• Indonesian President Joko Widodo last month gave several indigenous communities back the land rights to the forests they have called home for generations.
  • The total amount of customary forests relinquished to local groups under this initiative remains far short of what the government has promised, and looks unlikely to be fulfilled before the next presidential election in 2019.
  • At a recent conference in Jakarta, a senior government official said the president would sign a decree to help more communities secure rights.

JAKARTA — The Indonesian government has relinquished control over nine tracts of forest to the indigenous communities that have lived there for generations, President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo announced at a recent conference on land tenure in Jakarta.

The move follows the government’s recognition last December of nine other communities’ rights to their ancestral forests, in line with a 2013 decision by Indonesia’s highest court that removed indigenous peoples’ customary forests from under state control.

“The spirit of agrarian reform and community forestry program is how lands and forests, as part of natural resources in Indonesia, can be accessed by the people, and provide economic justice and welfare for the people,” the president said in a speech to open the conference on Oct. 25.

The nine newly designated “customary forests,” or hutan adat in Indonesian, cover a combined 33.4 square kilometers (13 square miles), on the islands of Sumatra, Borneo and Sulawesi.

The move is consistent with Jokowi’s campaign pledge to give indigenous and other rural communities greater control over 127,000 square kilometers of land, which helped him earn the first-ever presidential endorsement of the Indigenous Peoples Alliance of the Archipelago (AMAN) ahead of the 2014 election.

Three years into his presidency, however, the program is running behind schedule. The administration has rezoned just 10,800 square kilometers of community forests, of which 164 square kilometers are customary forests, according to data from the Presidential Staff Office. The latter figure includes the nine customary forests the administration recognized at the beginning of the year and the nine last month.

Dozens of other indigenous communities are hoping to secure rights to their ancestral lands, too. The day after Jokowi’s speech, three groups from Enrekang district in South Sulawesi province submitted their own proposals to the Ministry of Environment and Forestry. The proposed customary forests there would cover 4.04 square kilometers.

“The government hasn’t really been performing in making this promise happen,” AMAN researcher Arman Mohammad said.

AMAN has mapped out 19,000 square kilometers of land, home to 607 indigenous communities, which it says must be rezoned as customary forests. These groups have already obtained the required documents from district and provincial governments for state recognition of their rights, Arman said.

The official recognition last month represented just a fraction of what AMAN had proposed, he said.

As the agrarian reform conference wrapped up, a senior official said the president would issue a decree by year’s end to help indigenous groups like that in Enrekang obtain control of their forests. Yanuar Nugroho, a deputy at the Presidential Staff Office, told reporters that the decree would lay out the framework for regulation, bureaucracy and accountability.

Details of the decree were not immediately available. However, Yanuar said at the time that one of the key points was to iron out overlapping authorities between related ministries.

For instance, he said, the environment ministry would concentrate on recognizing land rights inside forests, while the Ministry of Agrarian Affairs and Spatial Planning would oversee those outside forests. Currently, the matter is handled by those two ministries as well as the Ministry of Home Affairs and the Ministry of Villages, Underdeveloped Regions and Transmigration.

“The country is returning sovereignty to the people, and I believe this program for community forestry and agrarian reform is the spearhead,” Yanuar said.

Some observers welcomed the promise of a decree, saying it would help streamline the process for indigenous communities in obtaining state approval of their land rights.

“There should be a single agency focusing on the land reform program so that the people don’t get confused,” said Dewi Kartika, general secretary of the Agrarian Reform Consortium, an NGO.

Arman called on the government to involve NGOs in drawing up the decree in order for it to be effective once implemented on the ground.

But even with a decree in place, the government may miss its target.

Environment and Forestry Minister Siti Nurbaya Bakar noted at the conference that the government would only realistically be able to approve a total 43,800 square kilometers, just over a third of the promised total, for community forestry schemes by 2019, when President Jokowi will stand for re-election.

To achieve even that pared-down goal, the minister called on local governments to accommodate indigenous groups, who depend on district chiefs and local legislatures to issue decrees that recognize them as indigenous.

“We must now push for getting more areas that will potentially be appointed as customary lands in order to reduce conflicts,” Siti said on the sidelines of the conference.

Observers say the Jokowi administration’s actions and policies in general have failed to resolve land conflicts, which have led to the wrongful eviction of indigenous communities from their homes over the years.

“The locations that the government has been targeting so far are not the ones with agrarian conflicts or where there are overlapping claims between local communities,” Dewi said.

She added that policies issued by the federal government often failed to be implemented at the local level.

“A clean and just bureaucracy is our top concern,” said Rukka Sombolinggi, AMAN’s general secretary. “We have trust in the president and the ministries, but not quite in [officials at] the regional levels.”

Others also highlighted land conflicts resulting from other government programs, including its flagship infrastructure development projects and issuance of plantation permits. Efforts at land reform have also been criticized for overlooking communities in coastal areas.

“The president must take groundbreaking actions so that land reform will truly happen, otherwise it’s just a fake agrarian reform,” Rukka said.

A list of the new customary forests, per the Presidential Staff Office:

Hutan Adat Tawang Panyai (Sekadau district, West Kalimantan province, 0.4 square kilometers)

Hutan Adat Marena (Sigi district, Central Sulawesi province, 7.6 square kilometers)

Hutan Adat Batu Kerbau (Bungo district, Jambi province, 3.2 square kilometers)

Hutan Adat Belukar Panjang (Bungo district, Jambi province, 3.3 square kilometers)

Hutan Adat Bukit Bujang (Bungo district, Jambi province, 2.2 square kilometers)

Hutan Adat Hemaq Beniung (West Kutai district, East Kalimantan province, 0.5 square kilometers)

Hutan Adat Baru Pelepat (Bungo district, Jambi province, 8.2 square kilometers)

Hutan Adat Bukit Pintu Koto (Merangin district, Jambi province, 2.8 square kilometers)

Hutan Adat Rimbo Penghulu Depati Gento Rajo (Merangin district, Jambi province, 5.3 square kilometers)

Banner image: An indigenous Dani man in Indonesia’s Papua region, one of the most linguistically diverse regions in the world. Photo by Rhett A. Butler for Mongabay.

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