How indigenous are you?

Indigenous people have been granted rights to forests in a recent court ruling in Indonesia. But defining who is indigenous and who isn’t remains contentious.


In May 2013, the Constitutional Court of Indonesia ruled in favour of indigenous ownership of forest territories, creating an historic opportunity to clarify contestation of customary rights as opposed to State rights over forested land.

However, defining who is indigenous and who isn’t, and why, is presenting an unexpected challenge in the context of multi-ethnic Indonesia where ‘forest users’, ‘indigenous residents’ and ‘migrants’ have been engaged since time immemorial in social and geographic mobility and interaction.

These same questions are fundamental to any scheme to ‘reduce emissions from deforestation and forest degradation plus conservation’ (REDD+) in order to decide who should share in the scheme’s benefits.

Indigenous Dayak fisher in Kalimantan. Photo: World Agroforestry Centre/Sadewa

Indigenous Dayak fisher in Kalimantan. Photo: World Agroforestry Centre/Sadewa

A recently published research article in International Forestry Review by researchers from the World Agroforestry Centre working in cooperation with the Forest and Climate Change Programme of Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit takes a closer look into the complexities surrounding recognition of indigenous rights in Indonesia.

The researchers point out that the Dutch colonial discourse over indigeneity underlies the recent construction of a definition of indigenous rights that is largely being used by supportive non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and articulated by local communities. It is a static definition of indigeneity giving absolute priority to communities based on the notion of territoriality and prior occupation of land.

The researchers challenge this definition, looking critically at the ways the discourse on indigeneity and ethnic identity is applied by governmental and non-governmental actors as well as by indigenous groups themselves. Mainly the discourses revolve around preventing doing harm and safeguarding the livelihoods and rights of those who hold customary claims over forested land as well as those smallholding forest dwellers who belong to groups not classified as ‘indigenous’ but who are equally dependent on forest land.

Indigenous Dayak forest users in Kalimantan. Photo: World Agroforestry Centre/Sadewa

Indigenous Dayak forest users in Kalimantan. Photo: World Agroforestry Centre/Sadewa

The study shows that self-identification by indigenous communities, which is supported by the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People that has been adopted for REDD+ social safeguards, may differ from what others perceive, whether those others be representatives of the Indonesian state or ‘non-indigenous’ communities.

The study showcases a situation in Kalimantan Barat Province where forest dwellers have self-identified as ‘indigenous’ and ‘reinvented’ their settlement history and land claims in order to justify legitimacy over territories and natural resources. The case also demonstrates how indigeneity may impact horizontal—that is, between competing communities—land-tenure conflicts, particularly, in relation to application of REDD+ social safeguards.

While helping to highlight the complexities involved in determining indigenous rights, the researchers also stress that more work is needed in legalising indigenous communities’ rights through concrete action on the ground, particularly, mapping the territorial claims of customary communities. But even this is not without conflict, with the very exercise of mapping often sparking contestation of self-identified indigenous groups’ territorial rights.



Read the article

De Royer S, Visser L, Galudra G, Pradhan U, van Noordwijk M. 2015. Self-identification of indigenous people in post-independence Indonesia: a historical analysis in the context of REDD. International Forestry Review 17(3):1.




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This work is linked to the CGIAR Research Program on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry'

Sebastien de Royer

Sébastien de Royer is a junior scientist based at the South East Asia Regional office in Bogor. He is focusing on human and social dimensions of climate change and agroforestry systems. He has been working actively in Indonesia in the field of social forestry and climate change interventions. Contact details:

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