What can discrimination, hardship, and resilience teach us about navigating COVID with courage and grace? My guest this week is Rukka Sombolinggi, Secretary General of the Indigenous Peoples Alliance of the Archipelago (AMAN)—the world’s largest Indigenous Peoples organization, and she’s here to discuss the complex answers to this question.

Rukka is a Torajan from the highlands of Sulawesi, a starfish-shaped island the size of Florida. Her people have gained notoriety for their elaborate funeral rituals and the way they have built a local tourism industry while preserving their cultural identity. Rukka, the first female Secretary General of AMAN, is known for her fiery oratory and her longtime dedication to the indigenous rights movement.

Tune in this week as Rukka shares her deep wisdom about how we can navigate pandemics, climate change, and other crises by focusing on the collective approach embodied by our planet’s Indigenous communities, and some why Indigenous communities have had the opportunity to thrive during the COVID pandemic.

What You’ll Discover

  • The dynamic of the Indigenous People’s movement in Indonesia, and the role that AMAN plays in leading this community.
  • What leadership means to Rukka as an Indigenous woman.
  • How leadership differs in Indigenous societies versus corporate or other organizational structures.
  • Our role as inhabitants of this planet in addressing the mistakes we’ve made.
  • Why Rukka believes Saving Human Civilization under current global leadership constructs is impossible.
  • The drivers and values behind the resiliency and solidarity that the world’s Indigenous communities display.
  • Why Indigenous communities hold the key to how we can control and be productive during the outbreak of the current and future pandemics.
  • How Rukka suggests we move forward as a global society to minimize the damage caused by the foolishness and greed of its leaders.


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Full Transcript

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What can discrimination, hardship and resilience teach us about navigating COVID with courage and grace? Join Rukka Sombolinggi of AMAN Indigenous Peoples Alliance of the Archipelago in Indonesia to receive deep wisdom on how we can navigate pandemics and climate change.

Welcome to Leadership Moves, a podcast for visionary changemakers ready to shake up and re-envision the world. I’m your host, Mallika Dutt. Join me and my extraordinary guests as we discuss how to generate social change through leadership and the entrepreneurial, non-profit and philanthropic fields.

Mallika: Bongi melo, Rukka, I am so happy to see you. I am saying good morning from New York.

Rukka: Bongi melo, Mallika, good evening from Indonesia.

Mallika: Rukka, I am so happy to have this conversation with you, especially since we’ve just come out of Glasgow and we’re talking about climate change, and especially talking about the leadership of Indigenous Peoples around the world and really helping us figure out how we’re going to move through these crises and actually survive as a species and move to a different leadership model. And you have been in the leadership of the Indigenous movements in Indonesia for many years. Can you tell us a little bit about AMAN and what you do?

Rukka: Yeah, thank you, Mallika, bongi melo from  Bulgar. My name is Rukka Sombolinggi. I belong to the Toraja people. It’s in the heart of Sulawesi islands. And we are from the mountain people and we are very well known for our culture, that’s the death culture, our ethos, and also our buffalo, water buffalo. I have been the Secretary General of AMAN in the Municipal Alliance of the Archipelago since March 2017. And we will have our next election hopefully next year, October.

AMAN is Indigenous Peoples organization, it is composed of communities, Indonesian communities from our [inaudible] Indonesian Archipelago. At the moment our members is around 2,500 Indigenous communities. The citizens of AMAN is around 20 million persons. And we are established in March 1999 just right after the fall of Suharto regime. And ever since we have been evolving and morphing forward, sometimes one step forward, 10 steps backwards. But that’s the dynamic of Indigenous Peoples movement in Indonesia. And I think that’s the brief descriptions of AMAN.

Mallika: That’s a huge organization. I mean that is a very large constituency of people and that’s a lot of responsibility that you are shouldering and the leadership that you are playing. I know that in our previous conversations we’ve talked about the idea of resiliency and leadership. And also, how leadership in Indigenous societies is often different than the way in which we think about leadership perhaps in corporate arenas or even in other ways of organizational structures. Can you talk a little bit about what leadership means to you?

