Forests and Community Rights: Sifting Through Challenges and Claims

Our first of many meetings in Jakarta was with Steve Rhee from the Ford Foundation. The Ford Foundation is an organization that provides grants for work on social justice. The main project that Steve Rhee is working on is the expansion of community rights over natural resources in Indonesia.  Until the recent Constitutional Court decision, the indigenous people and communities that live in and near “state forest lands” had no formal rights or claim to the land.  Because the Indonesian Government assumed ownership of all “forest land” in the 1960s, there was no written legal record that there are people that live in the forest and use it as a source of livelihood.  The Ministry of Forestry (MOF) is in charge of the “state forest zone” which happens to be all of the forest in the country that was not already converted to plantations by the MOF. 

Mapping the areas where the indigenous people live is the first necessary action in trying to ensure that communities receive their land rights. The area must be defined and recognized by the government so that the plantations and other destructive activities will not expand into community lands.  After the land is recognized, the government needs to implement and enforce policies that will strengthen community rights and protect the villagers against exploitation.

Unfortunately, the biggest obstacle to achieving equal rights for the indigenous people and their land is corruption.  Because of decentralization, which began after the fall of President Suharto in the late 1990s, corruption must be addressed on many levels.   For instance, the standardized process for permits is not followed by all districts.  There have been many instances where the indigenous people have been removed from their lands because the local government has converted the natural forest for plantation expansion even though the villagers have already been recognized and given rights.  Politicians have accepted bribes and have had their campaigns funded by big plantation companies, thereby giving the plantation companies more access and allowing them to avoid the long permit process.  There has even been a case where a plantation company was given one section of converted forest land to plant the seedlings for oil palm trees, and while those trees were growing, they expanded into villagers’ land to grow more trees.

Transparency in the government is a key component in combatting corruption from bribes and illegal funding for campaigns. The central government needs to play a bigger role in forcing district governments to recognize community rights over the land, as well as penalizing district governments that have allowed elected officials to accepted bribes and illegal campaign funding.  With the help of organizations like the Ford Foundation, the government can find the politicians and companies that have used illegal means and bring them forth to the public.  This method of “naming and shaming” can also be used to inform consumers and shape market demand.  With the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RPSO) label, for example, consumers can choose to purchase and use products using palm oil that have been produced through means that respect human rights and protect wildlife.

Supporting community rights to the land is important, but it is not the only step that needs to be accomplished in order to preserve and conserve forest land.  In order to ensure that the forest land is also taken care of, the issues and concerns that the indigenous people have need to be addressed:  The government needs to make sure that the indigenous people have immediate access to clean water, education, and healthcare.  Also, there need to be social programs and other ways indigenous people can have a sustainable income.   Allowing access to clean water, education, healthcare, and developing programs for sustainable income will ensure that the communities can manage the forest without needing to sell off their land or use resources outside of their means.  Currently, there are no systems set in place to return lands that have been taken, pay villagers restitution, but hopefully, in the future, this will be a part of the common practice of enforcing community rights of the community, reducing corruption, and protecting the local environment.

-Maytinee Pramawat

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Reaching a Tipping Point: Using REDD+ to Overcome Challenges in Indonesia

The complex challenges in implementing REDD+ in Indonesia cause some skeptics to question the feasibility of the program.  Where others see problems, Heru Prasetyo, head of National REDD+ Agency and head of President’s Delivery Unit on Development, sees opportunity. He believes that REDD+ itself can be the catalyst to solve many of the underlying governance and sustainability problems in Indonesia.  To Prasetyo, REDD+ is about so much more than carbon.  He sees REDD+ as an investment, one that is in the crucial nexus of climate change and development where Indonesia can accomplish sustainable growth with equity. 

