Three decades of tenure reform in Indonesia

A guide to the 'when', 'what' and 'why' of changing rights over resources
A farmer planting rice in Pangkep, South Sulawesi, Indonesia. CIFOR Photo/Tri Saputro

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A recent handover of customary land rights in Indonesia is the product of a decades-long drive led by local communities, with a long way yet to go, researchers say.

A new infobrief from the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) traces more than three decades of tenure reform in Indonesia, finding a key role for local leaders in the ongoing struggle for recognition of management rights over land and forests.

“Local leadership is very important to secure rights, and to achieve effective forest tenure reform,” says Mani Ram Banjade, the lead author on the paper.

Banjade says that while he and his colleagues welcome the move to devolve rights to local leaders, progress remains slow in meeting the aspirations of indigenous communities, or the government’s own targets.

The handover earlier this year saw a few thousand hectares transferred into local hands, while indigenous groups are demanding full rights to more than 8 million hectares. The government’s own target is to hand over at least partial rights to 12.7 million hectares of forestland by 2019.

Banjade says that at the current rate of progress, it is unlikely that the government will reach its target of increasing the area under customary or local management from 3% to 10% of total forestland in the next two years.

It’s hoped that the new infobrief, soon to be translated into Indonesian, will become a valuable source of information to assist the government and local leaders in achieving their goals.


Even if change is slow-going, the research shows a positive trend toward tenure reform in Indonesia over the past three decades, and particularly since the early 2000s.

Following a period of tight centralization under President Suharto’s New Order in the 1960s, community participation in land and forest management began to be encouraged in the 1980s, with usufruct rights – or rights to use state land for personal or community benefit – introduced from the 1990s on.

The fall of the New Order in 1998 prompted a period of accelerated decentralization. Social forestry schemes were introduced from 1999, and a Constitutional Court ruling in 2012 made it possible for communities to claim customary tenure over land.

There are now several types of tenure that a community can claim in Indonesia – from customary forests to village forests, community forests, smallholder forests and state-community partnerships.

While opening up greater options for local management, the multitude of schemes available can also be confusing for local leaders as to which they are eligible to claim, and what the benefits will be for their communities.

Many are unaware that some options, such as social forestry schemes, deliver only partial rights to communities, and not the full rights most local leaders are demanding, including the right to use land as they see fit, or sell land to a third party.

Once an option is chosen, the process of obtaining a permit can be another legal minefield for local people, who may not have the capacity to navigate the convoluted government requirements.

Among other reasons, this is why the research suggests a need to support strong local leadership in achieving effective tenure reform.

“Where there are very genuine leaders available, who are really committed and are giving time for reform implementation, the outcomes are eventually very good,” Banjade says.


The ongoing trend toward decentralization of land rights in Indonesia points to a positive shift from a perception of local people as obstacles to development, to seeing them as partners for a more sustainable way forward.

Many local communities rely on land and forests to meet their daily needs. Research shows that local knowledge of ecosystems, as well as informal institutions that support their conservation, can be valuable assets for reaching greater goals of sustainable development.

Evidence is mounting that local participation in decision-making has better outcomes for sustainability, as well as for justice and equity. As access to land means access to benefits, more equitable distribution of land rights means more equitable benefits shared among local communities.

Research is ongoing into how tenure reform actually plays out at the local level, and what benefits are received by local communities.

CIFOR’s Global Comparative Study on Forest Tenure Reform (GCS-Tenure) is using a Participatory Prospective Analysis to uncover the aspirations of local communities in places such as Maluku and Lampung. Preliminary findings were presented at the Indonesian Ministry of Environment and Forestry last December, as part of efforts that led to January’s handover of rights to nine indigenous communities.

This week, Banjade and team are presenting their most recent findings on tenure reform implementation at the World Bank Land and Poverty Conference in Washington, DC.

At the local level, Banjade hopes the new infobrief will help inform communities on the options available to them, and how to achieve their rights.

“The idea is to provide in one place information that will give local people the opportunity to compare different regimes – what the benefits are, what sorts of rights they provide, what the risks are – and also for policy makers to see the current status of reforms, and where the gaps are,” he says.

This research was supported by the European Commission, the Global Environment Facility, the International Fund for Agricultural Development and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO).
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