Rukka: I grew up in a traditional Toraja community. I was born in Toraja and grew up my family, we are also coming from the leaders of family, my father and my mother as well because they are from a different community. So, I have also from my mother’s side the leaderships family and also from my father’s side, they happen to be in a different community. And in AMAN what I believe as the leadership, we believe in collective leaderships. So, from early beginning and also this is what I learned from my background as a Toraja Indigenous Peoples, are there’s no single leaders, yeah.

It’s always coming from collective leaderships. We might say there is a chief. Or perhaps in Indonesia we say Kepala Adat, or in AMAN, in AMAN we say there is a Secretary General is the top leader or the organizations. But in reality there is no single hand power in that organization. And I think what AMAN embraced and follows so far, is the reflections of the collective leadership of Indigenous Peoples in Indonesia. And I believe also in other parts of the world where the leaderships actually coming from the spirit, from the values, from the firms, from the towns that decide together.

And we set our goals, we set where we are going, our destinations together. And that’s why we have the what we call leaders, to help us navigate through. So, we are in one big boat, I always love to use that example, in one boat and then we have a captain with the wheel. But that captain will not work alone. It’s all about gear up the engines, getting the [inaudible], getting the crew all together, and even passengers. So that’s, I think that’s the – how can I describe the leadership of Indigenous Peoples, especially the Toraja and also that’s also what I see in the leadership of AMAN.

So sometimes when people say, “What do you see your leadership?” I say, “I don’t have my own leaderships because the leaderships from AMAN are coming from the organizations, coming from the members, coming from our elders, of the wisdom of elders.”

Mallika: I’m reflecting on what you are saying about leadership in this context and how you see us all being part of this collective, this big boat where everybody plays a role, everybody plays a part. And certainly, we are at this place on our planet right now where I think more and more people are beginning to understand that. I know that climate change has been a very, very important issue in your own work. And I’d like to hear about what you think we need to be doing as humans on this planet to really address what we have done.

Rukka: Yeah. We are in the time when we are at the very crossroad, yeah. We create our own crossroad and we only have one option that are we going to fall or are we going to survive? And I think that’s where we are now. We were all expecting that Glasgow COP will get our leaders together and listening to the voice of Indigenous Peoples and local communities. And also, poor people, women and young generations and get ourselves together to navigate through this difficult time.

But I’m very disappointed with the results because there is no such big results that will save us together. And why? Because I’m so concerned, we are so concerned because we see this as we see ourselves, the whole humankind, we only have one home together which is our mother Earth. And if we consider that as our boat we are all in the same old boat. And we can only survive the current, the waves only if we cooperate. The things that we see from Glasgow is not unfortunately, it’s not the way, yeah.

And we’ve seen, now we clearly have the evidence that the remaining 80% of the global existing biodiversity is actually in the land of Indigenous Peoples and local communities. We have seen also the carbon maps of Indigenous Peoples and local communities that we have together with Global Alliance of [inaudible] Leaderships. But unfortunately, you know, and those are the things, that the one that we have in hand now is they are not given, they are not natural. They still exist because we fight, because we try to defend them with our blood, with our tears, and with our lives.

We are lucky enough that we still have Indigenous Peoples to defend on this wealth, yeah, on the remaining stressors that we have together. And we are indeed still able to contribute more, to take care of others more. Unfortunately, our leaders, our government state leaders they don’t listen to that. And they’re making decisions based on the false solutions. So, I think unfortunately, I don’t think we’re going to save our civilizations. I think we might need to have another set of really breakthrough decisions, commitment of the global leaders unfortunately.

