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Jakarta Post

INSIGHT: Restoring forest rights restores sense of nationhood

  • Wimar Witoelar

    The Jakarta Post

Jakarta   /   Wed, June 5, 2013   /  09:11 am

For the majority of 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 the reduction of carbon emissions, 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.

In a landmark ruling, the Constitutional Court invalidated the government'€™s claim to customary forests that cover millions of hectares of forest land that 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 '€œstate forest areas'€. This gave the central government control over the country'€™s forests, one of the three largest in the world.

The Forestry Ministry has had power to issue licenses for logging and plantations, even when the forests had been managed for generations by their inhabitants. Consequently, forests have been regularly used by 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 benefit from the forest conversions.

The Constitutional Court decision was the response to a request for a review by the Indigenous Peoples Alliance of the Archipelago (AMAN), which estimates that the ruling affects 40 million hectares of forest land. '€œAbout 40 million indigenous people are now the rightful owners of their customary forests,'€ said Abdon Nababan, AMAN'€™s secretary-general, in a statement.

The ruling is a potential blow to the Forestry Ministry, 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 Forestry Ministry 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 conflict over forest management now involving nearly 20,000 villages. 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 the state 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 are the major drivers of deforestation. Yet, in cases where local communities are granted land tenure, forest recovery has improved.

On May 27, AMAN announced a declaration to support a petition to be distributed for signatures across society. Three points were highlighted in the petition:

1. Urging the 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 No. 41/1999 on forestry.

3. Urging the passage of laws concerning the acknowledgement and protection of indigenous peoples'€™ 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. The Masterplan for the Acceleration and Expansion of Indonesian Economic Development (MP3EI) aims to turn the country into one of the world'€™s 10 biggest economies by 2025. Yet the plan does not always take account of the environmental impact.

Now, President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono is attempting to undo past damage by reportedly taking another look at the master plan to mainstream green economy concepts into development plans.

Yudhoyono is often on the receiving end of criticism due to his penchant for compromise. But the respected magazine, The Economist, states that '€œon the environment, though, Yudhoyono has been uncommonly outrageous. In 2009, Yudhoyono pledged Indonesia to cut its carbon emissions by at least 26 percent by 2020. Then, in 2011, he imposed a two-year moratorium on forest-clearing concessions under a US$1 billion agreement with the Norwegian government. On May 16, 2013, 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 make his mark as a statesman by following the Constitutional Court decision with strong political action.

The writer was a spokesman for the late Abdurrahman '€œGus Dur'€ Wahid, who was president of Indonesia from 1999 to 2001.

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