Drainage canal that forms the boundary between the remaining peat forest and the area cleared for the group led by Caliph Hasan Basri. Photo by Ridzki R. Sigit
In the swampy peatlands of Basilam Baru in Sumatra’s Riau Province a conflict between a community and a woodpulp company is illustrating some of the intractable challenges of conserving forests and addressing deforestation in Indonesia.
On first glance the story seems depressingly familiar. One actor wants to preserve the forest, which serves as critical habitat for endangered Sumatran tigers and clouded leopards. The other wants to clear it for a plantation. But in this case, the roles are reversed: the forestry company is pushing to protect the forest under Asia Pulp & Paper’s new forest conservation policy, while the local community aims to chop it down to plant rubber trees.
The conflict revolves around the status of 700 hectares of peat forest that lies with in a 35,000 hectare concession managed by APP supplier PT. Suntara Gajapati (SGP). Like many concessions in remote parts of Indonesia, GSP’s license was granted with little thought for local inhabitants and has since been widely encroached. By 2009 nearly a third of the concession area was claimed by communities, according to an audit by Ekologika, an Indonesian consultancy.
One of the claimants is a community group led by a charismatic young caliph named Hasan Basri, who is asserting traditional ancestral rights known as adat over 1,600 hectares inside PT SGP’s concession. However unlike conventional adat claimants like indigenous groups or traditional communities, Hasan Basri’s community “doesn’t fit into a standard definition of adat“, according to Ekologika. Hasan Basri’s community consists of many different ethnicities including Melayu, Javanese, Batak, Minang, Bugis, Sambas and Chinese, an agglomeration he terms “unity through diversity”. In total, the community consists of roughly 40 families.
Caliph Hasan Basri. Photo by Ridzki R. Sigit.
“We do not distinguish ethnicity,” Hasan Basri told Mongabay-Indonesia in an interview. “We represent the diversity of Indonesian people, as well as religion.”
“We do not distinguish religion, anyone can join here (as part of the group).”
To date about 900 of the 1,600 hectares has been cleared for Hasan Basri’s group. The remaining 700 hectares includes secondary peat forest which a recent assessment classified as having high conservation value (HCCV). In the past, clearance of that area may have proceeded without pause, but now that APP has established a moratorium on forest conversion, any clearing by the community would represent a serious breach of the forestry giant’s commitment. Accordingly, APP has been negotiating with Hasan Basri to maintain the forest in exchange for an equivalent area of non-HCV land.
But Hasan Basri doesn’t seem interested in a land swap.
“Our customary land can not be moved,” he told Mongabay-Indonesia, claiming that his ancestors founded Dumai, a town some 50 kilometers to the southeast. “I can not exchange the customary territory, land that is my right.”
Peat forest within PT Suntara Gajapati’s concession. APP says it wants to protect this block of forest but is facing objections from a local community that wants to clear it.
Hasan Basri has refrained from clearing any of the 700 hectares since negotiations began, but says he may slash-and-burn the area if SGP doesn’t cut it down for him.
The standoff reveals the complexity of efforts to protect forests in Indonesia. Insecure land title and the Ministry of Forestry’s archaic approach to granting concessions, which often fails to recognize traditional land use, exacerbate conflicts and create opportunities for outsiders — whether they are companies and individuals — to game the system. Indigenous communities, wildlife, and forests lose out.
Land conflicts complicate effort to spare forests from palm oil in Borneo
Marcus Colchester of the Forest Peoples Programme notes that the problem isn’t limited to Riau.
“The case illustrates the very serious underlying problems in rural Indonesia,” he told mongabay.com. “Social scientists estimate that about 80 percent of all rural landholdings in Indonesia are informal and legally insecure.
“Customary rights, despite being upheld by the Constitution, are with too few exceptions unrecognized. Instead the Ministry of Forests and the National Land Agency and local politicians have been handing out forestry and agribusiness concessions overlapping these lands without first regularizing people’s rights. The results are conflicts and lots of confused and sometimes dubious land claims.”
Colchester couldn’t speak to the specific case in Basilam Baru, but said the resolution would depend on the specific circumstances.
“In similar cases it mayhap that there are some members of a customary community also there, who may have permitted entry to outsiders even though they thereby become a minority on their own lands,” he explained. “In such a case if everyone brought into the community respects custom and is there with the local people’s consent, then their insistence to stay there should be respected. On the other hand, if following a proper assessment and due participation, it is generally concluded that such people do not have legitimate claims to this area of land, then the offer of a land swap may seem reasonable.”
Cleared area within SGP’s concession.
While sorting out these sorts of conflicts is widely seen as being a key part in addressing Indonesia’s sky-high deforestation rate, it doesn’t mean that all community forest areas will necessarily be maintained as forests. Indeed, in some cases, areas once targeted for protection could ultimately be turned over for oil palm or rubber plantation development, if that’s what communities want.
But each situation will be unique and require a some form of dispute resolution process, something which APP and other private sector companies have been incorporating into their zero deforestation commitments. Indonesia’s new REDD+ Agency is encouraging this process of engagement as is its principal benefactor, Norway.
“The REDD+ Agency is supportive of the involvement of companies to resolve conflict with communities,” William Sabandar, a top official at the agency, told Mongabay. “Mapping and continuous dialogue among all involved shareholders and rights holders need to continue. The REDD+ Agency can facilitate this.”
Land that has been opened by SGP for Hasan Basri’s group. Rubber has replaced the natural forest timber stands. Photo: R. Sigit Ridzki
“It is clear that social conflicts is one of the key threats to protected forests in the short and medium term,” added Norwegian Ambassador to Indonesia, Stig Traavik. “This comes up in all our conversations with progressive business leaders and is also something that the REDD+ Agency is putting a lot of thought into.”
“We have also had discussions about social conflicts with key Civil Society actors – who also think that new ways to ensure protection of conservation forests need to be put on the agenda.”
But whether the process moves fast enough for the private sector remains an open question. For example, APP could quickly solve the problem by simply dropping SGP as a supplier, freeing both the company and Hasan Basri of the burden of respecting the deforestation moratorium.
But such a move could have unintended consequences as Wilmar saw last year after the palm oil giant sold off its stake in PT Asiatic Persada, an Indonesian grower embroiled in a long-running conflict with a community in Jambi. Freed from the constraints of the multinational’s sourcing policy, Asiatic Persada abandoned the disputes resolution process Wilmar had painstakingly engaged in at the behest of its financier, the World Bank’s International Finance Corporation (IFC). Shortly thereafter, security forces allied with Asiatic Persada flattened an indigenous Suku Anak Dalam village. Two weeks ago, the conflict escalated, resulting in the death of a community member and injuries to five others.
Peat forest within SGP’s concession.
For its part, APP seems intent on avoiding that outcome.
“Our intention is clear: we are committed to our ZERO deforestation policy, which means that all natural forest in our supply chain will be protected, HCVs will be identified and enhanced, FPIC and social conflict resolution to be upheld,” Aida Greenbury, Managing Director of Sustainability and Stakeholder Engagement at APP, told mongabay.com. “We want to protect this forest as part of our forest conservation policy.”