Sunday, September 24, 2023

In Indonesia, Forests for and by Communities

Nety Riana Sari
January 15, 2015 | 8:10 am
Damage to a forest area in Padang, West Sumatra. Provincial and regional authorities in Indonesia at present poorly comprehend the concept of community-based forest management. (Antara Photo/Iggoy El Fitra)
Damage to a forest area in Padang, West Sumatra. Provincial and regional authorities in Indonesia at present poorly comprehend the concept of community-based forest management. (Antara Photo/Iggoy El Fitra)

The Earth, Mahatma Gandhi once said, provides enough to satisfy every man’s needs, but not every man’s greed.

The Dutch writer Eduard Douwes Dekker, better known as Multatuli, famously wrote in his 1860 satirical novel that the Indonesian archipelago “coils yonder round the Equator like a girdle of emerald.” That dear epithet might be inspired from Indonesia’s green and lush tropical rainforest in his time. The collection of islands green with thick forest and rich in biodiversity, inhabited with humble natives welcomed his arrival in Java in 1838.

The abundance of tropical forest was really a double-edged sword for Indonesia. A long history of colonialism, masking its early arrival as trade dealing, has tainted the emerald girdle. The Forestry Ministry elaborates the history of forest management into three chapters: precolonial era, colonial era, and independence era.

Before the Age of Exploration, the inhabitants of the archipelago had their customary laws for regulating forestry. When the Dutch anchored in Indonesia, to secure a monopoly over natural resources, they immediately established their East Indies colony. The colonial government strategically published forestry regulations to despoil local communities of their rightful forests.

Today, 69 years after proclaiming independence in August 1945, forestry management in Indonesia has yet to regain the green hue of the emerald girdle.

Over the decades, the independent government has struggled to find an ideal model of forest management in Indonesia. Designated conservation areas are one of the government’s prescriptions for maintaining forest cover and biodiversity.

Over the last two decades, Indonesia has faced massive loss of forest landscape and biodiversity. Various reports suggest diverse numbers, yet all present the same conclusion: a decline in Indonesia’s forests. Since the 1960s, Indonesia has lost tens of millions of hectares of forest. Hansen et al (2013) analyzed that Indonesia lost 15.8 million hectares of forest between 2000 and 2012, or 8.4 percent of total forest cover, with a deforestation rate of 1,021 square kilometers per year — the highest in the world.

Logging, agricultural conversion, mining, infrastructure developments and fires plague forests across the archipelago.

Community-based forest management (CBFM) is projected as a potential mechanism where partnerships between the government and local communities in forest management is promoted. In CBFM, local communities are entitled to manage and benefit from nearby forests. Theoretically, local communities are better stewards in promoting poverty alleviation with the sustainable use of forest. Bolland et al (2012) suggested that community-managed forests presented lower and less variable annual deforestation rates than protected forests. The mechanism encompasses different land-use-type management in which

the social and economic needs of local inhabitants, as well as tenure rights and local capacities, are accommodated.

The government of Indonesia, then, set up a target: to licence two million hectares of community forest and village forest from 2010 to 2014. In mid-2014, the Forestry Ministry database showed that only

7.6 percent of the target was fulfilled. Permits for only 152,010 hectares of community-based forest across Indonesia were issued.

There is an imaginary triangular connection on the community-based forest management discussion:


The government has the biggest share of the big “C.” Within the bureaucratic system of the Indonesian government, policies and commitment are often a tangled mess in the complexity of coordination between central and local governments. The commitment of the central government on forest management is not necessarily a ready-to-use policy at the local level. Regulations need to be adopted and adapted to the local contexts and other statutes.

Centralized forest management and concession rights distribution to private, marginalized grass-roots communities in forest governance and law making are the essential hindrances to sustainable forestry development. The ideal would be for forest governance to provide a broad opportunity for community empowerment in terms of meaningful participation and decision making.

CBFM schemes allow a shift of government responsibilities to the local communities in protection and sustainable management of forest and biodiversity resources. The decentralization of governance systems and devolution of authority to local administrations allow communities greater access to public forests and to derive supportive policy reforms. The designated areas for CBFM are forest under the local government authority, thus the local government dismissal of a license proposal from the community is generally based on local interests toward the area.


Provincial and regional authorities at present poorly comprehend the concept of CBFM. It is the central government’s responsibility to address this weakness. The understanding, assistantship capacity and coordination are among the crucial aspects to be improved at the local government level. It is important to enhance coordination, from formulating policies to on-the-ground implementation, with strong supervision.

For community-based forest management, the community plays an absolutely central role. But does the main actor have what it takes to act in accordance with ideal forest management — sustainable use? Incompetence could be the boomerang that ruins CBFM implementation. Would the community be responsible not to exploit their rights to forest management? Therefore, NGOs are heavily relied upon to supervise the community, improving their capacity in sustainable forest use and managerial competence.

Supervision and assistantship should be applied constantly. Education about forest management is another long discussion, for the time being the foremost precept being to establish harmony between the community and nature: Taking them to look back at their ancestral way of life, when nature was not taken for granted, when humans were very dependent on nature, and they would be the first to be heavily affected by any damage to the ecosystem. Within this understanding, the community will be ready to be the front line of forest defense.

Law enforcement

Despite good intentions, some forest authorities are still wary that CBFM schemes can be exploited by regional officials seeking to curry favor with voters during election campaigns. Law enforcement of forest management policy and procedure are the defense mechanisms to counter these abuses. Once again, strong mutual understanding between the central and local governments is a must.

NGOs are the pinpoint institutions to exercise their function as a watchdog. Furthermore, the community also needs to be empowered in terms of maintaining forests. Community patrols and cooperation with law enforcement agencies should be established, again with the assistance of NGOs.

Looking back to the history of forest management, compiled by the Forestry Ministry, forest management was once in the hands of the community. It is time to restore those rights. Building a partnership between the government and the community is appropriate in the modern zest for forest management.

Then again, the government will need a lot of assistance in order to realize the policy, and NGOs are in a strategic position for this. TFCA-Sumatra has committed to supporting the fund for NGOs in assisting the government and standing beside the community for empowerment.

TFCA-Sumatra and CBFM

TFCA-Sumatra is a collaborative program to conserve Sumatra’s forests. CBFM is one of the forest management models supported by TFCA-Sumatra. Recently, TFCA-Sumatra declared its support for the establishment and strengthening of 47 CBFM units covering 49,735 hectares of customary, village and community forests in North Sumatra, Riau, Jambi, West Sumatra and Lampung. TFCA-Sumatra supports the promotion of integrated schemes of CBFM and community empowerment, including capacity improvement in forest management (organizational and managerial), local-based economic incentives (agroforestry, non-timber forest products, and environmental services), local and regional policy support (village and regional regulations), and the market network.

The scheme is believed to be an ideal model, where local forest governance will strongly contribute to national forest governance. The promotion of good forest governance in community-based forest management is of vital importance to achieve sustainable forestry sector development.

Nety Riana Sari is a conservation assistant for the TFCA-Sumatra Program at the KEHATI Foundation

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