Indonesia’s forest and peatland fires have flared up again this season, sending smoke and haze from the island of Sumatra north across the Malacca Strait to Malaysia. The fires are now an annual consequence of the mismanagement of Indonesia’s forests. With the removal of a single word from the country’s constitution, however, that may change for the better.
On May 16, Indonesia’s Constitutional Court deleted the word “state” from this clause: “Customary forests are state forests located in the areas of custom-based communities.” That one adjustment denied the government ownership of forests on the lands of the nation’s indigenous people. By returning the forests to their traditional stewards, the court’s ruling could come close to turning off Indonesia’s greenhouse-gas spigot. Yet more work is needed.
In practice, the change means the central and local governments will no longer be able to grant leases to logging, plantation and mining companies in forests of indigenous people. The consequences of government control are visible from satellite photos showing enormous loss of forests and peatlands, as well as the fires that have resulted. Today, the World Bank ranks Indonesia as the world’s third-largest emitter of greenhouse gases.
This pattern of development has brought little benefit to the tens of millions of indigenous people, whose customary forests account for 30 percent of Indonesia’s total, according to AMAN, the National People’s Indigenous Organization. These communities have lost access to these lands, and fights over them have added to religious and ethnic conflicts over the last 40 years. Those who challenged the forest giveaways were imprisoned or even killed.
That was a tragedy. There is strong evidence from the Amazon and elsewhere that indigenous communities are the best stewards of the forests and prioritize keeping their lands intact even as they strive for economic improvement. Countries with increasing areas of forests, such as Chile, China, India, South Korea and Vietnam, have embraced land reforms and other policy changes that include the return of forest ownership to indigenous people.
The court’s ruling in Indonesia is a good first step. But it doesn’t deal with the legacy of the government’s control over the forests. Indonesia must now formally recognize its indigenous communities’ rights through legislation and by resolving the claims of current licensees who, in some cases, have overlapping permits granting them access to forests now owned by communities, and those still owned by the state.
The government also has to map the country’s forests and grant new ownership rights. Mapping the forests is no small task in a country so large, geographically dispersed and institutionally complex. However, 12 Indonesian ministries and institutions agreed in March to work together to delineate forest areas and identify third-party rights, a promising development.
To further advance the government’s efforts, Indonesia’s Geospatial Information Agency should introduce a standard for mapping and registration. Other institutions should be granted additional capacity to address the claims of current licensees and protect the interests of customary communities.
In the past, the allocation of forest licenses was linked to the interests of local and national politicians, and many people doubted that the Indonesian authorities would ever support the changes they are now considering. The Indonesian government is showing that pressure from commercial interests can be resisted and that the broader public interest can hold sway.
As the smoke begins to clear from this year’s fires, the spotlight now turns to the indigenous communities. Can they succeed in managing what is left of their forests, once they finally regain their rights? For Indonesia, and the global climate, too much is at risk to let the opportunity pass by.
(John Hudson is chairman of the board of the Rights and Resources Initiative, an international organization that supports tenure, policy and market reforms for local and indigenous communities.)
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