An Indonesian version of this article was published in Pro:aktif Online magazine, December 2017 Edition:]-inkompatibilities-antara_19.html.

This paper also inspired a deeper elaboration entitled Indigenous Livelihood, as a Book Chapter in the Routledge Handbook Regenerative Food Systems (Eds: Jessica Duncan, Michael Carolan & Hans Wiskerke), Routledge Publishers [2020].

How can you buy or sell the sky, the warmth of the land? The idea is strange to us. If we do not own the freshness of the air and the sparkle of the water, how can you buy them from us… [a quote from Chief Seattle’s speech; Kaiser, 1987]

The case of tenurial conflict and discrimination against the Sunda Wiwitan indigenous people in Cigugur, Kuningan Regency, several months ago (BBC Indonesia, 24/08/17) coloured a series of government’s ‘red notes’ regarding its inability to protect the rights of indigenous peoples in Indonesia. Conflicts between indigenous peoples and the government as well as the private sector often revolve around issues surrounding land ownership and boundaries of customary areas. Along with the clearing of lands for settlements, plantations and industry, the lands of indigenous peoples are increasingly being pushed, which leads to threats to the integrity of indigenous peoples who are battered by modern culture. This underlies the Alliance of Indigenous Peoples of the Archipelago (AMAN), an advocacy organisation for indigenous peoples, to urge the government to pass the Draft Law (RUU) on the Recognition and Protection of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, as reported by ANTARA News Agency, September 2017.

In fact, the government has made efforts to protect the existence of indigenous peoples through various statutory instruments. Basically, customary land rights, for example, are an important part of the Basic Agrarian Law (UUPA). The government has also confirmed the existence of customary forests in the midst of a constellation of forest areas in Indonesia through Law No.41 of 1999 concerning Forestry and its various derivative regulations. The regional government, through its regional regulations, has the authority to determine the existence and boundaries of customary village areas, as well as strengthen institutions for customary law communities. This regional regulation forms the basis for the designation of customary forests by the Ministry of Environment and Forestry (KLHK). On the other hand, the Tourism and Culture Offices in various regions have attempted to protect the pockets of indigenous peoples and traditional practices that exist within them by establishing cultural heritage areas. Recently, the Ministry of Environment and Forestry released a new regulation on Protection of Local Wisdom (PermenLHK 2017) as a ratification of the recognition of traditional communities in the Conventions on Biological Diversity (CBD) which was mutually agreed at the international level three decades ago. The question is, if the government has made such efforts to protect the rights of indigenous peoples, why do various threats to this community group continue to occur?

Presumably, the statement of Chief Seattle, an Indian chief in the United States, quoted above, illustrates one of the fundamental problems of the incompatibility of values ​​in many indigenous peoples with norms in modern societal systems. How can man, he said, trade what he does not have? This, of course, applies not only to land, water and air, but also to local knowledge and wisdom that is passed down from one generation to the next. At a time when modern society is preoccupied with issues surrounding intellectual property rights (IPR), patents and copyrights, various forms of local knowledge are ‘stolen’, to be commercialised by other parties, simply because these ‘local knowledge owners’ do not have evidence and recognition of their knowledge, or just because they don’t feel they have the knowledge – doesn’t the knowledge that is built collectively belong together?

Of course, the government has shown good faith in protecting the existence of indigenous peoples through statutory instruments, stipulation of recognition and supporting programs. We also, in many cases, agree that the life of indigenous peoples in harmony with nature can answer many problems in environmental management. As a romantic pastime, our parents often remember their childhood playing in the middle of the rice fields and bathing in the river. It’s just that we can’t seem to do more than that. As is done by the government, we see indigenous peoples as something outside us – something that should be isolated and preserved so that their values ​​do not become extinct, that’s all. I believe that we can do more than that, and this starts by first realising how deep the incompatibility between indigenous peoples and modern life has developed, and what threats arise as a result of it.

