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

Gerard Persoon, Professor of Cultural Anthropology and Development Sociology, studied how indigenous peoples in the rainforests of Indonesia and the Philippines live and how they respond to the influences of the modern world. Thre is now an online dossier available on his work.

Indigenous peoples under pressure

Gerard Persoon

Gerard Persoon

Indigenous peoples have been under pressure for the past ten years. In the rainforest they are losing ground and their habitat is being damaged by wood-felling and mine construction. Their rights in intellectual property also need attention. The pharmaceutical industry, for example, is making use of the plant and other knowledge of indigenous peoples and then patenting their products, while the native people receive little or none of the profits. Gerard Persoon 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. In an online web dossier Gerard Persoon takes the reader in the complex world of national and international governments, indigenous races and their rights.

Protecting ashtrays

An example of Persoon's work is his research on the Mentawaiers on the island of Siberut in Indonesia. 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.

Initially, the Mentawaiers were sceptical about the park. They had lived there for centuries and claimed that their way of life had little impact on the environment. The strict conservation rules suddenly meant that some everyday activities had become illegal, such as gathering these forest products. They were even banned from using things that were not protected, such as shells that washed up on the beach, which they used as ashtrays or sometimes sold to tourists. The Mentawaiers found this completely incomprehensible. “Do we now have to protect ashtrays?” they asked. It was a classical clash abetween more Western and indigenous idea about nature and nature protection.

Teaching bureaucrats about indigenous people

In his time on Siberut, Persoon learned that it is very important to respect the rights of indigenous peoples and explain their way of life to policymakers. ‘The bureaucrats in Jakarta needed to be taught about the Mentawaiers’ way of life, their traditional religion, the impact of their interaction with nature and how little harm this causes. In addition, the fact that such a natural area still existed at all and had conservation potential was actually due to the local communities that had been living there for centuries.’

Ethical products

'Paying attention to 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.'

Web dossiers

The website about Gerard Persoon is part of a Leiden University campaign of presenting web dossiers highlighting research and teaching in Leiden. Each dossier features the work of one of Leiden's leading researchers and the impact of his or her research.  

See also

Web dossier on Gerard Persoon

Studying in Leiden

Cultural Anthropology and Development Sociology


(9 December 2014 )

Last Modified: 11-12-2014