Heru Prasetyo, head of National REDD+ Agency and head of President’s Delivery Unit on Development points out how REDD+ explains the interconnected dynamics of REDD+

Heru Prasetyo, head of National REDD+ Agency and First Deputy President of  the President’s Delivery Unit on Development points out how REDD+ explains the interconnected dynamics of REDD+

The launch of REDD+ (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation) at Bali 2007, like so many environmental innovations, was met with fanfare and unrealistic expectations. Early supporters championed the idea as a way to help limit global warming to 2 OC with affordable market trading and payments for results-based ecosystem services.  REDD+ was finally agreed at UNFCCC COP 19 in Warsaw, but the honeymoon phase is ending and critics point to several problems in Indonesia that could threaten REDD+ success:

  1. Decentralization:  The decentralization in 1999 caused ambiguity in rules and authority at each level of government and opened the doors to increased deforestation.  District officials often used their new authority to issue extraction permits.  Under this system, wealthy corporations can exploit this ambiguity to continue deforestation.  Without reform, it is difficult to make large scale concerted efforts for conservation.
  2. Multilevel governance: Coordination is needed at all levels of government from customary law of local people all the way to their federal government.
  3. Corruption: Throughout our stay in Indonesia, nearly every speaker pointed to problems with corruption.  According to a new Gallup poll, 91% of Indonesians believe corruption is widespread in the government. Corruption impedes enforcement, and according to the Global Corruption Barometer 2013, reported bribes paid to the judiciary are up 20% and the police are still perceived as the most corrupt institution in the country.
  4. Foreign corporation land ownership: A handful of powerful companies have licenses to a huge proportion of Indonesia’s land for palm oil, mining, paper pulp, etc.   According to Prasetyo, 3.5 million hectares (larger than the size of Haiti) have been licensed to one company.  38.2% of Aceh, 65.2% of Riau, and 85.6% of Central Kalimantan are already licensed for exploitation.  So much land held by foreign companies raises the question, who owns Indonesia?
  5. Unknown land cover and boundaries:  Oil palm plantations, mining companies, customary/indigenous people, and different government agencies have overlapping claims to many areas of forest. Not only are there different maps of ownership of the land, but also different definitions of forest cover and classifications of the land. The lack of maps designating customary land often gives openings for wealthy companies to claim ownership of ancestral land.
  6. Conflicts brewing:  Stakeholders operating under such ambiguity and overlapping forest claims is a recipe for violence. Conflict is erupting between lawyers in court rooms and on the ground among customary peoples, companies, and each level of government. 
  7. Destruction out of poverty and necessity: Deforestation and other unsustainable land use can offer a quick burst of cash that local people may need in case of a medical or other emergency. 
  8. Prioritizing growth: Indonesia is currently experiencing 7% annual GDP growth.  It is unlikely that Indonesia will sacrifice growth or its people’s rights in the name of curbing climate change. 
  9. Deforestation and emission rates:  In the 1990s, Indonesia deforested over 25 M HA, an area larger than New England, New Jersey, and Maryland combined, winning the Guinness Book of World Records’ listing for highest deforestation rate (Steni et al 2012). Under a business as usual scenario, Indonesia could emit 3 billion tons of CO2 in 2020, 60% of which would be from forest and peat land deforestation.
  10. Uncertainties in carbon markets:  With the recent crash of the carbon trading price and the retreat of developed nations, many government officials worry that there will be no worthwhile market for carbon.

Some skeptics use these challenges to argue that REDD+ is futile. They want to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Heru Prasetyo turns this argument on its head.  He sees REDD+ as the opportunity to solve these problems that face his country including policy reform at all levels of government.  It may be the first domino to creating a model for how the world can develop sustainably. REDD+ along with the $1billion donated by Norway can be the seed that grows into solutions for many of Indonesia’s challenges.  Prasetyo is confident that his new agency can succeed without succumbing to corruption or allocating licenses.  It is a difficult task, but his track record coordinating the tsunami relief effort in Aceh with less than 1% of relief funding lost to corruption is a good sign.  The agency formed last month is poised to tackle these tasks:

  1. License moratorium: At the core of this initiative is the moratorium that stops new land licenses from being issued. The government is using this moratorium as an opportunity to reassess and restructure land governance.
  2. Expose corruption: Growing out of the moratorium are new procedures to stem corruption.  For example, each governor signed an anticorruption agreement.  There is a new focus on going after the heads of companies that are illegally logging rather than the hired poor locals found at the scene.
  3. Extensive mapping: The agency is working on a mapping project to decrease conflicts and bring all disparate maps into one system with an inclusive landscape approach. This will incorporate multilevel governance and give a voice to the people in designating the boundaries of their land. The maps could be used to formally and peacefully resolve conflicts.

