World Rainforest Movement

Indonesia: The Contribution of Communal Ecosystem Management Systems

Indigenous communities have been practicing sustainable community-based ecosystem management for centuries. These systems incorporate local knowledge and beliefs that are based on the wisdom and experience of past generations. They also contribute to the economic well being of local communities, as well as to the well being of the Indonesian nation.

By growing paddy rice on their farms, sago palm in the “dusun sagu” (areas within the villages in the coastal areas in West Papua and all over Molluccas designated by the communities for sago trees to grow), as well as an array of other edible crops such as sweet potatoes, indigenous people are contributing to national efforts to achieve food security and self-sufficiency. Without support from any government sponsored agricultural extension services, they have been cultivating rattan, rubber, and tengkawang, raising honeybees, and collecting swallow nests.

Most indigenous communities have also been managing the resources communally, a fact that does not imply the absence of individual customary rights. These communities rely on indigenous systems of natural resource management, which include adat or customary laws for allocating, regulating, and enforcing property rights.

Indigenous ecosystem management systems are based on community knowledge about appropriate and productive land and natural resource use. Most indigenous communities have developed specific terms for different uses of land and other natural resources, including terms for different types of vegetation and tenurial arrangements. For example, in central Sulawesi an indigenous community called the Kaili have developed zoning and land use systems within their adat system. There are designated areas known as tana polidaa for rice fields and tana pobondea for orchards. Tana popamba refers to home gardens and herbs, popa tana to burial places, suakan ntotua to forests, pancoakan rodea to extractive forests, viyata nubulu to sacred areas, suaka viyata to sacred forests, etc.

Indigenous ecosystem management systems vary, and each community is different. Although well known within a community, there has been little written documentation about indigenous natural resource systems, as well as traditional land tenure rights and practices. A collaborative customary land tenure study coordinated by the Agrarian Reform Consortium was conducted in 1997 with some indigenous communities in Bali, Lombok, West Papua, Central Sulawesi, East Kalimantan and North Sumatra. One of its major conclusions is the need to recognize and respect the pluralistic nature of Indonesia’s indigenous natural resource systems and tenures. This will require Indonesia to develop pluralistic agrarian and forestry legal systems, instead of uniform ones.

The problems, rights and potentials of Indonesia’s indigenous people, however, have yet to be officially acknowledged or addressed by the government.

At the same time, Indonesia’s indigenous and other local people continue to play an important role in the conservation and sustainable management of the nation’s forests. As Indonesia has reeled under a deepening economic and political crisis, including spreading food scarcity, many indigenous peoples and communities have been faring relatively better than other rural Indonesians. The Baduy community in West Java, for example, managed to have ample food stocks and reserves. Their rice barns were full. That this oasis of food abundance have existed amidst spreading food scarcity is largely due to the Baduy’s local knowledge and ecosystem management. They have been consistent in following the philosophy of their ancestors such as “lojor teu meunang dipotong, pondok teu meunang disambung.” This can be translated as meaning: “things which are too long should not be cut off, and things which are too short should not be added to”.

Excerpted and adapted from: “Advocating for Community-Based Forest Management in Indonesia’s Outer Islands: Political and Legal Constraints and Opportunities”, Sandra Moniaga, Lembaga Studi dan Advokasi Masyarakat, The Institute for Policy Research and Advocacy,

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