Mallika: So, Rukka, if you know the place that you are in is that you don’t think we’re going to be able to save the human civilization, what does that do for your sense of your leadership? What then are we to do right now? How do we take a statement like that? How do we take the reality of that, the foolishness of our leaders, if you will, the greed of our leaders, if you will, and really, I guess, what I’m asking is I feel that way a lot myself, that we really are not going to be able to turn the ship around. And then I ask myself, then what, what are we supposed to be doing right now?

Rukka: Yeah, I, on the side of Indigenous Peoples and local community or communities, we have been always committed to do things not just for ourself but for mother Earth. Because we also think that beyond our community there are also other people that will suffer if we misconduct, if we create our environment, our mother Earth in the wrong way. That’s always the value and belief of Indigenous Peoples, that’s why we have to take care of. So, in taking care of our mother Earth, we are taking care of others as well.

And we are still very committed to do that. We knew the challenge will be much more difficult because now we have this deal on how they are going to make the carbon market and carbon projects that will create more problems of us Indigenous Peoples on top of our already existing problems. But we are very committed to fight them. And I think today we shouldn’t, as a global community we shouldn’t listen to our leaders, just our leaders. We need to follow our step together, yeah, our way together.

And I think in this time what we need is the citizen solidarity, yeah. I don’t think the global leaders, our president, our prime minister, our, whoever they are, they won’t be able to do anything if we say to them, “We don’t want to follow you.” And so, for me, because when we’re talking now about the Global South and Global North, we are in the Global South, we suffer so much. But also in the Global North, all the citizens are also suffering so much. So again, again, now this time if we cannot rely on our leaders and then we can only rely on the solidarity of people and [inaudible] people.

So, from Indigenous Peoples in local communities and with the citizens in the north, in the Global North. I think this is what we are calling for now that, okay, let our leaders decide what they want to do but they will never dictate us.

Mallika: How is that playing out in Indonesia right now? What is the tenor, what is the political space that you have right now to move some of these issues forward?

Rukka: Unfortunately, we have very much what we call rollback in terms of the policies, and regulations, and laws in Indonesia since last year. We do have a new law what they call the Omnibus Law on job creations. But actually, that law is about scrapping out all the environmental and social safeguards. And also allowing company, yeah, the owners of the company to afford and deprive the rights of workers. But they call it Omnibus Law for job creations which is not true.

So that’s the setback and also the setback that they revise the law about our anticorruption commissions. And also, they have control of the national constitutional court members. But this time it’s a very difficult time and also during the COVID crisis. But what’s happening is the civil society, we are even much more consolidated, although we can only communicate through online communications because we cannot go anywhere.

And I’ve seen also solidarity of how the farmers, especially the farmers near the capital of Jakarta helping the members of worker unions in the capital, in the cities near the capital with rice, with rice, affordable rice. These workers that have been abandoned by their company, by their employers during the COVID, some of them, they completely lost their jobs. Some of them they completely, they got the cut working hours, meaning the cut day payment. And they have no support from the government and also from the company.

So, it is the farmers, people who live in the rural areas who help them, and that’s what resiliency and that’s what solidarity means for us. So, it is very, very important and the key to our survival as a community.

Mallika: COVID is something that you just brought up, Rukka, and certainly I think for all of us around the world, COVID has been a real teacher. Has really revealed so much about the way we are together, the systems we have created, the challenges that we have created through the systems that we have created. I mean so many, many issues have been revealed through COVID. And I know that you believe that COVID has really been an ally in some ways, has been a real teacher to us. Can you share a little bit more about that?

Rukka: Yeah. As I mentioned earlier about the solidarity from what we call a rural and urban relationship, how do we actually connect to each other? This has been always discriminatory, a feud against us who live in the rural areas by people who live in the cities. Or discriminations and stigma against Indigenous Peoples. But if we really are being honest and open to see what is the phenomenon during this pandemic, the city who is much more developed and advanced in many ways.

