Medan, Indonesia – Indigenous and women’s rights groups in Indonesia are protesting against the G20’s headline event for gender equality over the alleged exclusion of local voices and failure to address key women’s issues in North Sumatra.
Activists gathered at the site of the W20 Summit in Lake Toba, North Sumatra on Wednesday to call attention to deforestation and other issues they say have been neglected by the event taking place from 19-21 July.
“I think the W20 narrative is ironic when their theme is ‘recover together’ equally, but they didn’t even include any agenda related to the challenges of the women of Lake Toba, especially regarding land grabbing and customary forests,” Sekar Banjaran Aji, a campaigner for Greenpeace Indonesia, told Al Jazeera.
“Toba women are not involved in the talks in an inclusive manner, so how can they recover together equally? The forum focused on small and medium enterprises (SMEs), while women are dying trying to defend their customary land, something which is apparently not considered a problem for the W20.”
The W20, which stands for Women 20, is the G20’s official dialogue for women’s empowerment and one of several engagement groups under the umbrella of the economic forum. Indonesia currently holds the annual presidency of the G20, which is made up of 19 countries and the European Union.
The summit, which bills itself as a forum for tackling gender discrimination and encouraging “inclusive economic growth”, is due to deliver a communique to Indonesian President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo, the current G20 chair, after its conclusion.
Hadriani Uli Silalahi, chair of W20 Indonesia, said the forum will discuss “priority issues” including gender discrimination and female-owned small businesses.
“In addition, there are also discussions on issues related to increasing access of women with disabilities and rural women in the fields of education, technology, finance, and health,” Uli Silalahi told Al Jazeera. “All of them will be packaged in a series of policy dialogues and conferences.”
Some rights groups, however, have branded the forum exclusionary due to a lack of Indigenous voices or focus on issues affecting women around Lake Toba.
“We are very disappointed by the W20 event at Lake Toba not involving local women when they were discussing sessions which are meant to be focused on how women can access the economy,” Rocky Pasaribu, the head of the local Community Initiative Development Study Group (KSPPM), told Al Jazeera.
The area around Lake Toba, which is home to the Batak people, has long been plagued by land grabbing, deforestation and agrarian conflict, much of which has affected Indigenous women.
In February, Widodo signed four presidential decrees intended to protect land for farmers around Lake Toba, although local groups have said that these do not go far enough to protect land rights or tackle land grabbing by large firms, including PT Toba Pulp Lestari, a pulp milling company.
“Land grabbing carried out due to the presence of PT Toba Pulp Lestari has led to structural impoverishment for more than three decades, and has contributed greatly to worsening women’s quality of life,” Pasaribu said.
PT Toba Pulp Lestari and PT Dairi Prima Mineral, a zinc miner, have both been accused of negatively affecting local women through the clearing of trees used in the production of incense and exacerbating climate change.
Delima Silalahi, a member of the Women Farmers and Indigenous Women of North Sumatra Forum, said a W20 session about the role of rural women failed to address the impoverishment caused by development that was not gender sensitive and prioritised the area’s image as a tourist hotspot.
“Development that is oriented towards economic growth has led to higher rates of land grabbing, environmental damage, climate crises and loss of livelihoods for Indigenous peoples,” Silalahi told Al Jazeera.
“This action at Lake Toba was driven by the disappointment of women affected by development that has robbed farmers and Indigenous peoples of living space and the birth of various policies that have not been in favour of Indigenous women.”
Silalahi said the government needs to respond seriously to the issues affecting women around Lake Toba to resolve agrarian and environmental conflicts, including revoking the permits of companies that negatively affect women, farmers and Indigenous peoples.
“This government must take concrete steps in resolving existing conflicts and stop deforestation,” she said.
Pasaribu, the head of KSPPM, said the W20 has not addressed “core issues” due to a fundamental misunderstanding of the situation in North Sumatra.
“The issue around Lake Toba is not that women cannot access the economy, but that they are the victims of the extractive industries and cannot access resources such as local forests,” he said.