Fellow Since 1992
This profile was prepared when Zadrak Wamebu was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 1992.
Zadrak Wamebu, one of the Irianese people's first lawyers, is recording traditional law in writing for the first time and training indigenous leaders in both this law and the to-them foreign Indonesian law that has been used to strip them and their people of much of the island's relatively rich lands over the last generation.
The New Idea
For centuries, foreigners have taken over the lands of indigenous peoples that have come under their control, almost without knowing they are doing so, by importing and giving precedence to their own laws and implementing bureaucracies. The legal concept of land ownership is redefined and new mechanisms for recording transfers and establishing ownership introduced. The newcomers understand, since the new system they are importing is theirs. But, unaware that there are new rules, let alone how to use them, the indigenous people do not use them and lose out. The newcomers, equally ignorant of traditional land laws and therefore rights, take possession without embarrassment and then, especially once subsequent purchases and sales have taken place, look to the law and the state's power to defend what is "theirs."Zadrak wants to short-circuit this predictably unfair and deeply divisive process by helping both sides understand that there are two overlapping and conflicting sets of laws at work. He also seeks to help the Irianese community's leaders learn how to use the two systems both to protect their people's interests vis-a-vis the non-Irianese immigrants to the island and to negotiate conflicts between Irianese clans that otherwise tend to build up into violence.First, he is analyzing and codifying the traditional laws of the clans governing land tenure and use. A 1960 Indonesian law, the Land Regulation Act Number Five, gives significant recognition to such customary laws. By making them easily accessible in writing, he will provide new grounds that local people can use to defend their interests and a tool that judges and administrators can use as well.Second, he will work with the clans to define disputed borders between them, thus helping them to unite rather than fight. Finally, he will offer a series of training courses and follow-on backup for Irianese community and religious leaders that will enable them to know and fight effectively for their constituents' rights. In addition to giving his community the capacity to deal with this particularly urgent set of issues, Zadrak hopes that through this training, he will be helping the new generation of indigenous leaders that is now beginning to emerge learn how to build their own, new forms of community dispute resolution capacity. Not only will this reduce their communities' dependence on incomprehensible and expensive lawyers and courts, but it is also a major step towards true local self governance.
Irian is the second youngest province of Indonesia. Located on the country's most eastern island, which it shares with Papua, New Guinea, Irian was the last province released by the Dutch, officially becoming part of Indonesia in 1962.The indigenous Irianese live as hunter-gatherers, fishermen, and farmers. They depend almost entirely on Irian's natural resources to live.Unlike the Dutch, who left the island undeveloped, the Indonesian government has been eager to "modernize" and to boost economic growth. It has invited investors to exploit the natural resources. This policy has caused numerous problems, including ethnic and legal clashes. The result has been the growing marginalization of the indigenous peoples.The Irianese are rapidly losing ownership and even the use of the land and the other natural resources on which they have long depended. More and more prime land is going to new industries or mines and, especially, to the 600,000 Javanese who come from the archipelago's most heavily populated island and are given plots of land on less-crowded Irian. These Javanese immigrants, now roughly a third of the total population of Irian, are, regardless of traditional claims, swallowing enormous areas of good land.The Irianese, who are commonly illiterate, especially vis-a-vis their legal rights, be it under modem Indonesian or the customary law, do not know how to defend their rights and the land that should be theirs.
Zadrak sees his role as changing the system, not in handling cases. That he leaves to the local LBH legal aid chapter and to the community leaders he is training.His job is to map the legal and bureaucratic terrain and then give those who want a new, fairer dispensation the information they need. Once local people know what a local land official can and cannot do, they will feel less necessity to, for example, pay officials the roughly one third of the value of their land the officials now claim to register ownership claims. Once they know that traditional land laws do not recognize inter-clan land transfers, it will be harder for the few landowners who have been accumulating major holdings to continue to do so - and this alone will help reduce rising inter-clan conflict.His approach to his training work is also sharply focused on the issues and people he believes can make the most difference. Although he has targeted natural resource use and especially land as the heart of the matter, he begins his work by listening carefully and addressing the specific issues of greatest concern to his audience. Then, although he prepares materials others can use, he focuses his training on grassroots leaders, leaving them to educate their constituents.Zadrak's first focus is on his native Irian. There he is gradually working out from his initial two districts to cover the full island. However, he is very aware that members of many other traditional communities across Indonesia, e.g., on Kalimantan, face similar problems. He hopes his approach will prove useful there as well.
Zadrak was the second of five children born to the head of a small clan that had lived for 18 generations on Irian's northern plain, 30 kilometers from Jayapura. His father was a farmer raising sago, coconuts, and some cocoa. Zadrak went to elementary school in his home village of 40 families, but in 1972 he went to junior high school in the nearby district town and three years later moved to Jayapura to go to high school.In 1980, the island's first law school opened its doors, and Zadrak was a member of the first class. He was a student leader, notably organizing various volunteer village community service programs.After graduating, he worked for a bank but quickly decided that it was boring work that would not allow him to help people as he hoped to. He resigned and joined a consulting firm working on development problems. That work, his family's traditional community leadership role, his sensitivity and training, and the deep social crisis on the island finally crystallized at the end of the 1980s into his current commitment to make the laws serve everyone fairly.