<p>The village of Hoyane, nestled in the still-forested highlands of the Indonesian island of Sulawesi. The Hoyane Indigenous community have been pushing for legal recognition of their customary territory for 20 years. (Image: <a href="https://www.instagram.com/junaidi_hanafiah/">Junaidi Hanafiah</a> / Dialogue Earth)</p>

The long road to recognition of Indigenous lands in Seko, Indonesia

After 20 years, nine Indigenous communities on the island of Sulawesi finally look forward to state recognition of their customary territories

Sitting on the floor, Uria Padalingan, a member of the Indigenous community of Hoyane, points to an area on the map in front of him. “This is Tanete Kahulingan, or the lost forest, where people who are lost are usually found,” he says.

Uria is meeting with fellow community members at the house of Yason, head of the Hoyane Village Consultative Body. They’ve come together to make final checks to maps and other documents they will soon be sending to the local government to stake their claim to lands they have long considered theirs. The lost forest is just one part of this customary territory, much of which the Hoyane do not officially control because it has been designated as “state forest” or parcelled out as concessions to companies for logging or plantations.

“We want our rights to be restored, our Indigenous territories returned,” says Uria. “Because, if we cannot defend our Indigenous territories, our descendants will not have a future.”

Two men holding a large map inside a room with religious imagery in the background
Yason (right), head of the Hoyane Village Consultative Body, and Sainal Abidin of the Ancestral Domain Registration Agency hold up a map of Hoyane customary territory. It was created back in 2003, and helped the Hoyane gain official recognition as an Indigenous community. (Image: Junaidi Hanafiah / Dialogue Earth)
A woman and a man seated on the floor, working on papers with a group of people watching in a wooden-paneled room
Uria Padalingan (second from right) and Lidia Nopita (left) meet with other community members to check documents supporting the Hoyane’s claim to their customary territory. The documents include an updated version of their 2003 map. (Image: Junaidi Hanafiah / Dialogue Earth)

Hoyane territory lies deep in the still-forested highlands of the Indonesian island of Sulawesi. Its residents are one of nine Indigenous communities in the Seko district of North Luwu regency, South Sulawesi province. Like many Indigenous peoples across Indonesia, they’ve been pushing for state recognition of their identity and customary territory for decades.

An early breakthrough came in 2004, when the North Luwu regency government officially recognised all nine communities as the “Seko Indigenous peoples”. Twenty years on, they’re finally ready for the next step. And with external pressures on their lands increasing, there’s a palpable sense of anticipation in the air.

Six of the nine – Hoyane, Singkalong, Hono, Turong, Amballong and Pohoneang – expect to have their customary territories legally recognised by the North Luwu administration later this year. If everything goes to plan, these Seko lands will add 151,138 hectares to the national total of 3.9 million hectares registered as Indigenous territory as of 18 March 2024.

But this is only a very small portion of the 28.2 million hectares of Indigenous territories so far mapped by the Ancestral Domain Registration Agency (BRWA), an NGO set up in 2010 to support Indigenous communities with this process.

Map showing the location of Indonesia Seko indigenous communities-in North Luwu
The newly updated maps of customary territories belonging to six of Seko’s Indigenous communities have now been submitted to the local authority. The district’s three other Indigenous communities are still finalising their boundaries. (Data source: Ancestral Domain Registration Agency)

Official recognition of Indigenous territories is only possible thanks to relatively recent changes to Indonesian law. Prior to 2013, all forested areas in the country were controlled by the state unless special permits had been issued, a situation enshrined in the 1999 forestry law. The government did not consider Indigenous peoples as land rights holders, and the zoning of state forests limited access to their traditional territories and natural resources. In addition, the Ministry of Environment and Forestry was able to grant companies concessions for logging and plantations, even in areas of forest that had been managed by communities for generations.

In an effort to change this, in 2012, the Alliance of Indigenous Peoples of the Archipelago (AMAN) and two Indigenous communities applied to the constitutional court for a judicial review of the forestry law.

The following year, the court partially upheld the challenge to this law, stating in its verdict that “customary forests are not state forests”.

four people on motorcycles pause on a dirt road with trees and a blue tarp shelter in a lush woodland setting
Forested land cleared to make way for a plantation within the customary territory of the Pohoneang community. Without official control over their territories, Indigenous peoples have no way to stop concession areas being handed to companies, who carry out deforestation in the name of development. (Image: Junaidi Hanafiah / Dialogue Earth)

However, in response to this verdict, instead of amending the law, the forestry ministry issued a new regulation. It stated that, if they want their “customary forests” (hutan adat) redefined from state forest, Indigenous peoples must first be legally recognised by their local authority as a “customary law community”, and have their full “customary territory” (wilayah adat) recognised too.

What’s the difference between customary forest and customary territory?

An Indigenous community’s customary territory is an area they have managed and inhabited for many generations, according to definitions used in Indonesian law. It includes both forested and non-forested areas put to different uses such as farming or settlements.

A customary forest is a forested area located inside a community’s customary territory that they either make use of or leave protected for spiritual of other such reasons.

In 2014, the Ministry of Home Affairs issued a regulation clarifying how Indigenous peoples should go about gaining these recognitions. It’s a complex process involving three stages: identification, verification and validation, and determination. It requires communities to provide evidence of their unique histories, cultures, customary laws and systems of governance, as well as traditional territories.

Man wearing a traditional feathered headdress inside a room
Uria models a hat traditionally worn by the Hoyane when going to war. It was part of the evidence collected by the Seko Indigenous peoples in 2003 to prove their identity. (Image: Junaidi Hanafiah / Dialogue Earth)
A traditional wooden house raised on stilts with a sloping roof and colorful decorative elements in a tropical setting with palm trees and mountains in the background
A traditional house of the Pohoneang community, currently used for village meetings. Built out of wood using very few nails, Seko structures are another indicator of their unique identity. (Image: Junaidi Hanafiah / Dialogue Earth)
A man holding a long blowpipe to his mouth in front of a rural house with a blue roof
Ilham, a Hono community leader, demonstrates how to use a traditional blowpipe. The Seko still use weapons like this to hunt small animals in their customary forests. (Image: Junaidi Hanafiah / Dialogue Earth)

Mapping their identity 

In their push for recognition, many Indigenous communities have not waited for the law to catch up. With help from the Bumi Sawerigading Foundation (YBS), a South Sulawesi NGO, the communities of Seko district started documenting their unique identities in 2003.

One of the most important things they did that year was determine coordinates and manually create maps for each of their territories. But these were just some of many “customary law” records sent to the North Luwu administration, leading to its official recognition of the Seko Indigenous peoples in 2004.

A group of five men stand in a lush forested area
Yason (second from left) and other Hoyane community members check map coordinates with staff from the BRWA. They are in a garden area the Hoyane include in their customary territory, because they use it to grow cocoa. (Image: Junaidi Hanafiah / Dialogue Earth)
A printed map with shaded areas in green and yellow and  a smartphone lays on a wooden surface
The BRWA helps the Seko in part by providing technical support. Their smartphone mapping app – Avenza – collects geodata that can be checked against existing maps to make sure boundaries are correct. (Image: Junaidi Hanafiah / Dialogue Earth)

Sainal Abidin, head of the South Sulawesi branch of the BRWA, says of the documenting process: “We only provided technical guidance. The rest was carried out independently by the Indigenous communit[ies].”

“We know that many Indigenous communities rely on oral traditions while the state requires written documents, not to mention technical aspects like maps. Which Indigenous communities can provide the necessary documents if they are not facilitated by other parties?” he says.

Sainal, who used to work with YBS, believes the state should be more active in restoring the rights of Indigenous communities.

What’s happening in Seko district provides a comparatively good example though. The North Luwu administration is committed to recognising 16 of its 34 Indigenous communities by 2026. In addition, to speed up the recognition of the customary forests of three Seko communities – Hoyane, Amballong and Pohoneang – the Environment and Forestry Ministry last year formed a unique integrated team. As well as the ministry, the team comprises the Committee for the Recognition of Indigenous Legal Communities of North Luwu, and the South Sulawesi Forestry Agency. This initiative cuts out a step for the three communities, meaning their forests should be redefined and returned by the state more quickly.

An elderly man in a batik shirt and a cap converses with a younger man in a green jacket over a map
BRWA staff member Ridwan Annawawi (right) discusses the mapping process with Matandena, head of the Pohoneang Indigenous community (Image: Junaidi Hanafiah / Dialogue Earth)

With continued support from the BRWA, the Seko communities last year spent several months updating and adding to the information gathered in 2003. All of it will be useful in their application for official recognition of their customary territories; since the home affairs ministry issued its 2014 regulation, their documentation now needs to meet more stringent requirements.

In Hoyane, community member Lidia Nopita has been helping with this process and attending meetings alongside Uria and Yason.

With three other Hoyane women, she has identified various natural resources used by the community in their daily lives. “For example, plants used for cosmetics and medicines,” she says. “If we want to, we don’t need to buy our food and medicines. Because, in Seko, nature provides everything.”

Close-up of a white flower with long, slender petals
The Seko people use Kumis Kucing, or cat’s whiskers, in herbal medicine. The leaves are believed to have health benefits such as relieving kidney problems and reducing swelling. (Image: Junaidi Hanafiah / Dialogue Earth)

Parawangsa, chief of the nearby Turong Indigenous community, says most of the recent work they’ve done has concentrated on mapping. Although the process is technically pretty much the same as it was in 2003, the boundaries of each community’s territory have needed adjusting. It has taken time to reach consensus on this, he explains.

“Previously, the boundary of the Hono customary territory was the Kasummong River. But residents of Hono have been living beyond that boundary [on Turong land]. We held many discussions about this, and finally agreed to shift the boundary from the river to the road,” he says.

An uphill battle

Yance Arizona, an expert in Indigenous law at Gadjah Mada University, Java, says one of the challenges facing Indonesia’s Indigenous peoples in their efforts to gain recognition of their status and territories is the government’s repression of customary systems of governance. Instead of making use of traditional institutions, such as village chiefs, the state has favoured a standardised system of village administrations, he says.

But Yance points out that such changes are inevitable, and this “doesn’t mean they are no longer Indigenous communities”. For him, “the most important thing is that they can explain the historical relationship with the land, categorise their territory, and mark its boundaries [in a way that is also] recognised by the nearest community”.

Categorising how different parts of a territory are, or have historically been, used – such as for grazing animals or as a burial ground – is one way a community can substantiate their claim to the land.

A farmer wearing a traditional conical hat and rubber boots working in a muddy rice field
The Seko are predominantly farmers, growing rice and other foods for their own consumption, as well as cash crops. Not all of their lands are forested. Some parts are categorised as having various other functions, such as these paddy fields in Pohoneang territory. (Image: Junaidi Hanafiah / Dialogue Earth)
Three standing near a white-painted doorway set within a large rock formation in a forested area
A sacred area within the customary forest of the Amballong Indigenous community holding the tomb of a revered female ancestor, Roha. Inside the tomb, her bones have been carefully preserved. (Image: Junaidi Hanafiah / Dialogue Earth)
A human skull and bones placed inside an old wooden coffin
Highly respected as a unifier of the Seko peoples, Roha predicted the arrival of the two religions of Christianity and Islam to the region. The Seko believe she advised each community to choose one, and this has helped them avoid religious conflict ever since. (Image: Junaidi Hanafiah / Dialogue Earth)

Muhammad Arman, director of advocacy for policy, law and human rights at AMAN, says another challenge for communities is the location of current administrative boundaries.

This is a complication currently facing the people of Hoyane, whose territory lies not only in the North Luwu regency of South Sulawesi but also in the Central Mamuju regency of West Sulawesi.

Arman says this could be resolved in one of two ways, according to methods outlined in the home affairs ministry’s 2014 regulation. One option is for the two regency heads to get together and issue a joint decision on the territory’s boundaries. “The second option is for the North Luwu government to establish recognition of the Indigenous territory, and the neighbouring regency government to do the same,” he explains. 

However, the Central Mamuju government has not yet recognised the Hoyane as a customary law community. In addition, the regency has not been included in the forestry ministry’s integrated team for North Luwu. As such, the areas of Hoyane territory within Central Mamuju are being excluded from the community’s current push for official recognition.

Custodians of their own lands

According to the BRWA, the territories they have helped the nine Seko communities to map cover a total area of 217,788 hectares. Three of the nine – Lodang, Kariango and Beroppa – are still finalising their boundaries. But maps for the other six communities are now complete.

As well as defining the boundaries, the communities have categorised zones within their territories for gardens, settlements, paddy fields and other such uses. Also marked are forested areas community members have long made use of, mainly to hunt, gather rattan canes and cut timber to build houses.

A person holding a machete with one hand and a ripe cocoa pod with the other hand in a lush green forest setting
A Hono community member harvests a cocoa pod from his family’s garden. As well as subsistence foods, the Seko also rely on cash crop agriculture for their livelihoods. (Image: Junaidi Hanafiah / Dialogue Earth)
A person's hand holding a bunch of fresh green peppercorns, with more peppercorns in a plastic bag in the background
The Hono also grow peppercorns, pictured here freshly harvested, and robusta coffee (Image: Junaidi Hanafiah / Dialogue Earth)
A person in blue third sitting on a chair while working with long wooden sticks under a wooden open-air structure
A Turong community member splits bamboo gathered from their customary forest for use as fencing (Image: Junaidi Hanafiah / Dialogue Earth)

Several areas being claimed by the Seko communities – not just forests, but also areas used to farm crops and as settlements – are currently designated as state forests. In addition, several parts of Seko territories have been included in the government’s new national land bank.   

This controversial initiative allows the state to take control of what it deems to be “inactive” land and make it available for productive use, with the aim of promoting development. But critics fear it could potentially work against the recent legal gains of Indigenous peoples, giving the state the power to override the customary use rights communities are working so hard to secure.

For AMAN’s Arman, “the land bank is like a machine that can be used at any time… to take over community resources”.

A banner with text in the Indonesian language hanging outdoors with green plants in the background
A banner in Hono territory protesting against the land bank initiative. Several areas of Hono customary territory have been included in the land bank, including gardens, paddy fields and settlements. (Image: Junaidi Hanafiah / Dialogue Earth)
An aerial view of a winding river surrounded by lush green hills
Plans to develop a hydroelectric dam on the Uro River threaten to inundate paddy fields and other areas of Amballong territory. The Seko have been fighting against the plan since 2014. It was shelved in 2019, but they say it has recently been resurrected. (Image: Junaidi Hanafiah / Dialogue Earth)

Arman points to several other threats to Seko lands, including concessions for logging and plantations, and a plan to develop a hydroelectric dam in Amballong territory.

Uria says once the Hoyane’s territory is officially recognised, they will have the power to stop these projects. It will, he says, allow them to continue using the land in the environmentally sustainable way they have for generations.

This is illustrated by the conservation system practised by the Seko communities. They divide the forest into fully protected areas that should be left alone, and conservation forests where limited utilisation is allowed. This reflects principles inherited from their ancestors, best expressed by a Singkalong proverb recorded in their customary law documents: “The vast expanse of the forest gives us life. Preserve and manage it well so that it becomes the pillar of our collective life. If you neglect it, then you will bring forth hunger.”

A dense forest with a variety of green trees and foliage
Intact forest in Amballong customary territory. Based on their traditional belief that the forest gives life, the Seko practise a conservation system that leaves some areas fully protected and unused. (Image: Junaidi Hanafiah / Dialogue Earth)
A brown deer peeking through green foliage with its face partially covered by a large leaf
The mountain anoa, a kind of buffalo, is an endangered species endemic to Sulawesi. It survives thanks to areas of forest protected by the Seko and other Indigenous peoples. (Image: Junaidi Hanafiah / Dialogue Earth)

On a more political note, Uria adds: “It is the responsibility of the state to restore our lands, which have been taken away.”

Having now submitted their documents to the North Luwu government, the Hoyane, along with five of their fellow Seko communities, are now waiting for this to happen.