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Get to know Gerard Persoon and discover the world of indigenous peoples

The lands and way of life of indigenous peoples in the tropical regions of the world are under threat. Their rights and lands need to be protected.

Read more about Professor of Cultural Anthropology and Development Sociology, Gerard Persoon, about research and teaching on this topic at Leiden University and about their impact on society.

Discover the world at Leiden University.

Research: how can we be ‘ethical’ consumers?

Indigenous peoples have been under threat for decades. They are losing land in rainforests, and logging and mining encroach on their territory. Their intellectual property rights are also in need of attention. The pharmaceutical industry, for instance, uses indigenous peoples’ knowledge - of plants, for example - in products that it goes on to patent; however, the indigenous peoples enjoy little or no share in the profits. Professor of Anthropology Gerard Persoon researches the way of life of indigenous peoples from the rainforests of Indonesia and the Philippines and their response to the influence of the modern world. He uses his knowledge to champion the rights of indigenous peoples, and tries to ensure that these rights are taken into account in the production of goods from these regions. Examples are sustainable wood (with FSC or PEFC certification, for example) and palm oil (with RSPO certification).

The Orang Rimba on Sumatra (photo: Gerard Persoon).

Various groups would prefer the inhabitants of the tropical rainforest to leave. These are not just businesses such as logging and mining companies; a number of governments also believe that people should live in villages rather than the rainforest. ‘This is at odds with what international organisations like the United Nations say,’ says Gerard Persoon. ‘The prevailing notion there is that indigenous peoples should be able to decide for themselves where they live. This right has since been enshrined in the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (2007). There is some tension between what governments want, what the international community thinks and what the people that it actually concerns believe.’

Gerard Persoon has researched the way of life of indigenous peoples in the rainforests of Indonesia and the Philippines since 1979. He also looks at how the outside world threatens their way of life and their rights, as well as at how these threats can be avoided. ‘In Indonesia, for example, the government permitted large-scale logging on the island of Siberut in the 1970s and 1980s. Then, in the 1990s, the part of the island that had not yet suffered from deforestation was suddenly declared a national park. The indigenous inhabitants first had to watch as the trees were cut down, and then suddenly had to comply with the rules of the national park, which meant changing their way of life. As you can imagine, they did not simply acquiesce.’

Persoon has also been involved in various important meetings concerning UN conventions on biodiversity and intellectual property rights. ‘A great deal of what we have in the world – different types of rice or potatoes, medicinal plants or domestic animals, for instance – is in some cases the result of centuries of experimentation by indigenous peoples. But that work, those methods, have never been patented, while many companies in the world exploit this knowledge. The World Intellectual Property Organization was set up in Geneva in 2000 to provide official recognition and protection of the intellectual rights to crops, music, indigenous peoples’ costumes and so on. Part of the profits that companies make on the back of this knowledge should benefit the indigenous peoples who own the intellectual property rights – via a trust fund, for example.’

In order to further his understanding of indigenous peoples and the issues at stake, Persoon spent a lot of time in the tropical rainforest and worked for a number of years at the Institute of Environmental Sciences. He has also worked for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Asian Development Bank. These years of experience have given him a good idea of long-term developments in the regions. He and his colleagues at the Leiden University Institute for Cultural Anthropology and Development Sociology work to improve our understanding of indigenous peoples and their rights. He is also a member of the committee that advises the Dutch government on the purchase of sustainable timber, and until recently was on the Supervisory Board of the Dutch branch of the WWF.

Research themes: indigenous peoples in Indonesia and the Philippines

The Mentawaiers on Siberut

The Mentawaiers have lived for centuries on the Indonesian island Siberut. In 1992, the Suharto government declared the western part of the island to be a national park. Gerard Persoon was involved in this process in his work for the Asian Development Bank and tried to bridge the gap between the worlds of the inhabitants of the island and the government.

More about The Mentawaiers on Siberut

The Orang Rimba on Sumatra

During his career Gerard Persoon has also conducted research among the Orang Rimba (formerly also known as the Kubu). This is a people that was considered doomed to extinction more than a century ago. They still exist, however, and due to the discussion on indigenous peoples are gaining increasing national and international recognition.

More about The Orang Rimba on Sumatra

The Agta in the Philippines

International agreements have been reached on the rights of indigenous peoples, but how do you ensure that the peoples themselves are aware of these agreements, particularly if they can barely read or write? Gerard Persoon and a number of colleagues are researching the experiences of the Agta in the Philippines.

More about The Agta in the Philippines
‘Indigenous peoples also want to benefit from modern comforts’

‘Analysing the world and proposing solutions’

Gerard Persoon teaches bachelor’s and master’s course units and supervises PhD fellows. For him it’s important that students do not simply analyse situations but also come up with possible solutions to specific problems. ‘I like to go a step further than simple analysis or reflection. Thinking creatively about possible solutions to environmental and development problems is an exciting challenge.’ International and interdisciplinary collaboration is also very important in the course units that Persoon teaches.

Students during fieldwork on the Philippines (photo: Gerard Persoon).

Many people choose to study cultural anthropology because they are interested in the world, says Persoon. ‘But students have a wide range of career opportunities when they graduate. Many alumni end up working at international organisations or Dutch NGOs such as HIVOS, CORDAID or the Dutch branch of the WWF. Some also become teachers or journalists. Others become independent consultants who advise municipalities, for example, on minority issues. The field of work for graduates in anthropology is extremely diverse, as an alumni survey has shown.’

More programmes on indigenous peoples and rights

Cultural Anthropology and Development Sociology : How are the rules that govern society determined? Who decides norms and values? Why do cultures clash? How do people in different parts of the world present themselves on social media? What influence does the economic crisis have on developing countries? These are the questions you will be trying to answer if you decide to study Cultural Anthropology and Development Sociology.

