Indonesian President Joko Widodo gave control of nine forests back to native, or indigenous, groups last December. The move was praised as an important step to recognize and protect forests traditionally held by indigenous Indonesians.
However, indigenous groups were disappointed earlier this month when President Widodo did not attend a congress of Indonesian indigenous groups.
Instead, he sent Environment and Forestry Minister Siti Nurbaya. She said the recent release of land was, in her words, “just the beginning.”
The Indigenous Peoples Alliance of the Archipelago, or AMAN, says an estimated 8.2 million hectares of forests belong to indigenous people. But, the group says only 20,000 hectares of forest have been divested back to indigenous leaders by Indonesia.
The newly-elected secretary-general of AMAN did not blame the president, but those around him for slowing progress on the issue.
In 2012, Indonesia’s Constitutional Court ruled that indigenous forests should be protected. But it took more than three years, after the ruling, for President Widodo to sign over the first forests.
There are other issues that have slowed the transfer of land to indigenous groups. These include wide geographical differences between areas to be protected and environmental threats. Adding to that are the many different traditional laws among the country’s indigenous groups.
Government action took time after forest ruling
Wimar Witolar worked with the Environment and Forest Ministry until 2015. He said, “This is the first time anything like this has been tried on Indonesian lands.” He said the biggest part of the effort was to make a map of indigenous forests. Now that the maps are done, he says, transfers can go forward.
Participants take photos on the sidelines of an indigenous peoples gathering, near Medan, Sumatra Island, Indonesia, March 17, 2017.
Deny Rahadian is head of the Indonesian Community Mapping Network. Rahadian said getting district-level governments to supervise traditional village boundaries is important to speed the forest transfers.
“For instance, it took eight years to recognize that certain West Javanese forests belong to the Kesapuhan Banten Kidul people,” said Rahadian.
Environmental activist, Aleta Baun said the goal is to have the government turn over all eight million hectares to indigenous communities. She spoke at the meeting of indigenous groups. She said Jokowi’s absence at the indigenous meeting this month hurt efforts to transfer forest lands.
Kinarang Boy is an indigenous person from the island of Borneo. He says that a forest being designated as indigenous does not protect it from farming or other activities. He says there are not yet any laws regulating the use of these traditional lands.
“We have customary land rights that are not yet encoded into laws, but we use our land for many things.”
That includes farming and caring for traditional relics and burial places. But these are not permitted by law.
Forest management proves not easy but necessary
Moira Moeliono is with the Center for International Forestry Research.
She says the government has been slow to give forests to indigenous groups out of concern for how they will manage the forests.
“Yet the government management of forests was not much better,” she said, adding that, “It was either use or conserve.”
However, indigenous control of forests does not mean that business activity stops. One group in South Sulawesi still permits logging in its forests in some areas.
Tropical forests are of special interest because they can have an effect on the world’s climate.
A report from the Word Resources Institute and Woods Hole Research Center in 2016 said tropical forests on indigenous lands are important for storing carbon. It said more than one quarter of all carbon held in tropical forests is on indigenous lands.
Kinarang Boy said indigenous people can deal with delays. “We will wait for our forests to be protected,” he said. “We have held on to our land(s) this far, and we don’t plan to sell them at any point in the future.”
I’m Mario Ritter.
Krithika Varagur reported this story from Sumatra for VOA News. Mario Ritter adapted it for VOA Learning English. Hai Do was the editor.
Words in This Story
Indigenous –adj. native to a place, from a place since the beginning
Divest –v. to sell or give away something of value
Quarry –v. to cut rock for use in building or other activities
Designated –adj. to be identified as, to be officially considered a member of some group
Relics –n. objects from the past