logging, palm oil and mining companies that have been expanding into their homelands in the resource-rich Southeast Asian nation.
President Joko Widodo has pledged to improve their lives, but activists say his ambitious plans to boost infrastructure and energy production - including by building dams - mean more tribes are at risk of being displaced.
"Even though the government has nice policies on paper, we continue to face land grabs... and forced evictions throughout Indonesia," said Rukka Sombolinggi, deputy head of the Indigenous Peoples Alliance of the Archipelago.
"We are willing to share, but development has to be done with our consent," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
More than 5,000 people from 2,000 indigenous communities convened in Tanjung Gusta village outside North Sumatra's provincial capital Medan. The gathering is organised by the alliance and held every five years.
Indonesia's Constitutional Court ruled in 2013 indigenous people have the right to manage forests where they live, in a verdict hailed as a victory for indigenous land rights.
The government last December announced it would return 13,000 hectares of customary lands to nine indigenous communities, and committed to giving back a total of 12.7 million hectares - roughly the size of Greece - to local and indigenous groups.
Indonesia's environment and forestry minister reiterated on Friday the government's commitment to indigenous rights.
"It was only a start and not the end of this struggle," Siti Nurbaya Bakar told the gathering, referring to the December announcement to return customary lands.
Campaigner Sombolinggi, of the Sulawesi island's Toraja tribe, lauded these developments but said legal reforms have been slow.
More than 230 indigenous leaders and activists are currently on trial for battling to save their homelands, she said, while at least six tribes face the threat of extinction as a result of land conflicts.
"Our livelihood and our existence are being affected. When we are evicted from our land, what else do we have?" she asked.