    One piece of land often has several competing claims and ownership discrepancies among various stakeholders.

    One piece of land often has several competing claims and ownership discrepancies among various stakeholders.

  4. Facilitate review and revoke licenses to proposed lands:  According to Prasetyo, revoking licenses is the only option for halting deforestation. Indonesia wants its land back from foreign companies.
  5. Provide alternatives to exploitation: Through REDD+ and investing in carbon sequestration schemes, Prasetyo believes that indigenous people will have alternatives to deforestation in managing their own land.
  6. Let 1000 flowers bloom at once:  Through coalition-building and pilot projects, Prasetyo is working to change the hearts and minds of the palm oil industry and find innovative solutions that can be scaled up at different levels.  There are already more than 40 pilot REDD+ projects on the ground. The true paradigm shift is accomplished through collaborations and consulting among different entities that were working in isolation or conflict with each other in the past.

The real driver to the success of REDD+ will still be investment through the continued stages of conservation, reforestation and restoration.  With the recent crash in the carbon exchange prices, Prasetyo sees REDD+ as a longer term investment.  He noted that he is often asked by groups like ours if there is any business benefit for the market of carbon.  And he responds that for thousands of years, there was no market for oil either.

UMD graduate student Mathew Popkin adds some poignant questions about implementation to the conversation.

UMD graduate student Mathew Popkin adds some poignant questions about implementation to the conversation.

There is always a tipping point.  Just like the world discovered its thirst for oil, the world will realize sooner or later the desperate need for carbon sequestration and forests.  Prasetyo noted that when the developed world starts seeing the full effects of climate change, or when the sea starts flooding New York, there will suddenly be profit to earn in carbon markets.  Indonesia is working to invest in their forests so they can be ready to harvest the profits of their sustained rainforests when the market arises.

The big remaining question is whether the international community and internal stakeholders will have the patience and resolve to continue supporting REDD+.  President Yudhoyono showed his support at a G20 meeting where he declared that Indonesia would decrease emissions by 26% alone and an additional 15% with foreign investment.  However, it is unclear if the new president to be elected this year will be as supportive of REDD+. As the fanfare subsides and the real grunt work of implementation comes, will there still be enough support left to truly reduce emissions from deforestation and forest degradation? Only time will tell.

-Ben Alexandro

Steni, Bernadinus, HuMa Hadad, and Nadia Hadad. REDD+ Safeguards in Indonesia. Bank Information Center, Mar. 2012. Web. 1 Jan 2014.

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Behind the Scenes of AMAN: Protecting the Indigenous People

Our group had the honor of visiting the AMAN headquarters in Jakarta. AMAN, Aliansi Masyarakat Adat Nusantara, translates to the Indigenous Peoples’ Alliance of the Archipelago. Before walking into the headquarters, we removed our shoes and made our way to the lunch table, which included floor seating and a view of several pieces of indigenous community art.

Before the meeting, we were served a delicious lunch including many traditional foods: tongkol fish, tempe, tofu, white rice, chicken rica rica, sambal dabu dabu (very spicy salad), soup iga (ribs soup), and cah aangkung (greens). I decided to step into the kitchen to see how the foods were made and met the chef, who had formally worked on a cruise ship. Mina Setra, the Deputy Secretary of AMAN, introduced everyone working at the national headquarters.

AMAN is a non-governmental organization and its members include 2,253 indigenous communities of 50 million people from all over the archipelago of Indonesia. The main purpose is to recover the rights of indigenous people in all sectors of development. There are 20 regional chapters and 93 local chapters. There are three wings to the organization: women empowerment, youth empowerment, and for the indigenous people’s committed lawyers (there are currently 29 lawyers.) The four key efforts include a credit union to support the members’ needs, a corporation to develop indigenous peoples’ crafts, community gold mining and establishing indigenous registration for land mapping.

