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For these indigenous women, the forest meant everything. Then the Indonesian government took their lands away.

More than just a food source: Indonesian women rely on forests for medicine, culture, and peace-keeping

Anne-Sophie Gindroz

Jamie Kalliongis

Rights and Resources Initiative

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For the Kasepuhan, the forest is a way of life. Living in Java, Indonesia, the Kasepuhan rely on their lands for food, shelter, medicine, and income. Kasepuhan translates as “the keeper of ancestral land,” and the Kasepuhan follow their customary practices in their interactions with nature—the forest is intimately connected with their spiritualities and cultures.


Kasepuhan women are often responsible for sustainably managing these forests and resources. They hold multiple roles: as keepers of traditional religious rituals, agents of peace, and providers of food and medicine for their families and communities.


Yet like the vast majority of Indigenous Peoples and local communities, the Kasepuhan—who have lived in the Lebak district since the 17th century—had no formal legal recognition of their lands. The Indonesian government designated their territory a national park without their consent in 1992, and declared their traditional forestry and farming practices illegal.


This impacted the entire community, but was particularly dehumanizing for women given their unique connection to their forest and lands. They faced harassment and intimidation by police, who cracked down on them for gathering their traditional foods but failed to put a stop to illegal logging by outsiders.


Reduced forest access meant reduced access to traditional foods and medicine, leading to lower health rates for indigenous women and forcing them to travel long distances to reach markets. And because purchasing food is more expensive than harvesting from the forest, many children felt pressured to work rather than attend school, diminishing educational opportunities, particularly for indigenous girls.


This is part of a larger pattern across the country: Indonesia’s National Inquiry into the Rights of Indigenous Peoples found Indigenous Peoples were frequently evicted from their sources of life in forest zones due to the establishment of national parks, reserves, and other conservation areas in customary forests without their consent.


Indigenous Peoples and local communities have managed and protected Indonesia’s great forests for generations—yet despite having customary rights to at least 40 million hectares, they legally own less than 1 percent of the country’s land. This gap leaves their lands vulnerable to expropriation for development projects—but also for protected areas.

The National Inquiry found particular violations of women’s rights when their lands were converted to protected areas. Ironically, those districts that are richest in natural resources—and therefore prime targets for both conservation and development projects—have the highest rates of poverty, lowest rates of education, and highest rates of infant and maternal mortality.


The very social fabric of communities can also be torn by the loss of customary forests. It becomes more difficult to transfer knowledge to younger generations, leading to the loss of traditions and heritage and threatening the very identity of forest communities. Kasepuhan and other indigenous women help maintain peace, but losing access to the forest threatens this role as well. In Kalimantan, for example, Indigenous Peoples bring a gift of the fruit durian when entering negotiations between communities; without access to the forests, they instead arrive empty-handed.


Being expelled from customary territories also often comes with threats, harassment, and discrimination that can be particularly difficult for women, who have limited access to information and decision-making, and little or no training for work in the market-based economy.


After decades of uncertainty, the Kasepuhan successfully achieved a local regulation recognizing their land rights in 2014. In 2016, at the national level, the Ministry of Environment and Forestry recognized the rights of Kasepuhan Karang, one of the six Kasepuhan communities living in the National Park, over 462 hectares of forest (out of 1,081 hectares). This first achievement needs to be expanded, as recognition of the Kasepuhan’s rights protects their lives and livelihoods, and enables them to continue protecting Indonesia’s forests, which are a crucial bulwark against climate change. 


There is a growing body of evidence to prove what Indigenous Peoples and local communities have long known: where community rights are secure, forests are more likely to stay standing. New research finds that communities achieve at least equal conservation outcomes with less than a quarter of the budget of formal protected areas.


In many cases, it is women who manage and protect the forests. Ensuring respect for their rights is vital to achieving Indonesia’s—and the world’s—sustainable development and climate goals.

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