Customary forest within pulp giant concession granted to indigenous group

JAKARTA ( - As 2016 drew to a close, President Joko Widodo demonstrated the concern he has for indigenous peoples' groups by granting part of the customary forests lying within a Royal Golden Eagle (RGE) pulpwood concession to an indigenous group as a symbol of the state's recognition of customary forests in Indonesia.

The conflict between indigenous groups whose customary forests fall within part of a pulpwood concession belonging to PT TPL, a subsidiary of pulp giant RGE, and the company itself has been going on for years. Based on the Ministry of the Environment and Forestry’s data, there are eleven customary forest blocks spread throughout this concession.

This map portrays the eleven customary forests (delineated in white) distributed in the RGE pulp concession (delineated in yellow).



The recognition given to the customary forests by the state, whereby they will be legally managed by the indigenous groups concerned, was a resolution made by the President. Indigenous groups have been struggling for and awaiting such a resolution for more than seven decades.

Of the nine Environment and Forestry Minister’s decrees granting the customary forests to indigenous groups located in various provinces, one of them pertains to the Tombak Haminjon customary forest, one of eleven customary forests located in PT TPL’s concession which spans an area in excess of five thousand soccer fields.

The decrees were handed over in person by the President at the State Palace (30 Dec), accompanied by the Environment and Forestry Minister Siti Nurbaya and witnessed by relevant ministers, ambassadors, and CSOs.

“We have got the ball rolling in terms of recognizing customary forests by starting with these nine customary forests which cover an area of over 13 thousand hectares. In my pocket, there are 12.7 million hectares which will continue to be distributed to indigenous and local community groups,” said the President in a speech at the event.

This Environment and Forestry Ministry’s map depicts the distribution of these 12.7 million hectares promised by the President through social forestry program (delineated in white).



Minister Siti Nurbaya in her introductory speech, which served as her report to the President, said that this move on the part of her ministry is a clear manifestation of the President's commitment and directives in respect of forest protection and indigenous rights.

“The recognition of customary forests by the state, which is taking place for the first time, forms part of our efforts to uphold our constitution,” the minister explained.

The minister also expressed her utmost gratitude to all the stakeholders, in particular the indigenous groups and CSOs involved, for their mutual cooperation and support in bringing about the recognition of customary forests.

These photos show the dialogue held between the President and a representative of indigenous groups after the event at which the customary forest recognition decrees were handed over.



Shifting focus

Using clear language, the President explained that usually these types of decrees are made to the benefit of corporations, but now decrees on forest management were starting to be made in favor of indigenous and community groups.

This statement was quite apt and cutting, considering that the vast majority of forests and land across Indonesia are controlled by merely a handful of family business groups, most notably in the pulp & paper and palm oil sectors.

“The process of recognizing the customary forests situated in the PT TPL pulpwood concession was carried out through various intensive approaches. The President is always quick to point out that where there is a serious will for resolving all problems, there is definitely a way,” San Afri Awang, the Ministry’s Director General of Forestry Planology and Environmental Governance, told at the State Palace.



He went on to say that the ministry was especially satisfied with the situation, given that public perception has long held the ministry to be reluctant to recognize customary forests. This perception, he added, would now change on the back of the ministry’s recent actions.

The Director General elaborated further: “We have to be very thankful for the great commitment shown by our President in his decision to recognize customary forests as well as for the steps taken by our minister to realize the President’s instruction.”

Happy and optimistic

Abdon Nababan, the Secretary General of the Indigenous Peoples Alliance of the Archipelago (AMAN), said that the recognition of customary forests had been awaited for more than seven long decades.

“Of course we are happy. What we have to underline is that in the President's speech earlier, the President undertook to continue distributing 12.7 million hectares of land, mainly to indigenous groups,” Abdon told in the event at the state palace.



He added excitedly that he was optimistic the President’s promise could be fulfilled by 2019.

“The President’s speech has to be seen as an order - an order to hand over these 12.7 million hectares (to indigenous and local community groups). Naturally we’re optimistic if we’re talking about an instruction from the President himself,” Abdon enthused.

It was previously reported by in an interview conducted with Abdon (Jul 20) at an AMAN event held in Sumatra's Riau province, that he was cautiously optimistic about the promises made by the President to grant legal recognition to the rights of indigenous communities before the end of 2016. It turns out that this cautious optimism was warranted given the President’s landmark action on the cusp of 2017.