The community gold mining is done as a last resort where the forests have already been destroyed and people don’t have any options but to take over the mining and develop their own traditional ways of mining. Their gold mining methods are different than mining in other parts of the world in that they do not use hazardous chemicals, but practice traditional values and customary laws to govern the way they manage the mining. They produce less gold than the common gold miner, but the profit is fairly distributed among communities.

AMAN provides the technology and methods to gather special information to validate the claims of land for the indigenous people. Mapping these lands is a fundamental need of the indigenous people. These maps are a tool of conflict resolution and help protect the culture of the indigenous people by informing the government where the communities are located. Hearing about the mapping process was absolutely fascinating. An indigenous community will submit a map request and AMAN will provide the technical assistance, GPS, experts and other tools. It is a lengthy process to define the borders of ancestral land and can take from a few months to over a year. The elders of the community play a critical role in the mapping process, telling the stories of their ancestors to provide social and cultural history. Once drafted, the neighboring communities need to approve the borders. This can be tricky as stories have several versions and communities have migrated to different areas of the land for a variety of reasons. One reason that stood out to me was that in some villages, the whole community moves when someone passes away. Using history to determine the social information of the land is the most critical part of the process. The AMAN organization plans to map 40 million hectares of customary forests by 2020. In November 2012, AMAN submitted 2.4 million hectares consisting of 256 maps. The Ministry of Environment now uses these maps, and the second batch of maps is being prepared for submission.

Another major project AMAN is working on is passing the Indigenous Peoples’ Rights Bill in Parliament. The bill is critical for the indigenous groups because it is the basis of sector law and is seen as the “umbrella law” of their rights. This law needs to be passed this year before the upcoming elections because, if not, the organization will have to start from scratch in gaining the support of a newly elected Parliament. Nevertheless, AMAN and the indigenous communities are optimistic in the wake of the constitutional ruling giving them control over their native land.

-Noor Tagouri

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Understanding Multi-level Governance in the Context of Natural Resource Management

Dr. Andrew Wardell of the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) spoke to our class about multi-level governance (MLG) of forest resources. He defined newer factors in MLG broadly as the vertical and horizontal linkages involved in environmental management according to four key features. These include the ever-increasing involvement of non-state actors like big NGOs and consulting companies, the complex overlap of decision-making agents not strictly limited by spatial boundaries, the continual transformation of the role of the state, and the challenging of conventional notions of democratic accountability.
Understanding the current balance of power between numerous state and non-state actors and the role each plays in the management of forest resources is essential. For example, in terms of decision-making processes, ensuring all the players are at the table regarding the allocation of forest concessions to multi-national corporations is important for safeguarding the rights of marginalized indigenous populations. To date, land-claim conflicts continue between indigenous peoples and the central government, despite the recent judicial ruling denying the central government’s assertions of land ownership over indigenous peoples’ forest estate.
Management of forest resources by local communities has proven often to involve best practices that more sustainably utilize a given resource than the historical assignment of forest land use by the central government. This is the area where MLG as an analytical tool helps us understand how best to achieve emissions reductions from deforestation and land use conversion.
Similar applications of the MLG model to forest resources in Indonesia can be seen in the US with the multitude of both state and non-state actors involved in the restoration of the Chesapeake Bay, which is the largest estuary in the continental US. Regulating the cleanup of the degraded waterway has proven to be an enormous task that has historically failed to reverse the polluted status of the estuary. MLG comes into play because coordinating efforts to cleanup the watershed of the Bay necessarily requires actors across territorial boundaries of six states and the District of Columbia. Many levels of governance, from federal agencies and the Chesapeake Bay Program, to state natural resource agencies, and local watershed alliances all take part in working towards this greater goal. Local non-profits are more in touch with their members who participate voluntarily and can organize their concerns and take them to higher level authorities where policies can be altered or created. The federal level of government also mandates certain pollution reductions by the states, but leaves the decisions on the mechanisms by which to meet the reductions up to the state governments.
State governments can also engage locals in helping to restore waterways through citizen-based science that can help create an intricate map of the health of the tributary waterways that empty into the Bay. The state of Maryland’s Department of Natural Resources runs a volunteer program that creates this type of map each year, which highlights areas of degraded streams that need mitigation activities to reduce the local pollutant load. All the changes upstream are needed to effect change downstream as the Bay captures the sediment and nutrients that wash off the land. Through this embodiment of MLG, actors who are a part of the formal government system and those outside the official structure of government both have important roles to play in the coordination and actions needed to meet the collective goal of reducing pollutants in the Chesapeake Bay.
-Maria Harwood
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Waiting for Serendipity…

