This article is the first in a three-part series reporting from the village of Honitetu in Maluku, Indonesia.

Nestled in the lush hills of Seram, the largest island in the Indonesian province of Maluku, the village of Honitetu blends seamlessly into the surrounding forest. There are few paved roads connecting the scattered settlements, and the only Internet access to be found is at the local elementary school.

Here, forests are a source of life and wealth – from the daily fruit, vegetables, firewood and game they provide to the timber, resin, starch for sago (a local staple), and valuable spices that once put the Moluccan archipelago in the world spotlight.

Honitetu’s forests are managed now as they have always been: by local communities under the authority of their ‘Kings’ – a role played by both men and women – with the occasional assistance of myths and taboos.

“Since time immemorial, there has been forest in Honitetu,” says Latu Pieter, a former local leader. “In Honitetu, we don’t have terms like ‘privately owned forest’. The forest belongs to the community, managed under customary control.”

But as tenure laws continue to change, customary management is under challenge by top-down government control, the entry of private industry with business permits, increasingly limited rights for local people, and a shrinking area of forest for them to forage and farm in.

In an historic move, the Indonesian government last year granted customary rights to indigenous communities over an area of about 13,000 hectares nationwide. By 2019, the government aims to hand over rights to 12.7 million hectares – or at least partial rights under social forestry schemes. But indigenous groups are demanding full rights to their customary lands, with claims extending to more than 8 million hectares.

As a province with a strong tradition of customary forest management, Maluku has joined the call for full local rights to forests, with several communities prepared to follow the government process of achieving legal recognition for their customary law, or adat.

However, the challenges lie not only in meeting the legal requirements set by Jakarta, but also in establishing boundaries among neighboring kingdoms, and ensuring an equitable distribution of rights locally.

   Village heads in Maluku are known as ‘Bapa Raja’ or ‘Ibu Raja’ — male and female ‘Kings’. Former King of Honitetu, Latu Pieter, passed authority to another local leader after a democratic election in 2016. CIFOR Photo/Ulet Ifansasti

In Honitetu, we don’t have terms like ‘privately owned forest’. The forest belongs to the community, managed under customary control.

Latu Pieter, former King of Honitetu
   Honitetu resident Yokbet Yawate carries firewood from the forest for daily use. CIFOR Photo/Ulet Ifansasti
   Local farmer Julyan Yawate shows the result of his labor – solid resin that was tapped in liquid form from a tree on the edge of forest in his backyard. CIFOR Photo/Ulet Ifansasti

What upsets us is that the timber companies have secured legal business rights and effectively banned the community from cutting down trees.

Sony Parakate, resident of Honitetu


“Maluku is very special place, in the sense that tenure around here is customary tenure and customary right of access. But then that is overlaid with government claims to different categories of forest in the same place,” says principal scientist Esther Mwangi, who leads a global study into tenure reform for the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR).

Despite the de facto recognition of customary forest rights in Maluku, by law all forests in the province are classified as either state or private forests, with limited use rights for local people. In state forests, harvesting products for personal use is allowed, but harvesting to sell is not.

Local communities challenge this restriction, since they claim the forest products in question are a result of their labor over generations, and that sales make an important contribution to their livelihoods.

In private forests, community access to forest products is at the consent of individual businesses, and can be cut off for reasons of security, or because the forest is cleared to make way for plantations and other developments.

Compared to the difficult process of achieving legal recognition of customary title, permits for private forest are relatively quick and easy to obtain, meaning that the expansion of industry is fast outpacing developments in tenure reform.

What upsets us is that the timber companies have secured legal business rights and effectively banned the community from cutting down trees,” says Honitetu resident Sony Parakate.

“They paid a small amount as compensation to the community, and the community just accepted it, because they know that those rights were given to the companies by the government. But the people know that they are the ones losing out.”

Overlapping claims to forests are not only a problem between communities, government and the private sector, but also among neighboring villages, and within communities and families themselves.

A lack of clear geographical boundaries for customary territories presents the potential for conflict, while patriarchal land inheritance systems can disadvantage women, and further marginalize families and individuals with less access to land.

“The main problem among communities here is that there is no agreement about territorial borders,” says Nining Liswanti, a CIFOR scientist who leads the Indonesia component of the Global Comparative Study on Forest Tenure Reform (GCS-Tenure). Simultaneous studies on tenure are being carried out in other parts of Indonesia, as well as Peru and Uganda.

Liswanti and colleagues are working with the community in Honitetu and the surrounding villages to map out their territories and agree on boundaries.

“We use a participatory mapping technique, whereby we invite the community to sit down with us and we map out all the natural resources in their customary forests,” she says.

The approach includes all groups in the community, of different ages, genders and income levels. In 2017, a gathering of leaders from around West Seram came together to compare the maps their communities had made.

“From this map we can see the boundaries of our territory,” says Latu Pieter from Honitetu.

“But for us, as community members or community leaders, we are not yet satisfied. We still want to reach the final objective, which is making these borders official.”

   Women in Honitetu show the map they helped create by pointing out sites where they gather natural resources. CIFOR Photo/Ulet Ifansasti
   Scientist Nining Liswanti shares research findings with a gathering of village heads in Osi island, West Seram regency, Maluku province, Indonesia. CIFOR Photo/Ulet Ifansasti
   Discussions with village heads took place on nearby Osi Island, connected by wooden bridge to the mainland of Seram. CIFOR Photo/Ulet Ifansasti

The main problem among communities here is that there is no agreement about territorial borders.

Nining Liswanti, CIFOR scientist


The mapping exercise is part of an innovative approach known as Participatory Prospective Analysis (PPA), which has been applied as part of the GCS-Tenure study in Maluku since 2015.

Ongoing work in collaboration with government agencies, non-governmental organizations, academics, the private sector and local communities has produced a series of possible scenarios that participants say will enhance tenure security and sustain healthy forests.

From five scenarios that were developed using this approach, the one preferred by all involved is formal recognition of customary rights within a framework of good governance — based on transparency, accountability, cooperation and coordination — and supported by government funds allocated for tenure reform.

What is very interesting is that villages have used that mapping process as a basis to claim for further rights.

Esther Mwangi, principal scientist

The research suggests there is an opportunity in Maluku to “leapfrog” the introduction of social forestry schemes, as a step toward granting communities partial rights through tenure reforms applied elsewhere in Indonesia, and directly implement full customary management and rights.

“What is very interesting is that villages have used that mapping process as a basis to claim for further rights,” says Mwangi, the study leader.

“They now have a map, which they have used to concretize their claims to government. That’s a  good outcome, because showing the extent of uncontested customary territory is an important step in the process of making customary claims.”

Researchers are facilitating further discussions between local leaders and authorities in district, provincial and national governments to find a way forward for both government priorities for tenure reform, and the communities’ wish to have their rights recognized.

   Children head off to school from their home overlooking a valley of forest in Honitetu. Local leaders hope the next generation will have full rights over their customary forests. CIFOR Photo/Ulet Ifansasti

Produced in collaboration with Aris Sanjaya (video), Ulet Ifansasti (photographs), Aini Naimmah (transcription), Budhy Kristanty (production) and the community of Honitetu village, Maluku, Indonesia.

For more information on this topic, please contact Esther Mwangi at or Nining Liswanti at
This research was supported by the European Commission, the Global Environment Facility, the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), and the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).
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