TANJUNG GUSTA, SUMATRA - Last December, Indonesian President Joko Widodo handed over the symbolic keys to nine forests back to indigenous groups. It was widely hailed as a milestone in indigenous Indonesians’ fight for recognition and state protection. But at present only about 20,000 hectares of forest in the whole country have been divested to indigenous leadership, out of an estimated 8.2 million hectares of hutan adat, or customary forests, that the Indigenous Peoples Alliance of the Archipelago (AMAN) says belongs to them.
The latest blow to their campaign came last week when Widodo, widely known as Jokowi, failed to attend a congress of Indonesia’s indigenous groups which takes place every five years.
In his place, he sent Environment and Forestry Minister Siti Nurbaya, who remarked that the land released so far was “just the beginning” of the administration’s efforts. She announced the transfer of 7,000 more hectares near Lake Toba in North Sumatra to indigenous ownership, in addition to the 13,000 that came with Jokowi’s initial announcement.
“Honestly, 20,000 hectares - that’s nothing,” said Rukka Sombolinggi, AMAN’s newly elected secretary-general. “President Jokowi has made a commitment, but the people around him, especially the Ministry of Environment, are the ones to blame, because they’re really dragging their feet on this issue.”
The Ministry could not be immediately reached for comment.
The factors slowing the transfer process include the absence of local regulations to enforce a 2012 Constitutional Court ruling protecting indigenous forests, and the diversity of geography, environmental threats, and traditional laws among the country’s various indigenous groups.
One indication of the difficulty of implementing forestry policy is that it took more than three years for President Jokowi to act on a precedent set during the previous administration, of president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono.
The Constitutional Court’s ruling “was not followed by a fundamental policy change, so no adequate legal and institutional measures were then in place [to start transferring land],” Nurbaya told Indonesian magazine Tempo last month. A “directorate-general of social forestry and environmental partnerships” was established in 2014, the Ministerial Regulation on Forest Rights was passed in 2015, and Jokowi only signed over the initial forests in late 2016.
“The overall timeline for complete transfer is in the distant horizon,” said Wimar Witoelar, a political analyst focused on climate change. “This is the first time anything like this has been tried on Indonesian lands.”
The “big work” surrounding the regulation was making a map of indigenous forests, he said, which took up most of the years between the Constitutional Court ruling and the first transfers.
“At least that’s out of the way, so now we have to see if the transfer process can gain its own momentum,” he said.
Deny Rahadian, head of the Indonesian Community Mapping Network (JKPP), spent almost 20 years mapping out indigenous lands across 25 provinces, and arrived at the figure of 8.2 hectares that informed the Constitutional Court ruling.
Since the ruling, JKPP has helped to sign Memorandum’s of Understanding with eight district-level governments to regulate traditional village boundaries and land use. This, said Rahadian, is the key to hastening forest transfer.
“Now we are being pushed to integrate our maps with the Ministry of Home Affairs and the Ministry of Agricultural and Spatial Planning,” said Rahadian. He hoped the joint effort would streamline the process of forest transfers.
“Even if this happens, though, it is a long process,” said Rahadian. “For instance, it took eight years to recognize that certain West Javanese forests belong to the Kesapuhan Banten Kidul people!”
Indigenous groups get to work
“Jokowi’s absence this week was a blow to our ultimate goal, which is still the full transfer of all eight million hectares of forest to indigenous communities,” said Aleta Baun, a prominent environmental activist from Mollo, East Nusa Tenggara, speaking at the AMAN conference last Friday. “In the meantime, we will have to continue the local fight to protect our lands.”
Earlier this month, Baun, known as Mama Aleta, started a $100,000 initiative with funds from her Goldman Environmental Prize to help women in rural Indonesia fight for environmental causes. She is well known for organizing a peaceful year-long weaving protest against marble mining on a sacred Mollo site.
Kinarang Boy, a Balangan Dayak indigenous person from South Kalimantan, said his community has been in a catch-22 while the government delays formal land transfer.
“Our land’s designation as an indigenous forest did not actually prevent any external activity, including farming or gardening on protected forest areas,” he told VOA. “When we try to use it, however, we are sometimes punished.”
In the absence of laws that regulate traditional land use, many indigenous communities’ practices are technically illegal.
“We have customary land rights that are not yet encoded in laws, but we use our land for many things: to grow honey, durian, and fruit, and to maintain the tombs, relics, and traditional rituals of our ancestors,” Kinarang Boy said.
"The government seems still reluctant to devolve rights over forests and this is partly ‘institutional stickiness and resistance to change’ and partly lack of trust that others can manage forests," said Moira Moeliono, of the Center for International Forestry Research. "Yet the government management of forests was not much better: it was also ‘either use or conserve’. Perhaps realizing that they could not monitor and enforce rules on corporations, they also realize they cannot monitor how communities manage forests."
It is worth noting that transferring any land to indigenous ownership doesn’t necessarily mean corporate activity must end there. In land returned to the Kajang people in South Sulawesi, for instance, logging is still practiced - albeit within an area determined by Kajang adat law.
The fate of Indonesia’s tropical forests also affects the global climate. More than a quarter of all carbon sequestered in tropical forests is on indigenous lands, according to a 2016 report from the World Resources Institute and Woods Hole Research Center.
Below-ground carbon stores help to “cool” the earth and partially counteract the effects of greenhouse gases and global warming. Empowering indigenous communities to protect these forests is “urgent” to stabilizing earth’s climate in coming decades, according to the report.
“We will wait for our forests to be protected,” said Kinarang. “We have held on to our land this far, and we don’t plan to buy or sell them at any point in the future.”