Since the 1992 consensus that countries must work together to significantly decrease greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions or risk catastrophic climate change, the UNFCCC has struggled to meet its ambitious goals with concrete, binding action that could actually cut global emissions. Much of the reason for this is that many powerful countries are unwilling to sacrifice economic growth and competitiveness in the name of the environment. These countries include the United States, China, Canada, Australia, and Japan. Without these powerful actors on board, a comprehensive climate treaty will be impossible to negotiate. In our meeting with Agus Purnomo, the head of Indonesia’s National Council on Climate Change (DNPI) and lead climate negotiator, he pointed out that many of the climate negotiators are, in principle, on board with more aggressive action but lack the political support from the voters and/or legislators to whom they are responsible and that, as a function of democracy and staggered elections, it is hard for all of the major countries’ governments to be aligned in support of a climate treaty at any given time. Mr. Purnomo claimed it would require a certain degree of serendipity to break the current logjam in international negotiations.

Indonesia’s climate sensitivity, its contribution to the climate change problem, and its mitigation actions thus far are representative of what is playing out on a global scale, thereby making it an ideal case study for further discussion. Indonesia, being an archipelago, features a lot of low-lying populated coastal areas. Sea level rise is expected to inundate many of these economically important coastal zones. There is also expected to be a higher incidence and increased severity of forest fires. At the same time, rainfall variation is also expected to increase, placing stress on hydroelectricity generation and drinking water supplies in times of shortage and overwhelming water treatment and sewer capacity in times of excess. In short, Indonesia is very vulnerable to a changing climate.

Indonesia is currently the world’s third largest GHG emitter behind China and the United States, a result that stems from the rapid deforestation Indonesia has experienced over the past two decades. Deforestation, illegal logging, forest fires, and peatland degradation together are Indonesia’s largest source of GHG emissions. The second largest source of GHG emissions comes from the burning of fossil fuels, which is projected to eventually exceed the emissions generated by the former category as more coal plants are brought online for electricity generation and more Indonesians use automobiles. Contributing to the growth of fossil fuels are the heavy subsidies the federal government provides to keep prices low for Indonesian consumers. In 2000, fuel subsidies peaked at 28.6% of the federal budget. As of 2008, fossil fuel subsidies consumed 13% of the federal budget (Leitmann et. al.).

While Indonesia is certainly contributing to its climate challenges, it has also, under the current administration of President Yudhoyono, raised the profile of climate change in Indonesia’s domestic policymaking and foreign relations. Mr. Purnomo conveyed to us that this was largely a result of serendipity. According to him, President Yudhoyono, as an observer of the COP13 proceedings in Bali, was inspired to step up his administration’s efforts to combat climate change and therefore positioned Indonesia to be one of the major backers of REDD+, an initiative that would see the developed world financially support afforestation, land reclamation, and forest protection efforts as a means of preserving and ideally growing the country’s carbon stock. In this vein, Indonesia signed a Letter of Intent with Norway in 2010 to capitalize REDD+ projects once Indonesia had successfully developed the legal infrastructure and bureaucratic processes needed to measure and verify the GHG absorption capacity of project proposals. Indonesia has also accelerated its investment in renewable energy, particularly in geothermal. As part of the G20, Indonesia has also committed to phasing out fossil fuel subsidies by 2020. All of these efforts feed into Indonesia’s commitment to unilaterally reduce its GHG emissions by 26% by 2020 relative to 2005 levels or by 46% with support from the international community.

