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Jakarta Post

A hopeful commitment to people of the forest

  • Wimar Witoelar

    The Jakarta Post

Jakarta   /   Tue, July 14, 2015   /  06:13 am

In recent weeks, President Joko '€œJokowi'€™ Widodo has begun to show the qualities that made him so attractive in the presidential election.

We are now witnessing confirmation of his solid commitment to indigenous peoples. A meeting between the President and the Indigenous People'€™s Alliance of the Archipelago (AMAN) has generated momentum in addressing the injustice borne by indigenous peoples over decades.

Numerous initiatives are being taken by the government in forest governance. One scheme announced in early July plans to allocate at least 20 percent of current concession areas operated by private companies for management by local people.

Forestry companies have raised concerns over this regulation. Yet despite the decision to increase the proportion of land allocated for local communities from 5 to 20 percent, AMAN said that it still fell short of restoring the rights of indigenous people to manage their customary forests, estimated to encompass 40 million hectares across the country, since the new policy only covered land in partnership forests, not customary ones.

This is of utmost concern to indigenous peoples. And it should be to all of us. Not many people are aware that the fate of indigenous peoples is not only their concern.

It is the key to the future of Indonesian forests and to mitigation and adaptation in the face of climate change. Forests hold the major part of the nation'€™s carbon reserves and deforestation and degradation of the forests are main sources of carbon emissions in the atmosphere over Indonesia, contributing to worldwide global warming.

When forests lose their vegetation or even their biodiversity they also lose their capacity to keep carbon reserves. Carbon emissions rise at an alarming rate.

Humans make things worse by cutting down more forests, either destroying them altogether or replanting them with homogeneous crops. Crops boost the export economy but contribute little to the welfare of the Indonesian people due to their capital intensity.

Indigenous peoples suffer even more because, to begin with, the forests that are used by the giant plantation companies are not intended for commercial exploitation.

These are forests that actually belong to indigenous peoples; forests that should have been preserved as their habitat and should be sustained by the traditional wisdom handed down for generations.

Indigenous peoples have lived in the forests and kept them healthy, as their friends. Indigenous peoples do take things from the forests. They take wood. They take the forest products.

They even cut down some trees but always with a calculation of sustainability. Indigenous peoples have been so much a part of nature that they cannot live against nature. It is in their interest to respect the forests and keep them healthy.

It was a huge moment when President Jokowi announced to a delegation of indigenous peoples on June 25 that he understood and supported their cause and even, on the spot, instructed his ministers and staff to do what was necessary: to set up a task force as the beginning of the institutionalization of indigenous people'€™s policy.

The President was not only respecting justice and addressing the tragic past of the indigenous peoples. He was also laying groundwork for the future, to face climate change together with indigenous peoples.

He said he wanted to manage the forests in partnership with indigenous peoples. That is very welcome news to people around the world who had hoped for such a commitment from the head of state of one of the three nations in the world endowed with the largest forest cover.

When and if Jokowi'€™s policy is announced at global environment summit the Conference of Parties 21 Paris this winter, Indonesia should get a standing ovation from concerned people around the globe.

Great effort is required to generate sound forest management policy. But the road will be much smoother if indigenous peoples are involved, because sustainable forest governance is inherent to their way of life and not at all something in which they need to be educated.

Much is at stake here in terms of forest area. Forty million hectares have been usurped by the state,
assigning them for commercial development.

While indigenous peoples have been asked to step aside, in many instances hard measures are taken by the government on behalf of the plantation companies to protect their investment. People are misled into thinking that land conflict is a matter of security. Actually it is a matter of human rights abuse. While the owners of the plantations are spread around the nation and the globe, the ancestral owners of the forests are left to fend for themselves.

It is easy to sink into hyperbole when you discuss a groundbreaking shift of policy like this. But this is not actually a shift in policy as far as Jokowi is concerned. It is a shift of policy in terms of the Indonesian government'€™s policy.

For Jokowi it is an affirmation of hope and promise; he has always been on the side of the people, on the side of good governance and on the side of rational choice. The choice is rational if you revert to indigenous people'€™s rights to the forest.

Indigenous peoples will reinvigorate the green economy. Their way of life is geared toward sustainability because they want to keep their habitat alive. Because of that, the economic principles under which they operate will be true to the interests of nature '€” which is exactly what the green economy is all about.

The President has shown his colors. He has emerged from the shower of insults and misunderstandings, intended or not intended, and given out a clarion call for progress. It is up to his staff, the people, the media and to us all to deliver on the promise that the President'€™s commitment has given us. Jokowi is a simple man, but a controversial president. In fact, the controversy arises from the fact that many still do not believe that such a simple man could be the President of such a large and complex nation.

Those who rejoiced in that fact see him as a hero and a promise of reform. Those who do not like the threat to their comfort zones prefer to disbelieve his qualities.

For people who believe in him, no explanation is necessary. But for people who do not believe in him, no explanation is possible. If President Jokowi remains committed, we should have a president of whom we can be proud.
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The writer is founder of Intermatrix Communications, which advises the Indigenous People'€™s Alliance of the Archipelago (AMAN).