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Land rights and access to credit in Sulawesi community brings prosperity to land

  • Fourteen cooperatives in Indoneisa’s Pinrang regency have petitioned the government for greater management rights to their land.
  • One of the cooperatives secured 313 hectares under the community plantation forest, or HTR, scheme.
  • White teak has become one of the Bulu Dewata cooperative’s main crops.

Every day at noon Bahar and Nasirah set out on foot into the South Sulawesi backcountry. The couple moves instinctively through single-stem plants, gathering chilies and pumpkin, knowing as each day passes their subsistence livelihood is on the verge of transformation.

The harvest has set the pace of life for centuries here in Massewae. But generations of farmers like Bahar and Nasirah have seen only modest progress in income as they gather crops near where the Sadang River runs into the Makassar Strait. Now the community around Massewae has banded together to form a legal cooperative and petitioned the Pinrang regency government to take management rights over the land.

Bahar is one of 40 farmers in the Bulu Dewata cooperative. Thirteen other cooperatives have applied to the Pinrang government for a similar community forest permit. Nawir Abidin, chairman of the Bulu Dewata cooperative, said it initially applied to manage 600 hectares, but after thumbing through their application the government signed off on 313.

The deal is straightforward: tree cutting is permitted in half of the community concession, but they are responsible for the conservation of the remainder.

“We can use the buffer zone for production but we can’t cut down the trees,” Nawir told Mongabay.

The collective has employed standard agricultural practice in such arrangements, arranging chili, cocoa, palm and squash in a productive permaculture. But the promise of change comes from the white teak.

“Actually we have a lot of local teak here; it’s red teak, but it grows slowly and can take up to 20 years,” Nawir said. “White teak takes only six to eight years.”

Nawir Abidin, head of the Bulu Dewata cooperative in Massewae village, displays white teak seedlings. Photo by Wahyu Chandra
Nawir Abidin, head of the Bulu Dewata cooperative in Massewae village, displays white teak seedlings. Photo by Wahyu Chandra

Bulu Dewata has planted around a 1,000 white teak seedlings around three meters apart. The seedlings sit cheek by jowl with other the plants dug in by the community.

“The rule is that other plants cannot be taken down before the teak,” Nawir said.

Bahar, Nasirah and the 39 other farmers keep the land in order by removing unwanted vines and ensuring overgrowth does not deprive the white teak of sunlight.

“If you compare the plants that have not been in the shade, they are bigger and taller,” he said. “But they were planted at the same time.

“We have to attend to it regularly because vines will inhibit the growth of the teak.”

White teak, green shoots

Indonesia’s community plantation forest (HTR) program has seen hundreds of licenses handed out since the government enacted the scheme in 2007.

The aim of community forest management, which has seen success in countries as divergent as Brazil and South Korea, is to boost livelihoods and empower communities while protecting forest cover. People are less likely to destroy their environment if they have a direct stake in it, the theory goes.

In 2010, a civil society group called the Sulawesi Community Foundation examined the potential for community forest leases and gathered local communities with other stakeholders at the regency government offices in Pinrang. Nawir, who at the time was the Massewae village leader, joined the meeting. The promise of greater empowerment immediately interested him.

“Another reason was that people were looking at joining other businesses at the time,” he said. “Like oil.”

Nawir moved quickly after the meeting. He went to village farmers, selling the idea to them before their gathering signatures and refining the proposal. They settled on the name Bulu Dewata for the cooperative and expedited the paperwork, presenting a map of the proposed concession and data on the land to the government.

Pinrang regency approved their application after cutting their 600-hectare proposal down to 313. Nawir and colleagues then applied to the forestry ministry’s public service office for loans to cover the cost of white teak seedlings.

The ministry approved credit to cover an eight-year work plan, and put in place a system for training.

Massewae resident Nasirah tends crops in the village. Photo by Wahyu Chandra
Massewae resident Nasirah tends crops in the village. Photo by Wahyu Chandra

Awaluddin, a member of the Sulawesi Community Foundation, praised Nawir. Four similar cooperatives in the area had not proved as successful because of poor leadership, he said.

“Some think that you can just take down trees as soon as you get the permit, but it’s not like that,” he told Mongabay. “They even sink a lot of money into getting the license.”

Training in plantation techniques promises productivity boost

After the cooperative was up and running, the Sulawesi Community Foundation worked on bringing in expertise to boost skill levels. They brought an expert from Gajah Madah University in Yogyakarta to train one farmer, Ismail, to induct teak.

The technique demands that the root is cut, then inducted with an enzyme and left in a vacuum, in this case a plastic bag. This advanced method can create stronger, more fibrous roots. Roots inducted in this way typically contain around 100 strands – the norm is only 15 – and will result in taller, more lucrative hardwood trees.

“Many have tried, but they always failed,” Ismail told Mongabay. “I always get good results.”

In just a few years, the community here will be able to cut down these white teak trees to sell before replanting and repeating the cycle. It’s a more orderly development after the untrammeled destruction of Indonesia’s forests over the last half century, but it requires patience and a long-term approach by the community.

“Some people are still reluctant because they haven’t yet seen the results,” Ismail said.

Ismail has distributed 50 inducted seedlings among other farmers in the cooperative. For now, Bahar and Nasirah continue their journey through the shoulder-high plants, picking chili and pumpkin while clearing vines from the cooperative’s teak trees. They return in late afternoon, before selling the chillies for around 7,000 rupiah (50 cents) at market. It’s not much, but in no more than a few years the community will have hundreds of millions of rupiah in hardwood to sell from the land they now manage.

“The whole thing was self-funded and quite a lot of my own money went into it,” Nawir said.

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