Indonesia faces significant challenges in translating its efforts into GHG emissions reductions for a variety of reasons. The country’s decentralization starting in the late 1990s has made it very difficult to manage forest resources optimally, despite the Indonesian government’s efforts to impose moratoriums on primary forest concessions. Weak law enforcement capacity combined with decentralized administrative structures give ample opportunities for illegal activities to persist and a multitude of entry points for corporate interests to seek additional land for the development of palm oil plantations. It is also politically unpopular for the federal government to reduce fossil fuel subsidies since much of Indonesia’s economic growth depends on the burning of cheap fossil fuels by motor vehicles. Indonesians also aspire to greater socioeconomic and material wellbeing, increasing demand for electricity and transport fuels.

While Indonesia certainly has great room to become a climate champion through improving it’s capacity to enforce its own laws to prevent deforestation and land degradation and to halt investment in coal in favor of renewables like geothermal, among other strategies, Indonesia has been very supportive of international action at the UNFCCC, has set ambitious targets for itself, and has helped to spur one of the UNFCCC’s few action mechanisms with the potential for facilitating global emissions reductions, REDD+, which is still in its infancy. Developed countries, on the other hand, will control the fate of the planet as it pertains to climate change. Whether they will agree to provide the appropriate financing that is necessary to avoid emissions through the GCF, CDM, and REDD+ as well as bilateral and/or other multilateral financing arrangements and whether they will accede to a legally binding climate treaty will determine, among many other adverse outcomes, whether some countries will go underwater, how many coastal cities will experience more frequent flooding, and how many millions more people face starvation or food insecurity.

As a growing economic powerhouse and emitter of GHGs as well as a bellwether for the success and scalability of REDD+, Indonesia will become a more important voice among developing countries in advocating for the necessary international cooperation that can shield the country from the most devastating consequences of climate change. Indonesia’s fate and the fate of the world, however, are ultimately in the hands of a few developed countries like the United States and China, whose leadership is so urgently needed. Let’s hope that with a little serendipity we will see the world’s most powerful leaders join in solidarity with the developing world to forge an ambitious, legally binding agreement at the COP21 in Paris in 2015.

— Andrew Reighart

Photo: L. Ahlman

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Indigenous Rights in Indonesia: Struggle and Success

Throughout our meetings in Jakarta, one consistent theme has been the role of indigenous peoples and traditional approaches to managing natural resources. Yesterday we traveled to AMAN House, the Jakarta headquarters for the Aliansi Masyarakat Adat Nusantara (The Indigenous Peoples Alliance of the Archipelago) to hear firsthand about the struggle for recognizing indigenous title and protecting the rights and lifestyles of indigenous peoples throughout Indonesia.

The recognition of the very existence of indigenous peoples in Indonesia has historically been controversial. In a sense, most Indonesians are indigenous, living on the land that their ancestors have inhabited for centuries. However, traditions and lifestyles have changed dramatically in the past century for most Indonesians, especially in Java and southern and eastern Sumatra. AMAN stands for the rights of those who have not succumbed to economic and cultural pressure to change their livelihoods. Across Indonesia AMAN includes some 2,253 member communities, with a total population of about 30 million people or more than 10% of Indonesians. Yet AMAN has had to battle every inch of the way for legal recognition of their members’ customary land use rights, in part because most of these communities are impoverished and live on land targeted for plantation and mining development by private firms and local political leaders.

During the Suharto regime, the slogan underlying Indonesia’s policy towards its many indigenous communities was “unity in diversity,” and the government argued that since almost all Indonesians were ancestrally from Indonesia, all Indonesians were equally indigenous and no specific indigenous peoples were awarded land use rights or protection of their traditional lifestyles. Development efforts did target “vulnerable population groups,” but these programs ignored the traditions that made indigenous groups distinctive, instead encouraging lifestyle shifts. For example, Indonesia still doesn’t recognize tribal religions as valid despite the fact that millions practice traditional belief systems, often alongside one of the nationally recognized religions. These religious beliefs are subsumed into adat, translated as “custom” or “tradition,” which includes many elements of the traditional lifestyles defended by AMAN. Because the official Suharto government position ignored the value of preserving traditional customs, legally the lands inhabited by these traditional groups fell under state control. Cooperation between the Ministry of Forestry and firms seeking oil palm concessions allowed plantation managers to obtain concessions without engaging with the indigenous peoples living in forest slated for clearing. Approval from indigenous groups was never required for licensing. As a result “vulnerable population groups” were economically coerced into working on the very plantations that supplanted their traditional ways of life.

