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Indonesian villages see virtually zero progress in program to manage peatlands

Indigenous Indonesians of Mentawai district depend their lives on the resourceful forests. Photo by Vinolia Ahmad/Mongabay-Indonesia.

  • Only one out of nearly 3,000 villages located in Indonesia’s peatlands has received a government permit to manage the forest under the administration’s “social forestry” program.
  • At the same time, 80 percent of peatlands in key areas of Sumatra and Kalimantan fall within plantation and mining concessions.
  • Activists have called on the government to speed up the process of granting permits to villages, arguing that they make better forest stewards than plantation operators.
  • The government has acknowledged the slow pace of progress and accordingly cut its target for the total area of forest reallocated to local communities to a third of the initial figure.

JAKARTA — Of the nearly 3,000 villages located within peatlands throughout Indonesia, only one is permitted to manage the forest — a glaring omission that the government has been slow to address through its “social forestry” program.

The program, one of the key policies of President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo’s administration, is based on the understanding that indigenous communities and others who have for generations lived sustainably off the land are the best stewards of these important, carbon-rich ecosystems.

Indonesia’s Peatland Restoration Agency (BRG) last year identified some 5,600 square kilometers (2,160 square miles) of peat areas that could potentially be reallocated as village forests. To date, though, only one permit has been issued: to the village of Pematang Rahum in Sumatra’s Jambi province, to manage 10 square kilometers, or less than 4 square miles.

That’s one village out of 2,945 located in peat areas across seven provinces in the country, according to the BRG’s own data.

The failure by the government to grant more social forestry permits is underscored by the urgency of protecting the country’s peatlands, much of which are at risk of being drained and cleared to make way for monoculture plantations and mines.

Eighty percent of peat forests surveyed in four provinces in Sumatra and Indonesian Borneo — Jambi, Riau, South Sumatra and West Kalimantan — fall within such concessions, according to a study by the National Geodata Consortium, a coalition of NGOs.

One village identified in the study, Rawa Mekar Jaya in Riau, lies within 158 square kilometers (61 square miles) of forest, almost all of it peat. But 60 percent of that forest has already been allocated for plantation concessions, said consortium coordinator Rahmat Sulaiman. “So the people have limited space to live.”

Rawa Mekar Jaya is one of the thousands of villages trying to obtain a social forestry permit.

Parts of the tall forests in Mentawai district. Photo by Vinolia Ahmad/Mongabay-Indonesia.

Lowering the bar

Under the program, the government initially targeted the reallocation of 127,000 square kilometers (49,000 square miles) of state forest to forest-dependent communities by 2019. The move was aimed at giving greater control over lands to communities living in or around Indonesia’s vast forest zone.

The social forestry program grants permits for various categories of forest: village forest, in which villages apply for a 35-year permit to manage and protect nearby forests; community forest, which grants farmers’ groups a similar right; and customary forest, which applies to indigenous peoples, among others.

As of the end of 2017, however, the Ministry of Environment and Forestry had granted permits for just 13,334 square kilometers (5,150 square miles) to local communities around the country — a little more than 10 percent of its target. The ministry has had to revise its target, saying the government will likely be able to reassign 43,800 square kilometers (16,900 square miles) of land by 2019, just over a third of its initial target of 127,000 square kilometers. Achieving the higher figure will take an additional five years and is contingent on Jokowi winning re-election in 2019 and seeing out his second term through 2024, according to Environment and Forestry Minister Siti Nurbaya.

Navigating a peat swamp forest in Indonesia’s Central Kalimantan province. Photo by Rhett A. Butler

Community vs. commercial interests

Activists blame the slow pace of the social forestry program on a lack of trust by the government in local communities, particularly to manage peat forests.

Siti, though, says the main obstacle is administrative: “Our challenge is to verify [the data on social forestry],” she said. “That requires human resources.”

But while the government wades through the paperwork, the failure to get more forests into the hands of local communities and away from commercial interests is leading to further deforestation to make way for oil palm plantations and more.

The argument that local and indigenous communities are better stewards of the forest than industrial operators is a strong one. Studies by the Monitoring and Evaluation of Social Forestry program (MEPS) show that village forests areas reduce deforestation in forests allocated for watershed protection and limited timber extraction. (In forests allocated for normal timber production and conversion, however, village forests were shown to have higher deforestation than comparable forests not managed by communities.)

One case in point is Padang Island in Riau, which is largely composed of deep-lying peat where the APRIL group, the second largest pulp and paper firm in Indonesia, has been granted a concession totaling 338 square kilometers (130 square miles), or about a third of the whole island. Residents there have since the early 20th century planted sago palms on the peat, a hardy plant that thrives in the wet soil, according to Isnadi Esman, the secretary-general of the activist group Riau Peatland People Network.

By contrast, the non-native acacia trees grown by pulpwood companies like APRIL and its subsidiary, Riau Andalan Pulp and Paper (RAPP), need dry soil, which calls for carving channels through the land to drain the water. This renders the peat highly combustible — a key ingredient in the widespread land and forest fires that flare up regularly across Sumatra and Kalimantan.

“Local people only build narrow ditches to mark borders between farms and to manage the water table,” said Isnadi, a native Padang islander himself. “But companies build big canals to dry out peat soil.”

He added that sago farmers don’t clear the land as extensively as plantation operators do, and also manage water resources more sustainably.

Drainage canals bisect a peatland planted with acacia trees in Indonesia’s Riau province. Photo by Rhett A. Butler

Permits for the people

A 2014 investigative report by Eyes on the Forest found continued clearing of natural forest by RAPP, in violation of its own sustainable forest management policy. In 2016, a spot check by BRG chief Nazir Foead and his team found new drainage channels in deep-peat soil in its concession in Padang Island. (The presidentially appointed team was blocked from further inspections by private security guards.)

Last year, the Ministry of Environment and Forestry ordered RAPP to remove peat areas from contention for development in its concessions, and to restore and conserve them, in line with new regulations meant to prevent fires.

Isnadi said the rezoned concessions should be reallocated to local communities.

“We don’t think it’s enough just to replace the crops [from acacia to peat-friendly crops],” he said. “We hope their permits are revoked and given to local people instead under the social forestry scheme.”

Granting permits to more villages will benefit the government and local communities, says Yustisia Rahman, a program coordinator at the Community and Ecological-based Society for Legal Reform (HuMa).

“When the government gives people more access to peatlands, two targets can be achieved,” he said. “One, increasing people’s welfare. Second, helping the government to meet its target to restore degraded peatlands.”


Banner image: Indigenous Indonesians of Mentawai district depend their lives on the resourceful forests. Photo by Vinolia Ahmad/Mongabay-Indonesia.