What’s next for customary forests in Indonesia?

CIFOR researcher Agus Mulyana speaks about the implications of a recent handover of management rights, and what it will mean for indigenous communities
CIFOR Photo/Aulia Erlangga

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A recent handover of customary land rights from the Indonesian government to indigenous peoples has been hailed as a milestone for many forest communities in Indonesia. At the start of 2017, more than 13,000 hectares of customary land was handed over to nine indigenous communities, recognizing their longstanding stewardship and management of forests.

Among the indigenous communities recognized by the move, the Kajang people of South Sulawesi were put forward as a national model for others to follow. Agus Mulyana, a senior researcher in governance at the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR), was involved in the process leading up to the handover. We asked for his thoughts on what it took to get to this point, and what needs to happen next.

What was the status of indigenous people in forest management before this handover?

The indigenous Kajang community manage their forest in a traditional way, based on the regulation of Pasang Ri Kajang, a customary law passed down through generations. In 1982, via regulation No. 760, the Agriculture Ministry issued a decree that declared a forest area in South Sulawesi covering more than 3.6 million hectares, including the Kajang customary forest. With this, the status of the forest changed to become the property of the state, with the function of a limited production forest. This change in status threatened the conservation of the forest, because it led to illegal timber exploitation.

It also resulted in conflict over the changing status of the forest, and a cross-cultural conflict between the government and the indigenous community. The local government assumed the authority to issue permits for the use of forest timber, while according to traditional law, logging in the area was forbidden. In fact, the indigenous community were forbidden by their own law to even enter the forest.

For the indigenous community of Kajang, protecting the forest is not only a matter of protecting their own interests. Based on the the 1982 regulation, about 332 hectares of the Kajang customary forest became a limited production forest (HPT). Based on participatory mapping, the converted area was about 314 hectares. Participatory mapping also shows that the total area of the customary forest is more than 22,500 hectares. The area has a hydrological function, as it contains three important watersheds that ensure clean water supply and irrigation for thousands of hectares of rice paddies in three districts of the Bulukumba regency.

Our research looks at opportunities to address and resolve conflicts by switching the focus on both sides from only focusing on the status of the forest and who it belongs to, toward a broader focus on the function and interests of each side with regard to the forest area. We want to convince stakeholders on both sides that cooperative management will bring far better outcomes for upholding the function of the forest.

How do you think forest management will change after this?

The issuance of the new Forestry Minister’s Decree is a sign of progress, and a bold step for the government. This can become the perfect arena for finding out the best way to increase the prosperity of the indigenous community and safeguard the natural environment.

With the issuance of the decree on customary forests, the role of indigenous communities will become more strategic in determining the fate of their forests. The action taken by the state to change the status and function of customary forests will in the end support all stakeholders to learn how to develop methods of collaborative management.

It also means that the government has taken on a new role, as a facilitator and regulator to assist and empower traditional institutions. As a facilitator, the government will need to assist indigenous communities in facing external threats that are out of their range of influence to overcome, such as expansion of investors to take control of forest areas. As a regulator, the government will need to assist in building the capacity of indigenous communities. For example, by helping them to establish new institutions via the processes of policy development, including by issuing local reglations on tradition-based, or community-based, forest management.

What will it mean for forest conservation?

Conservation is threatened when the status of a forest is changed to become a limited production forest. But local governments can respond to situations like this from a collaborative management approach.

The Bulukumba Regency Forestry Agency and the indigenous Kajang community can make an agreement to take concrete action, such as by conducting joint patrols by forest rangers and the community. Aside from this, formal and traditional sanctions can be strengthened for every case of a violation.

In the future, conservation activities can also strengthen traditional institutions so that synergies between traditional culture and forest conservation are better supported — even more so if all stakeholders consider the hydrological function of the Kajang forest area. I am optimistic that the community and the government will work together for better conservation outcomes. This will include maintaining the balance between fulfilling the economic development needs and protecting the environment.

Do you think traditional knowledge will now play a greater role in forest management? How?

Traditional knowledge is an important element of informal institutions, and is made up of three important elements, namely: soft infrastructure (such as values, principles, local regulations and so on), planning arrangements (organizational structures and governance, personnel and leadership) and mechanisms (conflict resolution, law enforcement, planning and deliberation). Contained within these three elements are the implicit strengths of local knowledge management systems.

One example is the cultural philosophy of Kamase Mase, that is, to live a simple lifestyle supported by abundant natural resources. Those among the community with the right to fell timber are those who cannot afford to buy it elsewhere. Logging is practiced only within an area determined by customary law, without the use of machinery, and must be carried out under close supervision.

Strengthening this kind of local knowledge will determine the fate and future not only of customary forests, but also indigenous communities as a whole. By taking into account the three elements mentioned above in all policies, this can provide a guarantee and lessen uncertainty from the government toward indigenous communities, about whether customary forests will truly be protected, or will be sold for business interests.

What will it mean for local economic development?

The benefits received are both direct and indirect. One benefit is that the rights and responsibilities of the community over customary forest will become more legally secure as they enter the state administrative system. The government may no longer intervene, let alone determine the management of customary forests into the future. The government can also no longer arbitrarily put up signs in customary forest.

Indigenous communities do not demand rewards or appreciation. It is still too early to measure the economic impacts of this decree for the Kajang community. For now, a large proportion of the Kajang community are farmers, with land-based economies.

In my opinion, the decree will have real influence if it is translated into a system for rewards and/or payment for environmental services, as a form of appreciation for the indigenous community’s protection of the forest in an upstream watershed area, for instance. This appreciation can be given in the form of removing the cost of school fees, payment for medical treatment, or helping to arrange beneficial trade and market structures for their agricultural produce.

For more information on this topic, please contact Agus Mulyana at
This research was supported by Global Affairs Canada.
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