A recent court ruling in the case “Review of Law Number 41 Year 1999” gives a momentous ray of hope for indigenous peoples throughout Indonesia. The court ruling states that customary forests are the collective property of the indigenous peoples living in them and using them, rather than state property over which indigenous peoples have little control. This was the first major court ruling upholding the customary land use rights of indigenous peoples throughout the archipelago. Mina Setra, Deputy Secretary of AMAN who welcomed us to AMAN House, said that before the ruling was announced, AMAN had prepared press releases for both a victorious ruling and an unfavorable one, but that more time was invested in the announcement anticipating defeat because AMAN was so accustomed to losing court battles.

The surprise victory is thrilling for AMAN as a validation of their decades-long struggle; it also marks a shift in the focus of AMAN’s work towards maintaining the rights this ruling confirms.

AMAN helps protect and promote economic alternatives and political rights for indigenous groups. One important program both for AMAN and for this course’s subject matter is their series of educational meetings designed to promote and explain REDD+ projects. Last month a group of indigenous youth met in Denpasar, Bali to learn about REDD+ and other environmental sustainability projects that preserve forests while providing economic benefits. Similar seminars have been held around Indonesia; indigenous peoples’ participation in any REDD+ project from the outset is a key factor in the success of the project as a whole.

Various economic possibilities like REDD+, ecotourism, or sustainable agriculture are essential for preserving both the lifestyle of indigenous peoples and preventing further environmental degradation on the lands these people inhabit. There is always a risk that even though indigenous peoples now have land rights, some might simply sell off the rights to corporate entities for quick cash. Since these communities are often impoverished with few economic alternatives, companies can easily close land deals for little money. Mina Setra told us of one indigenous community that wished to sell off their land for $20 per acre to an oil palm company; these companies can earn $2,000 per hectare annually once oil palms mature. Sales like these between multinational firms and subsistence-level communities are forms of economic exploitation that can reasonably be compared with older colonial practices.

Another important feature of AMAN’s work is mapping the land claims of the indigenous people they represent. Now that there is legal recognition of these claims, it is important for boundaries to be defined carefully to eliminate the potential for encroachment by third parties or for conflict between claims by different indigenous groups. To this end, AMAN has embarked on a project that has currently mapped over 300 distinct territories comprising 40 million hectares of land. The Indonesian government has agreed to accept AMAN-recognized maps as part of the official One Map project. AMAN generally doesn’t participate directly in the mapping process but instead provides materials and cartographic expertise through partner organizations. Indigenous communities can then use these tools to map their own lands. This gives indigenous communities the ability to identify their traditional lands themselves, an unprecedented right that is an important early step in empowering the indigenous peoples of Indonesia.

AMAN’s and their partner NGOs’ work is an important element of creating a more environmentally responsible Indonesia, and recent successes reflect victories not only for indigenous peoples but for all human rights in Indonesia. Despite progress, there are still many challenges, particularly economic ones, that can prevent the full realization of indigenous rights.

-Mark O’Dell

IMG_4660 IMG_4666
Photos: L. Ahlman

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An Oil Spilling Into The Rainforest


One of the worst environmental disasters in recent history occurred on April 20, 2010 in the Gulf of Mexico with the British Petroleum (BP) Deepwater Horizon oil explosion and spill. Spanning approximately 9,100 square miles after only one month, the spill has threatened over 400 wildlife species, the long-term health of the Gulf coast ecosystem, and human livelihood in the region (New Orleans Times).

Unfortunately, there has been another oil spilling into the environment for decades with many more devastating consequences that has received significantly less attention. Palm oil is the world’s most produced, consumed, and traded edible oil (Center for Science in the Public Interest). It is commonly used for cooking oil, processed foods, soaps, and cosmetic products. Indonesia is the world’s top producer of palm oil, and Malaysia and Indonesia combined account for 83% of global production (Center for Science in the Public Interest). Despite being a valuable commodity for Indonesia, palm oil production is significantly damaging Indonesia’s rainforests and environment.

