Prospects for Indonesian forest peoples with new incoming President

Prospects for Indonesian forest peoples with new incoming President

Indonesia went through a historic democratic process this year, directly electing a new President to take over from a prior incumbent at the completion of his term.

The new President, Joko Widodo, universally known as ‘Jokowi’, does not come from a traditionally political or military background but was previously a modest furniture-maker before being elected Mayor of Surakarta and then Governor of the capital city, Jakarta. Jokowi gained popularity as ‘Mr Clean’, meeting ordinary people and sorting out Jakarta’s chaotic transportation. Unlike previous Presidents, he comes to power with less of the political patronage and murky backroom deals that compromise most Indonesian politicians.

In terms of the country’s forests and forest peoples, Jokowi faces a huge challenge. Indonesia’s forests are being depleted at some two million hectares a year, mainly due to the illegal and corrupt allocation of concessions to plantations, mining schemes and related transmigration projects. A recent study by Forest Trends shows that over 80% of deforestation in Indonesia for oil palm and pulpwood is illegal. FPP’s recent report, Assault on the Commons, details how this catastrophic forest loss is made easy because the rights of over 90 million forest people in Indonesia are insecure. National laws prioritise the handing out of lands and forests to corporations over the interests of communities and indigenous peoples. Forest-based livelihoods are thus being undermined by profit-hungry investors seeking quick returns.   

A vigorous indigenous peoples’ movement with supportive civil society has been pushing for reform of these laws so that customary forest areas are allocated to communities for their long-term management, ownership and use. Campaigns to recognise indigenous peoples’ rights started in the 1980s and gained strength after the fall of the Suharto regime. Since then the civil society and a national indigenous peoples’ organisation, AMAN, has flourished. The need for effective recognition of indigenous peoples’ rights has been repeatedly asserted by NGOs, academics and development agencies with respect to forest certification, the resolution of land conflicts, timber legality, community forest management, REDD+ pilot schemes, ‘sustainable palm oil’ and corporate commitments to ‘zero deforestation’. The UN’s Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination has repeatedly recommended such reforms. Recent rulings by the Constitutional Court have recognised the unconstitutionality of elements of the forestry law that deny indigenous peoples’ rights. The outgoing President made a promise last year to recognise indigenous peoples’ rights. Recently, an exhaustive World Bank report calls for the same.

World Bank is also supporting the mapping of indigenous peoples’ lands by AMAN members. Already 4.9 million hectares of customary land claims have been mapped and AMAN has been pushing for national agencies to formally recognise these land claims. AMAN and the World Bank want to map 40 million hectares by 2022. Indonesian NGOs Sekala and the national participatory mapping network (JKPP) suggest that there is a ‘high probability’ that in Indonesia 42.5 million hectares of land are subject to customary claims, while an additional 72 million hectares have a ‘medium probability’ of also being encumbered with rights - about half the national territory.  

In September 2014 the Indonesian government agencies concerned with lands and forests declared their support for indigenous peoples’ rights. The Declaration was issued jointly by the Coordinating Ministry of People’s Welfare, Ministry of Internal Affairs, Ministry of Law and Human Rights, Ministry of Forestry, Ministry of the Environment, National Land Agency, the National Geospatial Information Agency, National Commission on Human Rights and the national REDD+ Agency. Welcoming the Declaration Abdon Nababan, the Secretary General of AMAN, noted the need for legal reforms to secure their rights and efforts by indigenous peoples themselves to build their capacity to manage their lands and forests in line with local wisdom. This Declaration provides a helpful starting point for the incoming President, due to take office on 20th October 2014. During his election campaign, Jokowi agreed to recognise and protect customary lands, adopt a national law upholding indigenous peoples’ rights, and favour community rights. Discussions are already underway about setting up a new Ministry of Agrarian Affairs, to oversee land matters and strengthen the implementation capacity of the National Land Agency (BPN).  Jokowi may have an uphill battle promoting land rights and curbing corrupt agribusiness and forestry concessions. His vice-Presidential running mate, Yusuf Kalla, has an impressive track record in resolving regional inter-ethnic conflicts but his family has long-term investments in palm oil. The political party on whose platform they both stood, the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P), is deeply enmeshed in dodgy land deals in the provinces. Even so, the political coalition that backed Jokowi’s presidential election campaign only commands 36% of the national parliament. Recently, the parliament passed a law preventing the direct election of mayors, provincial governors and district heads, a move that commentators read as a snub to the incoming President and a way of strengthening the hand of political parties.  Local civil society activists hope Jokowi can bring about much needed reforms, but know that those who benefit from current malpractices will not give up their privileges and impunity without a fight.