Indonesia Urged to Implement Decision Recognizing Indigenous Rights to Land

Groups in Indonesia are petitioning the government to give the management of millions of hectares of forest to indigenous communities. Read more below about their request and their reasoning.

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Forest in Java. Photo by Rhett A. Butler 

Indigenous rights groups are circulating a petition asking the Indonesian government to immediately implement a court ruling that would take management of million of hectares of customary forest out of the hands of the Ministry of Forestry and turn it over to traditional communities. 

The petition was posted on by Indigenous Peoples Alliance of the Archipelago (AMAN), a group whose request for review of the country’s 1999 forestry law prompted the Constitutional Court’s decision on the issue. 

AMAN says that while the Constitutional Court’s decision was issued in mid-May 2013, “up until now there has been no attempt by the government to implement this decision.” 

“Instead, the Minister of Forestry issued a letter SE 1/Menhut-II/2013 on Constitutional Court’s Decision No. 35/PUU-X/2012 addressed to the Governor, the Regent/Mayor and Chief of Forestry services throughout Indonesia, which confirms that customary forests will be determined by the Ministry of Forestry,” states the petition. “Meanwhile, the State continues to give large tracts of forest areas to companies, meaning forest conversions for industrial activities are increasingly widespread.” 

AMAN is therefore calling on the government to begin recognizing customary forests, thereby allowing indigenous communities to to manage these lands. AMAN is also asking Indonesia’s House of Representatives to adopt legislation in the form of the Bill on Recognition and Protection the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. 

Note: Hansen et al’s data includes all “forest cover” including plantations and natural forests, while MoF data only incorporates change in forest cover within Indonesia’s Forest Estate, a zone managed by MoF. Hansen’s “forest loss” data would thus include replanting of timber and oil palm plantations. 

AMAN members have backed the call by placing signs in indigenous territories reading: “Customary forests are no longer State forests. Indigenous Peoples are implementing the Constitutional Court’s Decision No. 35/PUU-X/2012”. 

The Constitutional Court decision is significant because Indonesia’s central government has control over the country’s vast forest estate, effectively enabling agencies like the Ministry of Forestry to grant large concessions to companies for logging and plantations even if the area has been managed for generations by local people. In practice that meant ago-forestry plots, community gardens, and small-holder selective logging concessions could be bulldozed for industrial logging, pulp and paper production, and oil palm plantations. In many cases, industrial conversion sparked violent opposition from local communities, which often saw few, if any, benefits from the land seizures. 

Indonesia has one of the highest rates of forest loss in the world. Industrial activities — notably logging, conversion for timber and oil palm plantations, and mining — are a major driver of deforestation, especially in Indonesian Borneo (Kalimantan), Sumatra, and Indonesian New Guinea (Papua and West Papua). However forest recovery has been observed some areas where communities have been granted land tenure. For example, the island of Java — where community forests are rapidly expanding — now has more forest than it had a decade ago.