But during this crisis we see the global architecture, economic architecture is falling apart. They cannot feed everybody, they cannot fulfil the needs of all of the people who live in the city, the city becomes the most unsafe place under the sky. What happened to us Indigenous Peoples is as long as we still have control of our territory and resources, we still can produce food. We can produce traditional medicines. We can have our own, what we call, Indigenous quarantine, Indigenous lockdown as long as we have enough in the community.

And we can even because we don’t go anywhere, we even produce more food and produce more medicines. And all these beautiful things are happening, we already have the young peoples who have gone back to the community, they established our, what we call Indigenous learning centers, Indigenous schools. We have women’s groups who comes together and plan, and they build their own, what we call small enterprise, the young people. We are more productive during this pandemic, during this COVID crisis.

We even have, if we have more than enough food we give it out to people in the city, to our neighboring community who don’t have enough food. And we are very happy to do that because we know they are in need. And these other people who live in the city that is being helped out. So that’s why I say, COVID in some way is our friend because they confirm some of our things that we’re already fighting for so far. They give us answers. They reveal our weaknesses. And they reveal also our strength. And this is really depending on us.

And we have what we call new young entrepreneurs in Indigenous communities, they are blooming up. They are just flowers during this pandemic. They are at home, they’re making palm sugar, they’re making coconut sugar. They are selling fruits, cucumbers and a lot of things, and gingers. And these are all coming from cooperative movement, collective movement in the community.

And then as I mentioned earlier, we do have the persons movement in the rural area in Indonesia. They are the ones who produce rice more. And they send it to the city, to the workers, the members of the workers unions so they can still get affordable rice during this difficult time. And that is what I call COVID is our friend because it reveals so much.

Mallika: Rukka. I could feel the excitement in your voice when you were sharing what was happening in the communities and especially when you were talking about the young ones and the entrepreneurship that is blooming. I think this is probably one of the best COVID stories that I have heard so far through this entire pandemic. And you’re absolutely right, there is a way in which we are being asked to look at how we live on this Earth differently which is allowing us, as you said, to reveal our weaknesses as well as our strengths.

So, Rukka, do you think that there is more and more openness to Indigenous ways and Indigenous learning in the world? Are you finding that there are more people that are interested in learning from Indigenous communities in Indonesia and around the world about how we might live on this planet differently?

Rukka: We do have, I’ll tell you, some of the very likeminded government, the Ministry of Educations and Cultures, the Ministry of Health, they are willing to learn. But they don’t have much authority to execute or to help Indigenous Peoples, how do I put it, in the more substantial way, unfortunately, yeah. Because in Indonesia the powerful one is the one who ally with the private sectors. Yeah, the one who will always support the private sectors over Indigenous Peoples, over persons, farmers, over workers. That’s our problems here.

But I strongly believe because we have had so much interest from non-government sectors, yeah, from the organizations of mothers, of women, of the young people in the city who are so excited. And they realize, they say, “We’ve never heard about this. This is beautiful.” So, I think that’s why I believe really, Mallika, the strength of this, you know, more on the connections of people in the rural area and people in the city directly.

And this is what we need to strengthen in the future because people, especially young people in the city, they don’t understand our situations because our situations have never been really told in the main public discussions, in the mainstream media. Yeah, we have been always portrayed as, oh, there’s a conflict, where there is conflict there is Indigenous Peoples. They always see the dark side, yeah, the struggling side of our life as Indigenous Peoples.

They are not given the chance to learn about our contributions, about our strength. And I have seen during this pandemic that more and more people in the city, especially the young people who understand, who try to learn. And even us, how can we go to these and say, “Yeah, you can but later, not now because we’re still having COVID now, restrictions.” Because we don’t know, maybe if you go into the community you will bring the virus and we never go because this virus is invisible and we cannot make sure you bring it or not.

So that’s why we’re still very much, very conscious about the spread of COVID. And now we are more active on getting the vaccine. We are still trying, finally we get a few thousand of the single shots, Johnson & Johnson, that was contributed by the Dutch Government. We tried to get Indigenous Peoples protected first before moving aggressively to invite others into our Indigenous community. But I think things are on the right path now and more and more people are interested.

