Afrida Erna Ngato is an indigenous activist from the Pagu tribe in North Halmahera, Indonesia. She is a “Sangaji Pagu” – a/the leader of the Pagu and a rare woman tribal leader in Indonesia, a position usually held by men. As an activist, she works closely with the Alliance of Indigenous Peoples of the Archipelago (AMAN).
The Pagu tribe has been living on their land since the 11th century, for at least 14 generations. Previously leaders of the tribe were all men. When the position of tribal leader was left open for some time, Afrida, who is a descendent of prior leaders, stepped forward. However, the leadership was not handed to her so easily – she had to prove herself first. Ultimately, her commitment and tirelessness in preserving her land and her culture were recognized and the elders entrusted her with the position and formalized it in a customary ceremony.
Gold ore was first processed in Gosowong in the North Halmahera region of Indonesia in 1999. Since then, more than 4 million ounces of gold and 3 million ounces of silver have been extracted from these mines. PT Nusa Halmahera Minerals (PTNHM), a joint venture between Newcrest (an Australian corporation) and PT Antam (Persero), operates on 29,622 hectares of indigenous territories. The AMAN Indigenous Regional Council estimates that approximately 5,000 people in Hoana Pagu experience health problems due to the mining operation. Pollution, including mercury poisoning, impacts the health and livelihoods of indigenous people and the environment alike.
The mining caused water shortages, polluted rivers and bays, damaged ecosystems, and loss of biodiversity. According to AMAN, in 2010, 2011, and again in 2012, waste pipe tailings owned by the company broke, spewing pollution into the river and several tributaries that empty into the Gulf of Kao. Since the pipe bursts, people began to fear eating fish from the Gulf of Kao. They also feared using the river water, and began having trouble finding shrimp, scallops and fish in the river. Before the mining companies came in, fish and seafood were easy to obtain. Now they are gone. Likewise, local crops like coconut are no longer productive. Access to clean water has reached crisis levels, with villages experiencing water shortages or being forced to pay steep prices to buy clean water.
AMAN reported this crisis to the Ministry of Environment (MOE), the Ministry of Energy and Mineral Resources (ESDM) and the National Human Rights Commission, outlining the environmental problems experienced by local residents. Neither Ministry responded; the Human Rights Commission has said it will study the case.
“Our traditional system has weakened, in fact, we are even embarrassed to speak our own language, perceived as uneducated and backward. Government policies often relocate us for unknown reason, the result is that we are deprived of our culture. I survived because there is a strong desire in me, as a member of the Pagu community, to feel confident as an indigenous woman.”
— Afrida Ngato
“Mia tonaka demia akele demia bongana, mabirahi de majojamanaaaniii, kao nyawa yoma sisanaaangi… (Our land, our water, our forest, all beautiful only for the enjoyment of others not us).” Afrida sang these words and danced in front of the mining company office accompanied by traditional music instruments of the Moluccas. Hundreds of community members protested alongside her.
After a full day and night of singing and dancing, Afrida and twenty-three community members were arrested by the police. Afrida told the police that she would take legal action. She said “I am not a criminal, I have rights!” The day after the arrest the head regent who knew her work intervened, and the police released Afrida and the others.
After this incident, Afrida widened her network by collaborating with neighboring tribes to map the tribes’ borders. Through the mapping process, they were reclaiming their ancestral lands and learning about their rights, making it more difficult in the future for mining companies to exploit them.
Afrida believes that it is important to know and respect one’s own culture. She has worked on a dictionary for her Pagu indigenous language and built a customary office in Sosol village named “Nanga Wola” – “Our House” – that serves as the hub for all cultural preservation and community organizing efforts.
Her work with AMAN has opened up new horizons and speaks to the power of networks and alliances in activism. “AMAN helps me to meet various people, develop networking skills and learn best practices that in the end are supporting my struggle.”