Will customary land rights destroy Indonesia’s last remaining forests?

Will customary land rights destroy Indonesia’s last remaining forests?

The increased recognition of customary land rights in Indonesia is widely regarded as a positive development by human rights activists & indigenous people advocates. However, critics argue that this recognition will only speed up the deforestation process.

The preamble of The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People explicitly states that indigenous people contribute to the ‘proper management of the environment.’ From this perspective, the legal protection of indigenous people and the environment go hand in hand. However, the view of indigenous people as self-sustaining communities living in full harmony with their environment constitutes a naïve and unrealistic depiction. The reality of today is that even the most isolated communities are forced to participate in the market of the global economy. Indigenous people simply need an income too.

Strengthened and influenced by the international campaign, the indigenous people movement in Indonesia has flourished in recent years. The most important national indigenous rights’ NGO, AMAN, advocates for the rights of Indonesia’s masyarakat adat. This term literally translates as ‘customary communities’, but in English AMAN strategically uses the term ‘indigenous people’. In 2013 AMAN’s advocacy resulted in a judgment of Indonesia’s constitutional court, which ruled that customary forests, wherever legally recognised, will no longer be under the authority of the State, but instead controlled by the communities inhabiting them. In addition, a joint decision by several government departments, issued in October 2014, outlines the procedure for transferring property rights over forest land from the government to forest occupants.

Although these developments are widely acknowledged as an achievement of the advocacy of the indigenous people movement, critics argue that the recognition of customary forests will actually accelerate deforestation rather than contribute to forest preservation. They argue that by excluding forests from the direct control of the State, land plots are likely to be either converted into plantations by the new owners or sold to logging and industrial companies.

So far only a handful of communities have succeeded in their struggle for recognition and it remains difficult to prove who is indigenous and who is not. What’s certain is that in Indonesia, the ideal of indigenous people as isolated forest dwellers virtually no longer exists. One group that comes close is the Orang Rimba, a collective name for the nomadic people living deep in the remaining forests of southeast Sumatra. They recently made national headlines stating that in the last 2 months 11 people of the tribe had died of starvation. Due to widespread deforestation their sources of livelihood have decreased rapidly in recent years. The leader of the Orang Rimba blamed the forest conversions for the deaths, stating that the loss of hunting ground caused malnourishment among the people. He therefore asked for help: ‘If possible, the government should provide us with land to grow rubber, so we can make a decent living.’

Notwithstanding the social importance of customary land rights, the example above indicates that the critique of environmentalists might be justified. If even Indonesia’s most remote tribe is forced to convert its ancient forest into a rubber plantation to survive, how can the ‘indigenous people preserve nature’ discourse be upheld any longer?


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