Indigenous communities, land rights and Covid-19

| 4th June 2020
Indigenous territories impacted by oil palm, mining and criminalisation are disproportionately affected by Covid-19 - yet still they support those most vulnerable.

There will be no food security for Indigenous communities in Indonesia without land rights. 

Food sovereignty within the Indigenous communities of the Indonesian archipelago is under threat, not least during a pandemic. 

The Banten Kidul Indigenous Peoples are known for their advanced technique of food preservation, but violent incursions by mining companies and complicit governments threaten traditional farming methods and the safety of Indigenous farmers. 

Despite this, Indigenous groups are self-organising lockdowns and coordinating the donation of food from agrarian communities to urban workers who have been laid off due to the pandemic. 


Ruhandi is the chief of Warungbanten village, of Cibeber sub-district of Lebak. Warungbanten is part of the Kasepuhan Cicarub Indigenous community. There are about 750 Kasepuhan, inhabiting their customary territory in four districts, according to the Indigenous Peoples Alliance of the Archipelago (AMAN). 

I spoke to Ruhandi after a long day's work in the rice fields, as he took a rest to send some photographs: “I took  them during our harvest. It’s been a week and will take about two weeks for everyone to finish all the work. Our harvest can last us for up to four or five years."

The rice is harvested, bound in a unit called Pocong and then dried in the sun. During the drying process, Pocong will be hung into Lantayan, made from long bamboo tied together in layers. The lowest Lantayan hanger should be as high as an adult's knee, and as high as the hand can reach. The Lantayan have thatched roofs to shield against the rain.

There will be no food security for Indigenous communities in Indonesia without land rights. 

Lantayan must be assembled in line from north to south. The goal is to let all Pocong to be exposed to sunlight evenly from morning to evening. Sunlight is believed able to remove dirt and fungal seeds that will damage rice when stored.

The dried rice is then kept in Leuit, barns built from a combination of wood and bamboo. They are similar to the structure of Banten Kidul traditional houses with stilts, but they have no doors or windows, so you enter from the top. The roof is made from palm fiber and can last to ten years before being replaced.

Ruhandi said that Leuit is cooperative - any community member can come and borrow rice if needed, and when the harvest comes, the community's priority is to refill the Leuit. Leuit was known long before the wet paddy rice farming method was introduced about 300 years ago. Ruhandi said: "We used to keep rice from the dry field inside Leuit. Now, most of the farmers have opted to switch into wet paddy farming."


Rubi is Meratusian, from a Dayak tribe in South Kalimantan. Dayak indigenous peasants have used the the dryland slash and burn technique for hundreds of years. But the practice is undergoing criminalization by the Indonesian State.

The government has accused the community of causing forest and land fires. More than 100 indigenous peasants have been arrested and imprisoned on this charge in the last ten years, according to AMAN. 

Rubi explained: "Slash and burn is our way of fertilising the soil before planting. The practice has been carried out for hundreds of years, passed down from our ancestors. It helps us to avoid using chemicals for our dry-land paddy."

He strongly believes that avoiding chemical use enhances the quality of the rice and preserves the soil.

Similar to Banten-Kidul Indigenous Peoples, Meratusian tribes also preserve their paddy to prevent famine. Rubi said: "We store our paddy at Upaq and it can last to six years. Letting someone go hungry is a crime."


Rukka Sombolinggi, the General Secretary of AMAN, reminds us that not all the Indigenous communities in Indonesia enjoy similar conditions: "Many ancestral domains belonging to different communities have been converted into oil palm plantation and mining."

This is an ugly truth in a country where 15 million hectares — and another 15 million on the way — of rainforest have been transformed into oil palm plantations with government permits.

At the same time, more than 93 million hectares of land is now mining concession, making incursions into Indigenous territories.

The 2018 Food Security and Vulnerability Atlas (FSVA) shows that there are twelve provinces within the Indonesian archipelago with a food vulnerability index below the national average (namely Papua Province, West Papua, Riau Islands, Maluku, Bangka Belitung, Riau, East Nusa Tenggara, West Kalimantan, North Maluku, North Sumatra, Bengkulu, and South Sumatra). The Index is based on three main indicators: food availability, affordability, and utilization. 

