Indonesian forests to be returned to indigenous peoples

Indigenous Indonesians could soon win greater control over their traditional lands, following a court ruling revoking governmental administration of forests customarily used by aboriginal groups

The country’s constitutional court ruled in May that traditional forests should be controlled directly by rural Indonesians, rather than treated as public forests subject to industrial logging under licenses that are issued by the central government.

The ruling gives significant new land rights to a broad swathe of the Indonesian population, up to 40 million of whom are from indigenous communities.

The extent of the forests affected by the ruling has yet to be determined, but government statistics show that about 32,000 rural villages overlap with publicly controlled woodlands.

The court’s decision received the blessing of Indonesian president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, who in recent years has sought to rein in the rampant logging and deforestation that has helped place Indonesia in the world’s top three greatest emitters of greenhouse gases.

“This decision marks an important step towards the recognition of indigenous rights to lands, territories and resources,” he told attendees of a Tropical Forest Alliance 2020 workshop in June.

But while Yudhoyono has ordered ministers to begin registering indigenous land claims, implementing the order could prove challenging. The Indonesian logging industry is both powerful and deeply corrupt, with a Human Rights Watch report published in July estimating that the country lost more than £4.5bn to forestry-related graft between 2007 and 2011. That might make it difficult to enforce new limits on logging, said Arvind Ganesan, director of business and human rights for Human Rights Watch.

“It may be a progressive decision, but the real test is implementation — and in the forestry sector that’s been a longstanding issue,” he said.

It’s also unclear whether indigenous groups will prove responsible custodians of Indonesia’s forests. Some groups might choose to preserve their forests, perhaps to spur eco-tourism; others might be tempted to sell logging rights on their newly acquired land to the highest bidder. “It’s hard to know what the net effect would be — it could go either way,” Ganesan said.

Whatever happens next, Indonesians can be sure that the world will be watching. With populations increasing and land resources in short supply, similar clashes between indigenous groups, businesses and governmental actors will play out around the world in coming years, Ganesan explained.

“That’s a fact of life that’s here to stay, so countless people will be looking to see what lessons can be drawn,” he said.