Symptoms of this incompatibility are indicated by the presence of cultural commodification. Since the 2000s, the local government has encouraged the preservation of the culture of indigenous peoples through the declaration of cultural heritage, which is combined with cultural tourism of indigenous villages. Traditional houses and traditional ceremonies attract the attention of local and foreign tourists. People came to document these peculiarities. Not infrequently, tourists also get treatment as special guests in traditional ceremonies that are held. This, by social anthropologists, is called cultural commodification – an attempt to turn cultural artifacts into economic commodities. In a study that I conducted in 2005, I documented how in the midst of the euphoria of traditional villages, local knowledge about the benefits of traditional plants was increasingly lost among the younger generation in one traditional village in West Java. One of the reasons is that the entry of tourists to traditional villages has caused the flow of money and city products into the village, built stalls, displacing local food and medicinal products. Along with the entry of the city’s cultural products is the entry of modern knowledge about disease and health. For example, people used to believe that stomach aches were caused by bad air entering the body. On that basis, plants such as jambe (Areca catechu) and kuciat (Ficus septica) are rubbed on the stomach to expel the bad air – in line with the content of volatile compounds in these plants which play a role in improving blood circulation in the body. Among young people, modern medicine and instant herbal medicine, something from the outside that is foreign to them, are now becoming practical solutions for stomach aches. There is nothing wrong with that of course, but something external is causing a disconnect between society and nature. This local knowledge practically fades from the community’s values.

Another example of cultural incompatibility is what was demonstrated by the Kasepuhan Ciptagelar Indigenous People in South Sukabumi. These community groups scattered in the Mount Halimun Salak National Park area live through a distinctive traditional rice farming pattern. This agricultural pattern that raises hundreds of local Javanica rice varieties has been applied for hundreds of years and is able to meet the food needs of around 10,000 residents. Rice farming, according to them, is part of their philosophy of life. Rice itself is something sacred – people are not allowed to sell or dispose of rice in any form. The traditional rice farming pattern carried out by the Ciptagelar community is characterized by Javanica rice which grows taller, has stronger stems, grain that does not fall off the panicles, and with a longer growing period. Based on these characteristics, the community’s cropping patterns and agricultural culture were developed. The Ciptagelar people cultivate rice only once a year according to the time instructed by the customary chief, using etem (finger knife) to cut the stalks of rice (which through this helps the farmer ‘experiences’ each individual rice they harvest to find new varieties that may be produced), as well as storing bundles of unhulled rice (pocong) in their rice barn called leuit. Rice that is still stored in the pocong can last up to 10 years. This grain is then crushed manually using a mortar and cooked traditionally.

In the 1970s, the government, encouraged by the Green Revolution, introduced superior varieties of rice to the Ciptagelar people. This variety is not compatible with the community’s agricultural practices in various aspects. The short stems of rice plants can no longer be harvested with etem because it forces the harvester to bend over – something that becomes very tiring. The high-yielding varieties of grain are very easy to fall off, so that they can no longer be stored in leuits. Superior varieties also grow quickly and require high intake of ready-to-absorb fertilizers – clearly contrary to the way the Kasepuhan people run their farms. Efforts to introduce improved varieties of rice have practically failed, because applying a technology such as high yielding varieties means completely changing the way people farm, and ultimately the cultural patterns that exist in society. While most of the people of Ciptagelar to date still adhere to the value system that has been passed down from generation to generation, a small proportion of the people on the edge of the area have begun to adopt modern agricultural patterns due to economic pressure (modern rice can be grown in a cycle of 2-3 times a year, so that it can be produced and sold more), and based on interviews conducted to some of these farmers, their paddy fields are now more susceptible to rice pests.

The Kasepuhan Ciptagelar community provides a good example of how we can build open relationships between indigenous peoples and urban communities without threatening the existence and noble values ​​of the community. Kasepuhan Ciptagelar’s customary head, Abah Anom, who was replaced by his son Abah Ugi, is not detaching himself by technological advances. With the help of several artists and cultural observers from the outside of Ciptagelar, they adopted the modern technology by establishing community radios in the village, opening access to the internet (all village halls have wifi access) and even having their own local television channel. Everything is also done to build a balance between local and modern culture. Elementary school children learn about their culture through the internet, television and radio. But on the other hand, the Kasepuhan people also protect their cultural practices (such as their farming patterns) from new values ​​that have the potential to transform the cultural roots of the community.

At the end of this paper, I am of the opinion that indigenous peoples in Indonesia and their local wisdom are indeed under threat. However, the solution we can provide is not to isolate their culture in the remaining pockets. By realising what is and is not compatible between indigenous peoples’ cultural values ​​and modern cultural values ​​(concepts of ownership, productivity, modernity, etc.), we can build a platform for a more harmonious relationship between indigenous peoples and urban communities. On the one hand, we need to learn to be more open and adapt to the noble values ​​of local wisdom. On the other hand, we can help indigenous peoples to obtain their rights and guard against the threat of uncontrolled modern values.


BBC Indonesia (24 Agustus, 2017). Masyarakat Sunda Wiwitan tolak eksekusi lahan adat.

ANTARA News (27 September, 2017). AMAN: RUU Masyarakat Adat Harapan Penyelesaian Konflik.

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