Indonesia - This article is the third in a three-part series reporting from the village of Honitetu in Maluku, Indonesia.
On the banks of the Tuba river, Silas Matoke and Yordana Yawate walk barefoot into the forest that has sustained their lives.
“For us, the forest is a place to forage,” Matoke says. “And a vegetable garden to fulfill our daily needs.”
Since they were children, the elderly pair have been provided for by the forest – a source of fruit, vegetables, game, spices, and wood for timber and cooking. Through their hard work, the forest also provides sago, the staple food of their island in Maluku, Indonesia.
But as times change, it’s becoming harder to live off the forest, and to make a living from what they harvest there.
“We can harvest enough sago for ourselves to eat. But selling it is difficult,” Matoke says. “We have a hard life.”
Recent changes to national law, recognizing full rights of indigenous communities over their forests, have not yet reached this corner of far-eastern Indonesia.
As it is across most of the country, all forests here are categorized as either state or private forest. A reform-era law allows for partial rights for communities to use and manage forests, but obtaining full recognition is still a struggle.
Meanwhile, full rights are more easily obtained by private companies. The development of private plantations often leads to a loss of access for communities to their forests, and puts further pressure on remaining forest to support their lives and livelihoods.
With mostly local and provincial authorities calling the shots, indigenous forest users like Matoke and Yawate are left with insecure tenure over the land that sustains them.
“Now they say we are not allowed to use the forest as a garden,” Matoke says.
“The forestry agency has begun replanting in this area,” Yawate adds. “But there is no direct support available for us.”
Strengthening the rights and voices of indigenous people, and particularly women, is a driving force for better tenure security, according to a study by the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR).
The work is part of a Global Comparative Study on Forest Tenure Reform (GCS-Tenure), with field research ongoing in Indonesia, Peru and Uganda.
Results so far in Maluku show that local communities are not satisfied with the current dominance of government and private sector control over their land, and are longing for greater collaboration and transparency in decision-making, as well as respect for and recognition of their customary rights — including full rights over forests.
But communities need more than just rights to achieve tenure security, the researchers say. Just as important is making sure that the necessary institutions and processes are in place for those rights to be exercised.
“The issue about tenure security is about trying to understand, to what extent do people feel that their rights will be guaranteed into the future?” says Esther Mwangi, GCS-Tenure Project Leader.
“If you plant a tree, you want to be able to have access to the grown tree and the products from that tree. Tenure security is about being able to do something, to extract value of whatever kind now and in future based on your rights and claims to a resource.”
The concept rings true for sago farmer Yawate, who works in the forest every day during harvest season to meet her daily needs. In her experience, sustainable management and conservation of the forest is not only an ethical imperative – it’s a matter of survival.
“For us, the forest is for farming. We plant sago for food; make a small garden,” she says. “The important thing is that we protect the forest to sustain our lives into the future.”
Produced in collaboration with Aris Sanjaya (video), Ulet Ifansasti (photographs), Aini Naimmah (transcription), Budhy Kristianty (production) and the community of Honitetu village, Maluku, Indonesia.
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