Southeast Asia’s indigenous groups call for self-determination during COVID-19

International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples was on August 9

Indigenous groups in Southeast Asia say the impacts of COVID-19 show why it’s important that they govern their own communities and control their own land and resources.


While COVID-19 has highlighted the challenges facing indigenous communities across Southeast Asia, many groups now point to how the pandemic is illustrating the need for self-reliance and self-determination among indigenous peoples.

Over the past week, indigenous groups across Asia organized events to mark International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples on August 9.

Groups from Thailand to Indonesia have spoken out about the importance of self-reliance and autonomy during the pandemic. Indigenous towns in both countries shut their borders to contain COVID-19 and conducted traditional “village closure” rituals, as they have historically during disease outbreaks. Many ethnic groups also turned towards traditional livelihoods and economies to cope with lockdowns, as in the case of a “fish for rice” exchange between fishing communities in the south of Thailand and groups living in the country’s northern mountains.

At the same time however, many indigenous groups say the pandemic has accelerated the processes that were already threatening their resources and survival—from criminalization of their livelihoods to land grabs and efforts to further exclude them from governance.

“COVID-19 has been used as a trojan horse to intimidate, arrest, plan false charges and conduct military campaigns,” said Gam A. Shimray, secretary general of Asia Indigenous Peoples Pact (AIPP), in a statement this week. “It has also been used to weaken or suspend safeguards and rights regarding Indigenous Peoples. It will not be surprising if we see more attacks on Indigenous human rights defenders and plunder our resources in the name of economic recovery for the sake of national interests following the pandemic.”

AIPP organized three days of virtual discussions between indigenous leaders last week on issues from self-determination and land to the leadership of indigenous women and youth.

Young Torajan girls welcoming guests to a wedding on the island of Sulawesy. Photo: / CC BY-SA

Rukka Sombolinggi, secretary general of the Indigenous Peoples Alliance of the Archipelago (AMAN), the world’s largest indigenous organization according to AIPP, spoke during the discussions about how the impacts of the pandemic are tied to land and natural resource management.

“It is very clear that indigenous peoples who have lost their lands are suffering the most and become the most threatened by the pandemic—by the virus and also by the crisis that follows, which is a food crisis,” said Rukka, who is a member of the Torajan ethnic group.

COVID-19 points to importance of land, resource rights

The loss of land among indigenous communities has reportedly led to wider disparities between indigenous and non-indigenous peoples, in terms of income, education and other indicators.

Earlier this year, an ethnic Sukai farmer on Sumatra, Bongku bin Jelodan, was sentenced to one year in prison for cutting down trees to plant yams on his ancestral land, which the government had given over to Indonesia’s Asia Pulp & Paper Group without his knowledge.

“This verdict is a way to expel and intimidate the Sakai indigenous people into leaving their traditional land,” Andi Wijaya, a lawyer at the Pekanbaru legal aid institute, which represented Bongku, told The Thomson Reuters Foundation. “This ruling is evidence that the state does not protect the rights of indigenous peoples who depend on forests.”

In the Philippines, communities near the site of a planned dam on the Kaliwa River are reportedly facing an increased military presence as the government attempts to push the project through during the pandemic despite quarantine restrictions. Civil society groups like Alyansa Tigil Mina say the country is seeing a similar move to ramp up new mining permits as well as illegal mining during the pandemic.

But to many of the activists who spoke out around Indigenous Peoples Day, community-led natural resource management isn’t at odds with development. In cases where they can exercise their rights to self-determination, they say it can reduce tensions and conflict in development projects. With control over territory and resources, indigenous groups can use local expertise to better contribute to development.

COVID-19 has shown that indigenous peoples who retain control and management of resources in their area are among the most resilient communities to the impacts of the pandemic. According to AMAN and other networks, many ethnic minority villages have systems and stockpiles in place to be largely self-sufficient.

As the pandemic continues, AIPP says this type of solidarity and self-determination is key not only for the survival of indigenous groups but also in tackling global crises beyond COVID-19.

“It is from our lands and territories that our knowledge and freedom sprang from. The continuity of our identity, spirituality and survival depend on it,” said Shimray. “Therefore, it is the basis of our capacity to be agents of change to the local and global crisis such as climate change, biodiversity loss and food and nutrition problems.”

“We indigenous peoples are the ones who keep the world and can strengthen a global economy based on our system of reciprocity, solidarity and respect,” added Rukka. “Evidence tells us that the current economic structure is no longer feasible, it’s a total failure—even though governments are spending a lot of money to bail [businesses] out…they still cannot survive. It is indigenous peoples that can bring back the global economy if our rights to self-determination are respected.”

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