JAKARTA — Last year the inhabitants of Konbaki village in the Indonesian island province of East Nusa Tenggara filed a request to farm some 174 hectares, about 430 acres, of land in their village.
The provincial forestry department approved the plan, filed with the assistance of NGOs. But that was as far as the villagers would get. When the forestry department forwarded the request to officials in the national government, it turned out that the land in question overlapped onto areas earmarked the Ministry of Environment and Forestry for a land swap program benefiting big plantation companies.
“They’re disappointed,” Marthen Bulu, an official at the East Nusa Tenggara Forestry Department, told Mongabay. “There were nine farmers’ groups who submitted the request, and after technical verification, it turned out that the proposed location was in the land swap map. As a result, the request failed to pass the verification process.”
Peat protection policy
Konbaki village, and East Nusa Tenggara in general, lie far from Indonesia’s massive oil palm and pulpwood plantations in Sumatra and Borneo, but are now being impacted by a government program that seeks to curb the rampant degradation of peatlands on those islands.
Under the land swap program, companies whose existing concessions include areas of deep peat must cease all operations in those areas and take measures to restore and conserve them. As compensation, the government allocates them land elsewhere in the country. The policy is one of several meant to prevent a repeat of the major fires and haze fueled by the burning of drained and degraded peatlands in 2015.
But as the land swap gets under way, communities and officials at the local level, such as those in Konbaki — and even the plantation firms themselves — are learning the hard way that they’ve been left in the dark.
“The provincial government didn’t know that the proposed location was included in the land swap map,” Gladi Hardiyanto from the NGO Kemitraan Partnership, which advocates for social forestry in East Nusa Tenggara, told Mongabay.
And the Konbaki case is just the tip of the iceberg, Gladi said.
“It’s not just in East Nusa Tenggara, but in other areas as well,” he said. “If there are areas proposed for inclusion in the social forestry program but they overlap with land swap areas, then the proposal will be rejected.”
Nearly 650 square kilometers (250 square miles) of land has been demarcated for both the land swap program and the government’s earlier social forestry program, which is meant to benefit local communities that have long worked the land but lack formal title to it, according to data from a coalition of NGOs. About a fifth of this disputed land is in East Nusa Tenggara, a string of volcanic islands where subsistence agriculture, rather than commercial plantations, has long held sway.
Syahrul Fitra, from Auriga Nusantara, one of the NGOs in the coalition, says the government shouldn’t let indigenous communities suffer at the expense of the plantation companies in the land swap program. He says the social forestry program was initiated much earlier than the land swap, and should thus be prioritized.
In the case of Konbaki village, local officials are looking for land elsewhere for the villagers to farm — an approach that Syahrul says is misguided.
“The villagers applied for the social forestry program because the area was their land [to begin with],” he told Mongabay. “And if the government looks for land in other places, it’s going to be another community’s land, not [the Konbaki villagers’] original land.
“Why doesn’t the government just get rid of the land swap area there? Why do the villagers have to be sacrificed and discriminated against?” Syahrul said.
Bambang Supriyanto, who oversees the social forestry program at the Ministry of Environment and Forestry, said he wasn’t aware of the Konbaki village case. But he said such a dispute could very well arise, given the possibility of mistakes creeping into the mapping process for both the social forestry and land swap programs.
“There must have been human error,” Bambang told reporters in Jakarta. “But if there are existing permits in the area sought for the social forestry program, then we can’t issue the permits [to the local communities]. The solution is to reduce [the size of the social forestry area]. For example, if they need 100 [hectares], and 40 of them overlap, then we’ll just issue permits for 60 hectares.”
At the other end of the land swap equation are the major plantation firms. One of them is Asia Pulp & Paper (APP), which says that the land it’s been offered by the government as part of the program has already been encroached on by locals, and thus there’s a high risk of conflict if it proceeds with the swap.
APP sustainability director Elim Sritaba said the land being offered could “no longer be available for plantation because [of the] encroachment.”
“So our focus is to find the best practice and how we can improve quality plantation,” she said during a press conference in May.
It’s not just community land that’s at risk of being swept up for the land swap program. The NGO coalition that mapped out the land swap area warns that 40 percent of the designated land is natural forest: some 3,260 square kilometers (1,260 square miles), an area a quarter the size of Puerto Rico. Seventy percent of this land is in the five provinces of Aceh, Central Kalimantan, East Nusa Tenggara, Maluku and Papua.
The latter three provinces have remained largely untouched by the oil palm and pulpwood industries. The coalition has labeled the land swap program “planned deforestation” on the part of the Ministry of Environment and Forestry, under the disguise of peat restoration.
In particular, it says the targeting of community lands runs counter to ministry official Bambang’s earlier pledge that the allocations for land swaps would come from unproductive timber concessions and areas already reserved for future concessions. There are at least 41,500 square kilometers (16,000 square miles) of such land available, according to ministry data — more than enough to cover the 9,210 square kilometers (3,556 square miles) of land already designated for the land swap program.
If the land swap policy is to be carried out, the NGOs say, the allocations should come from these areas and avoid expanding on already licensed areas.
“The land swap areas are supposed to be located on areas that have previously been earmarked for industrial forestry plantations,” Auriga Nusantara’s Syahrul said.
The coalition has also criticized the lack of a legally binding requirement for companies to restore degraded peatlands at their own expense before getting new allocations.
“Without this provision, the companies can simply walk away from the disaster they’ve created,” the coalition said in a statement. “Restoration may never take place and abandoned areas may be vulnerable to catastrophic fires for years to come.”
Bambang, however, said the companies were already aware of their responsibility to restore the degraded peatland within their concessions. As such, he said, no companies have to date requested a land swap from the ministry.
“They understand that they have to adjust their work plans [to include peat restoration] and make restoration plans [first],” he said.
Banner image: Members of the Kombai indigenous community in Boven Digoel district, Papua province, Indonesia, during a media briefing in Jakarta. Image by Hans Nicholas Jong/Mongabay.