South and Southeast Asian Studies : The English-taught Bachelor’s programme in South and Southeast Asian Studies brings together dozens of peoples and religions and countless languages. It is a highly diverse area, yet it is still regarded as a single region. How is this possible? The answer can be found by looking for the similarities and differences in culture, religion, economy, history and politics.

Biology : Biology is the right subject for you if you are curious about the world around you. Do you want to know what life is, how nature works and how it changes? In the Biology programme you learn to look at life through the lens of a scientist. You ask such questions as why are things the way they are, how do they work and how did they come into being? You try to find answers to these questions and then share the knowledge you discover with others.

Law : There are many different types of laws, and everyone comes into contact with some aspect of the law at some time in their life. Law governs our daily lives. Even buying a loaf of bread or topping up the balance on your mobile phone are legal transactions. Studying law is about more than major legal cases; in this study programme you will also look at everyday legal matters.

Political Science : During the Political Science programme you will be involved with societal problems and their solutions. You will look at how problems relating to criminality, healthcare, economy, the environment, and multiculturality find their way onto the political agenda. And you will pay attention to possible solutions. Which individuals, groups or organisations get what they want, and which do not? What standards and interests play a role here, and how does that work?

Honours Class : Each year Leiden University organises over 20 different Honours Classes, for ambitious and motivated undergraduate students.

More researchers of indigenous peoples and rights

  • Bart Barendregt
  • Adriaan Bedner
  • Harm Beukers
  • Mayo C. Buenafe
  • D. Darmanto
  • Ton Dietz
  • Henrike Florusbosch
  • Hans de Iongh
  • Maarten Jansen
  • Sabine Luning
  • Tessa Minter
  • Gert Oostindie
  • Jan Michiel Otto
  • Peter Pels
  • Philippe Peycam
  • Ratna Saptari
  • Nico Schrijver
  • Jacqueline Vel
  • Willem Vogelsang
  • Merlijn van Weerd
  • Ekoningytas Wardani

Bart Barendregt Associate Professor

Coordinates a research project on the relationship between societal changes and popular music in South-East Asia.

Adriaan Bedner Professor of Law and Society in Indonesia, Associate Professor

Studies law in Indonesia, in particular access to justice, dispute resolution and the judiciary.

Harm Beukers Extraordinary Professor of the History of Medicine

His research interests focus on the interaction between Western and Japanese medicine.

Mayo C. Buenafe PhD student

Researches protection of cultural assets of indigenous peoples and development of indigenous knowledge systems, in particular the Agta.

D. Darmanto PhD candidate

His research focuses on changes in the living conditions and environment of the inhabitants of the island of Siberut (Indonesia).

Ton Dietz Professor of Development in Africa, and Director of the African Studies Centre

His research interests focus on land and water conflicts, the political geography of Africa and climate change.

Henrike Florusbosch Assistant Professor

Her research focuses on the question of how heritage can become an economic resource.

Hans de Iongh Associate Professor of Nature Conservation

Conducts research on the composition and distribution of lion populations in Africa.

Maarten Jansen Professor of MesoAmerican Archaeology

Studies the history of traditional Indian tribes in Central and South America in the pre-Columbian era.

Sabine Luning Assistant Professor

Conducts research on the effect of large-scale multinational goldmine development on local communities in Burkina Faso.

Tessa Minter Assistant Professor

Conducts research on the role of native peoples in South-East Asia in decision-making processes.

Gert Oostindie Professor of Caribbean History

Conducts research on the Caribbean and Dutch colonial past.

Jan Michiel Otto Professor of Law and Governance in Developing Countries

Publishes on issues of 'good governance', as well as on comparative sharia and national law in the Muslim world.

Peter Pels Professor of Anthropology and Sociology of Africa

Expert in the field of religion and politics in a colonial context, nationalism, water conservation and natural heritage.

Philippe Peycam Director of the International Institute for Asian Studies

Studies the colonial past of Vietnam and Cambodia and the resistance that arose in these countries against the colonial rulers.

Ratna Saptari Assistant Professor

Conducts research on the tobacco industry in Indonesia and India.

Nico Schrijver Professor of Public International Law

Studies international law as a means of promoting world peace and security.

Jacqueline Vel Senior Researcher

Coordinates an interdisciplinary project examining the large-scale cultivation of the purging nut as a raw material for biofuels.

Willem Vogelsang Researcher

Publishes on the history and culture of Afghanistan, and on modern military and political developments in the region.

Merlijn van Weerd Researcher

Coordinates the annual course on water usage and management in the Philippines.

Ekoningytas Wardani Wardani

Studies food security, indigenous peoples, Southeast Asia, rural and agricultural development, and sustainable livelihood.

Impact: ‘ethical’ products

Do the rights of indigenous peoples in the rainforests of Southeast Asia have a bearing on the everyday life of the average Dutch person? Definitely, says Persoon. ‘An emphasis on these rights has meant we can now buy certified products from tropical regions, such as timber, or palm oil, which is in almost all kitchen and bathroom products. This certification guarantees the rights of indigenous peoples. Certified products that we buy are therefore “ethical” in that respect.’ Gerard Persoon is on a special committee that advises the government on the purchase of sustainable timber. He also uses his knowledge to protect the rights of indigenous peoples in other ways.

Read more

Collection point for logs on Borneo (photo: Gerard Persoon).

The world of...

Discover the world in Leiden. Leiden’s researchers collaborate with colleagues throughout the world, often from other adjacent disciplines. Gerard Persoon also works with eminent colleagues from different countries. The world map below shows a number of Gerard Persoon’s global contacts (zoom in on the map to see the markers more clearly).