Deforestation is a critical issue for Indonesia and the world as it is interwoven with the economy and environment. Timber, pulp, and paper are major industries for Indonesia, and forests act as substantial carbon dioxide sinks, essential for climate mitigation. Deforestation-related carbon emissions comprise roughly one-fifth of global emissions. In 1950, 77% of Indonesia’s forest land remained, yet by 1997, only 50% was left (Center for Science in the Public Interest). Specifically, though, over 7,000 square miles of rainforest have been cleared for oil palm. A total of over 37,000 square miles of forest have been victims of forest fires, and 133 out of 176 companies using illegal burning were palm oil-related (Center for Science in the Public Interest). Some illegal logging and burning have affected protected forests. Imagine the reaction and public outcry from a proposal to replace parts of Yosemite National Park with oil palm.

Just as the BP oil spill was extremely difficult, if not impossible, to contain, palm oil production has been expanding exponentially and uncontrollably. Due to state permitting and corporate interests, palm oil production is intentionally spilling into the Indonesian forests. Despite international efforts to focus on deforestation as a climate mitigation strategy, a 2007 regulation even extended the size of land permits per company from 20,000 hectares to 100,000 hectares per province (Agetnego Tarigan, WALHI). Tarigan noted that in 2011, planted oil palm plantations covered 11.9 million hectares, though 28.9 million hectares had been permitted in total. Not only does this represent a sizable amount of land allocated for oil palm, but the permitted yet undeveloped land signals the virtually guaranteed expansion of industrial production.

One of the most iconic pictures of any oil spill is a bird fully covered in a think layer of oil, representing the extensive marine and coastal wildlife harmed by a spill. What kind of reaction would occur if an orangutan were pictured on TIME Magazine drenched in oil? With rainforests housing 70% of earth’s plant and animal species, palm oil-related forest destruction threatens a plethora of biodiversity. Dishearteningly, 15 species in Indonesia are critically endangered and 125 species are considered threatened (Center for Science in the Public Interest). The most prominent of the endangered species include the Sumatran Tiger, Orangutan, Sumatran Rhinoceros, and Asian Elephant. As a result of the rapid forest destruction and tropical habitat loss, the World Bank reported that Indonesia was “almost certainly undergoing a species extinction spasm of planetary proportions.”

Furthermore, current oil production routinely comes at the expense of forests and local forest communities. Many villages not only do not have legal rights to the forest resources, but many individuals and whole communities are displaced as a result of the destruction of a forest. However, it’s not the lack of understanding, but the lack of political that is the problem. For decades, large petroleum companies have financially invested in American politics and elections to maintain favor for beneficial subsidies and economic policy. Oil palm companies similarly invest millions in local, provincial, and national elections in Indonesia. To further strengthen their political power, some companies even run candidates for political office. According to Tarigan, four of sixteen elected senators in Kalimantan are presently oil palm commissioners.

This comparison between the BP oil spill and palm oil production is intended to highlight the scope of damage from oil-related environmental damages, though of course they are not identical situations. The comparison also highlights the gap in awareness and attention worldwide about palm oil production and deforestation relative to the massive media and political frenzy surrounding the BP oil spill. Though palm oil may theoretically be able to be produced in a relatively sustainable manner, preceding decades of production have not demonstrated much, if any, regard for the environment and local forest communities affected and the future outlook is bleak.

Despite the similarities, there are key differences to note as well. Not only is this more devastating on the local environment and climate, but the oil palm expansion is completely within our control. It may be difficult to balance competing interests of government, indigenous communities, companies, employees, banks, and countries, but it is possible. We are not facing the challenges of separating oil from water after an explosive accident. Instead, we face the challenge of curbing the systematic deforestation and destruction of vital forests and habitats that are essential to mitigating climate change and preventing species extinction. The same fervor and attention focused on oil spills in the past needs to be applied to the global palm oil industry. Otherwise, our already daunting task of mitigating and adapting to climate change will be all the more challenging.

– Matthew Popkin


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