But Rukka believes that the the index itself is problematic: "Its main food indicator is rice and does not include wild foods or tubers which are the staple foods for many Indigenous communities. Papua and West Papua, for instance, are rich with sago and tubers, as well as Maluku and North Maluku. Mentawai people in West Sumatra also producing a huge amount of sago."


AMAN has been advocating for diverse food sovereignty since its foundation in 1999. It constantly challenges the government's rice-centered policies.

AMAN represents approximately 20 million Indigenous Peoples across 2,372 communities, and argues that food sovereignty will not be ever achieved without recognising Indigenous People's rights over their ancestral domains.

"We've been fighting for the Indigenous Rights Bill for the last fifteen years. Without land rights and protection from criminalisation, there will be no food security.

When current Indonesia president Joko Widodo was seeking AMAN's support for his first presidential candidacy in 2014, he promised to pass the Bill in his first term. He included the Bill within nine political commitments known as Nawacita. The promise has never been kept.

Rukka explained :"It was a harsh blow for the Indigenous Peoples movement in Indonesia. But the hundreds of years of survival experiences will not be beaten with a single defeat. This actually strengthens us to be more confident in fighting for our rights."


When the Covid-19 outbreak reached Indonesia, Rukka made the decision to postpone its national meeting. The five-day long event was supposed to be held in Ende, East Nusa Tenggara, and scheduled to begin on Indonesian Indigenous Peoples Day. Rukka explained that they did not want to risk their community's health. 

The event would have included 700 attendees drawn from 21 regional chapters, 118 local chapters, and affiliated autonomous bodies. The postponement was announced on 15 March, followed by specific actions to combat the spread of the global pandemic.

On 19 March, Rukka instructed AMAN staff to work from home. Indigenous communities were advised to lock down their villages, conduct regular health checks, and to ensure a sufficient supply of drinking water, food, and medicines in their villages.   

Rukka explained: "I instructed an immediate closure of all of our offices and forbade mass gathering and meetings. AMAN is now acting temporarily as an emergency response team."

On March 20, AMAN launched a new cell phone app and website to gather data across the vast archipelago. Communities that have no internet access at all are reached by landline or through other means. 


Cases of contagion are registered and reported through the app, and available medicines and medical personnel are mapped out. One of the most important steps is connecting communities with surplus granaries to their less fortunate neighbours. 

In the first two weeks, health rituals performed by different Indigenous communities sprung all over the country, followed with self-isolation initiatives to prevent the entry of the Covid-19 from outside the area.

Most of AMAN members live in remote and hard-to-access areas where health facility is a big issue, so community-led lockdown initiatives are playing an important rule in ensuring community safety. 

However, isolation does not mean total shutdown. AMAN argues that continuing farming and hunting enables independence and ensures that communities can support those who are most vulnerable. 

Rukka explained: "Many social, economic, and cultural activities within the communities are still going on. People can still go to the forest for hunting or go to farming areas. Self-lockdown gives us a chance to fully exercise our autonomy while keeping safe."


Information collected by AMAN through their app indicates that food security for most Indigenous communities is ensured for the coming two to three months, as these months are the harvest season.

But Indigenous territories controlled by oil palm and mining, as well as agricultural areas dominated by hard crops such as rubber, will be adversely affected because the inhabitants must buy food and essential commodities from outside of their area.

Indigenous territories with a food surplus can help neighboring communities through a barter system. 

AMAN’s early initiative in calling for lockdowns has been successful so far, even enabling large donations of rice to other communities and initiatives, such as the Solidarity Movement of Agrarian Granary (GeSLA - Gerakan Solidaritas Lumbung Agraria). 

GeSLA connects fisherfolk and peasants to support their fellow blue-collar laborers in cities such as Jakarta and Tangerang during Covid-19. Donations include rice, vegetables, eggs, and dry-salted fish. The goods are distributed with the help of trade unions to low-income labourers who are being laid off. 

Rukka continued: "More will come as the harvest is yet to be completed the number of communities. However, this support will not be possible if land-grabbing continues to threaten our communities."

This Author 

Andre Barahamin is freelance journalist and researcher with particular interests on Indigenous peoples, environmental and agrarian conflicts.

Image: Wibowo Djatmiko, Wikipedia.