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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