Mallika: Rukka, if you had any wisdom that you wanted to share about leadership in this time, what would you say to people who are listening to us right now? What are the kinds of attributes that leaders needs right now to really show up for the world, for this Earth?

Rukka: I think we don’t need selfish leaders now. And we also need our examples, yeah, or leaders who lead by examples. We always see that, you know, it’s very easy to say, but sometimes it’s very difficult to find [inaudible] leader, sometimes official leader will say different things from what they are doing. And this is, you know, you know the corruptions, they’re not supposed to be corrupt if you’re leaders. You have to set examples, the good examples that you believe in, to people. And if you don’t do it, how will people do it?

So, I do believe and at least try to do small things. And also compassion and empathy, yeah, and empathy. Sometimes as leaders, we don’t, for me, I realized I have so much privilege. Just, yes, maybe becoming the Secretary General of AMAN, I have privilege that I can work from home. Yeah, working from home is a privilege now. But for many they cannot afford to be working from home, yeah. People who live on the streets, they cannot afford.

Or just like my friends in the office, some of them even though they have the facilities to work from home but they still have to go out because of some of these things. People in the cities, they do scare, they do want to be protected from the virus. But they think they have no options. So, the leaders, I think we need to have the empathy, yeah. Because empathy, only empathy that will make us able to put ourselves in other shoes and then understand other situations from the correct, from the right perspective.

Otherwise, we sometimes measure others with the wrong measurements. So, I think that’s what we need, empathy and also leaders that can bring people together because I understand the situations, different situations, different needs, different commitments. And we know that where we are going and with all these different opinions, and aspirations, and situations, we need to bring together as I mentioned earlier. We need to have this kept in the big boat.

And I truly believe with the leadership of Indigenous Peoples, the leadership of my elders in the organizations, the wisdom of elders from the Indigenous community, those are the examples that we really need to look into the examples of leaders.

Mallika: Thank you, Rukka, this has been a really important conversation I think for us to really understand what Indigenous styles of leadership can teach us about reciprocity, resilience, empathy, generosity, moving away from selfishness. And really being able to put ourselves in other people’s shoes, to understand how we can create a world where we honor this Earth and honor one another. And figure out how to be in this boat together because it’s the only one we have.

Rukka: Yeah, that’s the only one we have, one opportunity, and if we sink, if the boat sinks, I mean if we’ll ever – if any one of us will survive. But yeah, that’s why, Mallika, I really believe on leadership of people in this time because I cannot rely on the leadership of what’s our leaders now, yeah, official leaders, I cannot really.

Mallika: We all have leaders, we all need to be leaders right now is what you are saying, we all need to be leaders?

Rukka: At least we have to become the leaders of our own individual destiny, yeah. And we need to believe that because some people, they feel like, oh, my, what is my destiny? My destiny will be depending on my jobs. No, it’s not, yeah, it’s not, it’s our destiny, we can decide our future, it’s in our hand. Yeah, it’s not in the hand of our bosses, it’s in our hand.

Mallika: Thank you, Rukka, it’s in our hands. It’s in our hands. Thank you so much.

Rukka: Thanks for listening to the Leadership Moves podcast, which is made possible by the BUILD program of the Ford Foundation. If you want more information or the resources from today’s show, visit mallikadutt.com. M-A-L-L-I-K-A D-U-T-T .com. Until next time.

If you enjoyed today’s show do subscribe and follow Leadership Moves wherever you listen to your podcasts. Please leave a rating and review to let me know what you think and to help others find the show. Your honest feedback will help me to create a great podcast with valuable leadership stories and wisdom. Join us next time.

Leadership Moves is supported by the BUILD program of the Ford Foundation

Podcast music composed by Devadas, (c) Mallika Dutt, LLC 2022

Production team: Mallika Dutt, Kiani Ned, Loubna Bouajaj, and Digital Freedom Productions