Restoring forest rights restores sense of nationhood
By: Wimar Witoelar
For the majority of Indonesian people limited to lives in urban concentrations, forests are far away, worthy of admiration but not really understood in terms of the role they play in everyday life. Yet they are essential to the welfare of future generations. Forests hold the key to reduction of carbon emission which in turn will mitigate the horrors of global warming and climate change. Yet the strong foothold of industry on our natural resources is such that it takes an important event to make us gain the right perspective. Such an event took place on May 13, 2013
In a landmark ruling, Indonesia’s Constitutional Court has invalidated the Indonesian government’s claim to customary forests that cover millions of hectares of forest land which have been the habitat of indigenous and local communities. The ruling returns their right to manage their customary forests. The government’s invalid claim was confirmed by a 1999 forestry law that classified customary forests as “State Forest Areas”. This gave the central government control over the country’s forests, one of the three largest in the world. The Ministry of Forestry has had power to issue licenses for logging and plantations, even when the forests had been managed for generations by their inhabitants. Forests that local people owned were regularly to large corporations for industrial logging, pulp and paper and oil palm. These forest conversions have been the major causes of conflicts between government and local communities who felt victimized by the land seizures. They did not feel the benefits from the forest conversions
The Constitutional Court decision was the response by a request for review by the Indigenous Peoples Alliance of the –Indonesian- Archipelago (AMAN), which estimates that the ruling affects 40 million hectares of forest land.
“About 40 million indigenous people are now the rightful owners of our customary forests,” said Abdon Nababan, AMAN’s Secretary-General, in a statement.
The ruling is a potential blow to the Ministry of Forestry, which has used its massive land bank to accumulate substantial revenue and political power in recent decades.
There is no certainty yet about the implications of the Court’s breakthrough decision. An official at The Ministry of Forestry is quoted as saying that the area of customary forests was far smaller than 40 million hectares and that implementation could take years at different levels of government.
But in any case the decision strengthens the customary community in mediation and in court. It will reduce haphazard criminalization of indigenous people. In the long run it will reduce conflicts over forest management now involving nearly 20,000 villages throughout Indonesia. People do not often realize that land issues account for the majority of cases, followed by religious and ethnic cases.
Quite logical then that AMAN’s Abdon Nababan says the decision restores a sense of nationhood for indigenous peoples. He says thestate cannot expel them from customary forests that have been their source of livelihood for generations.
Indonesia has one of the highest rates of forest loss in the world. Industrial activities such as logging, oil palm plantations, and mining arethe major drivers of deforestation. Yet in cases where local communities are granted land tenure, forest recovery has improved.
On May 27, 2013 AMAN announces a Declaration to support a petition to be distributed for signatures across Indonesian society. Three points are highlighted in the petition:
1. Urging the Indonesian Government to immediately execute the Decision of the Constitutional Court, including the settlement of conflicts related to customary forests and natural resources in the territories of indigenous people.
2. Urging the President to grant amnesty to indigenous peoples who are engaged in legal processes or who have been convicted pursuant to Law Number 41/1999 concerning Forestry.
3. Urging the passage of Laws concerning Acknowledgement and Protection of Indigenous People’s Rights (PPHMA).
Forests are the lifeblood of Indonesia. According to a 2007 study by the World Bank, Indonesia is the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases after America and China, mostly because of the destruction of forests and peat lands. Indonesia’s Master Plan for the Acceleration and Expansion of Indonesian Economic Growth (MP3EI) aims to turn the country into one of the world’s ten biggest economies by 2025. Yet the Plan does not always take account of the environmental impact.
Now President Yudhoyono is seriously putting effort to undo past damage by reportedly taking another look at the Master Plan to mainstream green economy concepts into development plans.
President Yudhoyono is often on the receiving end of criticism due to his penchant for compromise. But the respected magazine TheEconomist states that “on the environment, though, Mr Yudhoyono has been uncommonly courageous. In 2009, Mr Yudhoyono pledged Indonesia to cut its carbon emissions by at least 26% by 2020. Then, in 2011, he imposed a two-year moratorium on forest-clearing concessions under a $1 billion agreement with the Norwegian government. On May 16, 2013 Mr Yudhoyono once again showed his environmental mettle: despite intense pressure from commercial interests, he signed a decree extending the moratorium for two more years.”
Returning customary forests to their rightful owners is a necessary step in the right direction. Yet without administrative follow-up the Court decision remains a hollow monument to justice. This is the President’s big opportunity to imprint his mark as a statesman by following theConstitutional Court decision by strong political action.