(JG Graphics/Josep Tri Ronggo)

Commentary: The Final Blow for Indonesia’s Forests?

MARCH 09, 2015

Former President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono left a bombshell right before the end of his tenure, but few seem to have noticed or are concerned.

I was aware of the regulatory changes proposed by the former president of Indonesia, but a recent article on Kompas.com, with a headline that translates as “Forest Destruction Time Bomb,” made me realize how worrying the situation really is. It seems that Indonesia’s forests have been given the final coup de grace.

The issue at hand is the Joint Regulation (Perber) between several ministries issued in October 2014 regarding the “Procedures for the Settlement of Land Tenure in Forest Estate Land.” This was meant to accommodate decisions made by the Constitutional Court, which essentially obligates the government to preserve existing land rights located in forestry areas.

Non-governmental organizations advocating improved community rights have been pushing for this law for many years, and this was their moment of victory. I wonder though, whether it really is a victory, and, if so, for whom?

What the new law means is that all forest land, including protection forests and conservation areas, will be reconsidered in regard to local community land claims. Any forest estate land that has been "controlled and exploited" by the community for 20 consecutive years or more, has to be released from the forest estate. So what was previously land under the jurisdiction of the government can now be legally claimed as theirs by local communities.

As the author of the Kompas article points out, basically the law legalizes long-term “illegal” forest use by communities, and allows them to claim these forests as their own.

There is plenty to be said for allowing communities living in Indonesia’s forest areas to have more rights over land use. Prior to colonial rule, land was in the hands of whoever used it, i.e., the communities who lived there. Land rights were undefined but communities used lands freely in return for taxes paid to sultans and kings.

Under colonial rule native title was to some extent still recognized. During the post-independence decades, however, these community land rights were increasingly eroded and all forest land ultimately fell under state ownership. As is stated in Indonesia’s constitution, “the land and the waters as well as the natural riches therein are to be controlled by the state to be exploited to the greatest benefit of the people.”

With the Constitutional Court demanding the legal revision, Indonesia seems to have come full circle by reassigning the right to use and manage forests to the people who live — or claim to live — in Indonesia’s remaining forest areas.

Call me a cynic, but to me this sounds like an excellent plan to convert remaining forest lands into agricultural land. This process was in the past driven by releasing logged-over forests from State Forest land and thus allowing their conversion to non-forest uses. But these land status transitions have also created much national and international criticism, because of their obvious role in deforestation. Yudhoyono’s 2010 moratorium on further conversion of forest land is a good example of the Indonesian government seemingly trying to reduce forest loss.

So, considering the negative connotations of legalizing deforestation, what better idea than allowing this forest conversion process to go ahead under the guise of granting increased community rights and stimulating rural development? Surely no one could object to that.

But realistically, what will communities or individual people do when they can get legal title to what was previously state owned land? Your guess is as good as mine, but I would think many will immediately sell their land to whoever is the highest bidder: likely industrial-scale companies investing in oil palm, pulp and paper, rubber, and mining.

Surely, some local people will hang on to their land and use it for their own farming activities, but this is most likely in remote closely-knit communities with strong leadership, who work with technical assistance from NGOs. In my experience, in the many more loosely organized communities, those community-members with the best connections and most power will lay claim to most lands, either directly or through proxy claimants.

A similar example of poorly guided decentralization of forest management can be found in the post-Suharto initiative to allow district heads to allocate 100-hectare timber licenses to communities under a scheme known as HPHH. This turned out to be a wonderful tool for driving massive illegal logging, with most revenues ending up in the pockets of logging bosses who could finance the process.

It is therefore highly questionable whether this new law will indeed benefit the poorest community members and effectively stimulate rural development. More likely it will just result in the concentration of both capital and income in the hands of an ever-smaller elite.

And guess which forests will be most affected. These will unlikely be forest areas that are already leased by companies, because those companies would surely demand financial compensation from the government for losing their pre-existing rights. More likely, these new community lands will be located in those forests that no one can use at the moment: protection forests, nature reserves, and other forest lands without direct commercial functions, i.e., marginal lands with limited production value. The new law is certainly not clearly stating that such “protected” forests cannot be allocated to communities.

In fact, there is a precedent that proves this point. The 2008 village forest (Hutan Desa) regulation by the Minister of Forestry allocates village use rights within the framework of a permanent forest estate. In my experience, many Hutan Desa licenses are given in what was formerly Protection Forest (Hutan Lindung). Legally such forests cannot be cut down, but who is monitoring this and who has the authority to object if forest conversion happens anyway?

One does not need to live in frequently inundated cities like Jakarta to know what happens if protected forests are converted to housing estates and plantations. Last year's regulation seems a certain precursor to more frequent and more severe floods, landslides, eroding soils, and other environmental disasters with significant socio-economic impacts all over the country.

I am all for land reform and granting community rights where they are due, but there is great danger in giving rights to people in a system that has very limited means of enforcement.

Hoping that local people know how to best manage their land is nice. But hope should not be a basis of policy and management. As a concerned conservation movement aiming for real positive change, we should be guided by realism rather than idealism.

Ultimately clear laws are needed — and their enforcement. The Ministry of Environment and Forestry should seriously prosecute companies AND communities for illegal environmental damage that they cause to forests. If not, Indonesia will soon look like Bangladesh, the Philippines or other disaster-prone countries that have failed to protect their environments.

Erik Meijaard is a conservation scientist coordinating the Borneo Futures initiative.

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