World Rainforest Movement

Towards Community Forestry in Indonesia

Forests in Indonesia have been rapidly depleting since the 1960s when the practice became prevalent of handing out logging concessions to military commanders. Logging quickly expanded to supply cheap logs to the Japanese timber industry principally to produce plywood. Under heavy pressure from government-directed colonisation programmes forest loss escalated, a process further exaggerated by large-scale schemes, some developed with foreign assistance, to expand tree crops in ‘conversion forests’. In the mid-1970s, the Indonesian government restricted and then banned the export of unprocessed logs which had the effect of providing a protective market for a domestic plywood and timber processing industry, which developed a voracious appetite for timber. Demand soon outstripped supply and hastened the extension of the logging frontier into the remoter parts of Kalimantan, Sulawesi, the Moluccas and ‘Irian Jaya’ (West Papua). By the late 1980s, NGOs were estimating deforestation in Indonesia at around 1 million hectares a year, a figure long denied by the government. Recent studies put the rate of forest loss even higher –at some 3 million hectares per year– and note that over half of all timber is being extracted illegally.

As the International Centre for Research in Agroforestry has noted:

“In the early 1980s, in what could be considered one of the largest land grabs in history, the government implemented a forest zonation system that classified most of the Outer Islands as forestlands. Seventy-eight percent of Indonesia, or more than 140 million hectares were placed under the responsibility of the Department of Forestry and Estate Crops. This included over 90% of the outer islands. Estimates place as many as 65 million people living within these areas. According to the Department of Forestry, the creation of the State forest zone nullified local ‘Adat’ rights, making thousands of communities invisible to the forest management planning process and squatters on their ancestral lands. As a result, logging concessions, timber plantations, protected areas, and government-sponsored migration schemes have been directly overlaid on millions of hectares of community lands, causing widespread conflict. Yet, in fact for many local people, traditional law, or ‘hukum Adat’, still governs natural resource management practices.”

Since the fall of Suharto in 1998, the political protection afforded to his cronies has gradually been eroded and reform-minded politicians and officials have begun to push, tentatively for wider reforms in forest policy. Under pressure from NGOs and a civil society that grows daily more confident of itself, the Forestry Department has felt obliged to give way, at least in part, to demands for community access to and control of forests.

One area of dispute focuses on exactly which areas are classified as State Forests. Recently released official figures show that only 68% of the areas claimed as State Forests have actually been fully demarcated and gazetted, but no clear maps are available to help communities find out if they live in the gazetted areas or the remaining 32% which formally still remain under the jurisdiction of Ministry of Agrarian Lands. Besides many communities are now questioning the legality by which the forest lands were demarcated and gazetted. Formally required procedures to consult the local administration and affected communities were often not run through, opening up the possibility that the annexation of community lands to establish State Forests could now be challenged in the courts.

A vigorous civil society movement has emerged to challenge State control of forests including several broad alliances of NGOs and other civil society elements such as the Coalition for the Democratisation of Natural Resources (KUDETA), the Communication Forum on Community Forestry (FKKM), the Consortium for Supporting Community-Based Forest System Management (KpSHK) and the Alliance of the Indigenous Peoples of the Archipelago (AMAN). While their tactics and priorities vary, all have called for a devolution of control of forests to local communities. All these initiatives have benefited from considerable financial support from development NGOs and foreign Foundations.

The Forestry Department has taken various steps to accommodate this pressure. In January 1998 it passed a special decree recognising the rights of communities in Krui in West Lampung to have permanent control of their forests under community management. In mid-1999, the Government engaged in a consultation exercise with NGOs in drafting a new Forestry Act but the process broke down when it transpired that while a more-or-less open external drafting process was underway which involved civil society groups, the Ministry was simultaneously drafting its own version internally. It was the internal draft which was submitted to Parliament and ratified despite widespread objections including from former Ministers of the Environment and of Forests. Shortly after another piece of law was also passed in the period, Ministerial Decree, SK 677/1999 (revised in 2001 as SK 31/2001) which establishes a process by which communities can set up as cooperatives and secure 25 year leases to forests subject to government approval of the local management plans.

Although many NGOs are critical of the limited progress that these pieces of law represent, others consider them to be important steps towards a recognition of community rights in forests. The struggle for a reassertion of community forestry in Indonesia is really only just beginning.

By Marcus Colchester, Forest Peoples Programme, e-mail: