Kapuas Hulu diary: Resolving land-use conflicts for better land-use outcomes

Searching for better community land-management tools
House in the forests of Kapuas Hulu local collectors and tourists. Photo by Icaro Cooke Vieira/CIFOR CIFOR/Icaro Cooke Vieira

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Augusta Anandi is a researcher and Ph.D. candidate with the Collaborating to Operationalize Landscape Approaches for Nature, Development and Sustainability (COLANDS) program.

In the biodiversity-rich Kapuas Hulu district of Indonesia’s West Kalimantan region, three Indigenous communities whose livelihoods are based on fishing, farming, and non-timber forest products have been trying for years to resolve land-use conflicts worsened by climate change.

From traditional indigenous and community fora, to inputs from non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and governments, various attempts have been made over a dozen years or so to help the Embaloh, Iban and Malay people resolve differences so they can better cope with significant and growing problems. Those include declining water quality, falling fish stocks, increasing pressure from the climate crisis, along with rising demand for oil palm and the resources that their plantations demand. Kapuas Hulu is one of districts in West Kalimantan targeting to increase regional revenue from large scale plantation, which adds to the pressure on the land.

Further complicating matters is the fact that this landscape is particularly vulnerable and valuable – some 60 percent of the region has been designated as a conservation area due to the high value of its biodiversity, intact forest cover and the specific features of  Danau Sentarum lake, the biggest body of water in Kapuas Hulu district. This wetland is unique in Indonesia: it dries up during dry season and reverts to a deep lake during wet season. It also produces vast amounts of freshwater fish that sustain local communities.

This is where my colleagues and I come in. Through the five-year COLANDS program –– Collaborating to Operationalize Landscape Approaches for Nature, Development and Sustainability — we are learning how “landscape approaches” will help communities such as these – and with this site part of a larger, multi-country comparison of landscape approaches. That is, what tools do these communities need to better manage the land, resolve often-bitter land-use disagreements, and support productive land uses as well as environmental and biodiversity goals?

If we can reconcile such competing objectives for allocation and management of land, it will be possible to achieve a “triple bottom-line” of sorts, including social, economic and environmental success. That, in turn, is expected to improve livelihoods as well as communities’ resilience to climate change and perhaps provide a template for use in other areas at other times.

Many people in the district respect a menua – a traditional concept of land-use governance. Each unit of longhouse, which can contain up to 30 households, has a menua that can include several categories: an area for ancestor graves, the longhouse area, and the community forest, which is considered sacred and protected from timber cutting; the community land for hunting and gathering non-timber forest products (NTFPs); and household agricultural area.

This  concept has interconnected land use from upstream with downstream land use, and is also synchronized with other longhouse communities’ menua, and until now has remained a concept still respected by all communities. Governing through a menua means that the community is guided by customary regulations, and decisions made only after a community consensus process called kokombong.

Some villages are still practicing the customary process of kokombong, aimed at achieving consensus among communities located along the river – at its upstream, middle and downstream levels. Several villages I visited have used this process to solve land-use and natural resource issues within the community; yet in some cases, only certain invited villagers could participate in the kokombong discussions. There are suggestions these fora are not actively engaging all stakeholders in discussion and consensus on land use and natural resource matters. In fact, some see these fora as nothing more than a formality, reporting that discussions are often limited to choosing members of committee and boards.

NGOs have tried to develop ways to slow the negative impacts of land-use change due to oil palm expansion here, including harmful effects on water quality, which is already a subject of conflict. World Wildlife Fund for Nature (WWF), for example, has been working for 15 years on forest conservation in the area. In that same period, over 10 local and international NGOs have worked across the two watersheds on a variety of projects — from protection of the local orangutan population to forest rehabilitation and reforestation.

Development in Kapuas Hulu has also split along the lines of the two sub-watersheds that are a key feature of the landscape. The sub-watershed Seriang is part of Seriang Estate, an area of oil palm expansion by one of the biggest private companies in South East Asia that operates based on the designation as an “agricultural” area on the official district spatial plan. But this has created conflict for traditional communities that practice customary menua. Some welcome oil palm expansion as a financially attractive option that could mean more options for income generation and better infrastructure. But others in the community fear expansion of oil palm would encroach on customary sacred land and household land.

To develop the region, governments have worked to improve transportation access, job opportunities, education and health to improve the lives of people here. The prevalence of oil palm is continuously expanding. One result has been a smooth, asphalt-covered main road through the district which has, for some people, improved transportation access from their remote village to the nearby city with its markets, schools and government offices. All of that has contributed to their daily cash income.

Although excellent road access has made travel to remote villages accessible with a motorbike, I’m finding that Kapuas Hulu is a challenging environment in which to work. Amenities we take for granted – such as electricity on demand – remain limited to specific areas and times, such as 5 p.m. to 6 a.m. local time, which can make working via the Internet on a laptop and general communications difficult. Most villages rely on solar panels installed by the government in their homes, and use is often limited to lighting the house and running a television.

Limited access to the Internet and other telecommunications also has a major impact on people in the villages and on their livelihoods. For instance, marketing strategies to sell their non-timber forest products are very difficult to execute when villagers cannot research prices for their products. As a result, they often sell at a low price to middlemen who have much better information and access to the broader market.

It’s clear that my work, and the work of my colleagues is just beginning. But we all hope that both the positive and negative outcomes that emerge will contribute to our understanding of the conditions under which landscape approaches can develop and therefore inform future evidence-based research, policy and practice agendas.

This Ph.D. study is hosted at the Amsterdam Institute for Social Science Research (AISSR) of the University of Amsterdam.

For more information on this topic, please contact James Reed at j.reed@cgiar.org.
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