- The indigenous Kombai tribe of Indonesia’s Papua region are seeking recognition of their right to manage their ancestral lands, in a bid to thwart the encroachment of oil palm plantations in the last great expanse of unspoiled wilderness in the country.
- They face legal hurdles to their bid, including a lack of clarity over the status of previously defunct logging concessions on their land, and onerous requirements to prove to the authorities their ties to the land.
- The administration of President Joko Widodo has pledged to issue customary forest titles to indigenous communities nationwide, but none of the tribes in Papua has received such recognition.
- Activists say empowering indigenous communities to manage their own forests is a key step to fighting climate change, because these communities tend to be better stewards of the forest than their own governments.
BOVEN DIGOEL, Indonesia — It’s a hot and humid morning, and birds and insects are chirping deep in a lush rainforest in the eastern Indonesian province of Papua.
All of a sudden, the sounds are drowned out by tribal chanting and the thunder of dozens of people marching, echoing through the forest like a mild earthquake. Brandishing bows and arrows, they sing and dance their way toward the village of Uni in Boven Digoel district.
These men are guests from nearby villages, heading to a feast hosted by the indigenous Kombai tribe here in the southern swamplands of Papua. The centerpiece of the feast is Rhynchophorus ferrugineus, a beetle better known as the sago palm weevil, whose larval grub is considered a delicacy here.
The party lasts all night, the grubs served up with sago starch and wrapped in sago palm leaves, and the revelers dance and sing, talk and exchange goods with one another.
“If there’s any animosity [between clans], we’ll throw the sago grub festival to bring back peace,” Yambumo Kwanimba, the head of the festival, tells Mongabay. “If we’re dancing, that means we’ve already made peace. No more killing and no more animosity.”
The sago grub feast is the most important festival for the Kombai, for whom sago is a dietary staple and the putative source of life. It’s a festival that redresses imbalances in life, such as natural disasters and conflicts, and brings peace and harmony back to the community.
This year’s sago grub festival, however, holds special meaning for the Kombai people. The forests where they cultivate their sago palms are under threat of being parceled out by the local government to agribusiness giants looking to plant a different type of palm: oil palm, whose rapid spread across Sumatra and Borneo has already devastated vast swaths of forest there.
“I throw this sago grub festival to protect our ancestral forests so that they don’t get taken away by companies,” Yambumo says. “If we lose our forests, then we also lose our tradition.”
‘No forest, no Kombai’
As a hunter-gatherer community, the Kombai rely heavily on their forest.
“If there’s no forest, then there’s no Kombai people,” says Daniel Kombanggey, 23, a Kombai teacher.
Daniel is particularly concerned about the future of his 150 students at a school in neighboring Wanggemalo village, tucked deep in the forest. Their families rely on the forest for their food, and the children usually spend their days hunting and gathering with their parents.
“If the forests are gone because they’re sold by their parents to some companies, then my students will lose their ancestral home,” Daniel says.
It’s a view echoed by Daniel Mitop, 35, who helped organize the sago grub festival. He says the festival is important to ensure the future of his eight children, the youngest just 8 months old.
“If a company takes away our forests, then we will struggle in life,” he tells Mongabay. “My children still rely on nature. They still eat sago and nibung,” another type of palm.
While the Kombai forest remains intact, the fate of the neighboring Auyu tribe serves as a grim reminder of what’s at stake. The Auyu have in recent years lost much of their forest, home to rare species such as iconic birds of paradise, to oil palm and pulpwood plantations run by large companies.
“The Kombai are concerned that they’re going to end up like the Auyu, because they’re neighbors,” says Christian Ari, director of Perkumpulan Silva Papua Lestari (PSPL), an NGO working with the Kombai.
Much of the concern about deforestation in Boven Digoel district centers on an immense block of primary forest spanning 2,800 square kilometers (1,100 square miles), an area nearly the size of Yosemite National Park. Earmarked for oil palm plantations, it would be the single largest bloc of oil palms in Indonesia, the world’s top producer of palm oil.
The area is divided up into seven concessions, which have been owned by a series of large firms, including the Indonesia-based Menara Group. Development has begun on some of the concessions, including those operated by plantation companies PT Megakarya Jaya Raya and PT Kartika Cipta Pratama, which have been linked to Pacific Inter-Link, a holding of the Yemeni-owned Hayal Saeed Anam conglomerate.
A swath of land half the area of Paris, around 45 square kilometers (17 square miles), was cleared in Megakarya’s concession between May 2015 and April 2017, according to a new report by Greenpeace. The affected area included primary forest. Recent land clearance was also evident in the neighboring concession of Kartika, the report says.
Given that this represents less than 2 percent of the total area gazetted for concessions, activists and indigenous communities fear impending deforestation on a far greater scale.
“The palm oil industry has already arrived here,” Christian says. “And the Kombai people are worried that the palm oil expansion will reach their territory.”
Old concessions revived?
Adding to the Kombai tribe’s concerns is the fact that their area used to overlap with selective-logging concessions.
Christian says the government granted these concessions inside Kombai territory in the 1980s and 1990s to three companies: PT Rimba Megah Lestari, PT Digul Dayasakti Unit 1, and PT Damai Setiatama. Some of the concessions were in operation into the 1990s, but all have since been abandoned, leaving the Kombai uncertain about whether the permits remain valid or not.
However, recent visits by representatives from these companies have added to concerns that new plantations will be developed on the sites of the abandoned concessions.
“In 2008, Damai Setiatama came for a survey and they set up boards along the riverbank, even though they had disappeared for a long time,” Christian says. “As for Digul Dayasakti, they are owned by Korindo” — a South Korean-Indonesian joint venture with major logging and palm oil interests — “and I heard from the locals that they had asked for a new area.”
To date, though, there’s been no new activity in the abandoned concessions. Christian says the Ministry of Environment and Forestry had told him the logging permits had been revoked due to prolonged inactivity. Crucially, though, the ministry hasn’t provided anything written to that effect, Christian says.
And as long as the Kombai tribe’s customary rights aren’t recognized, these abandoned logging concessions remain at risk of being converted into other types of plantations.
“They’re currently classified as production forest. That means they can easily be converted into industrial plantations or areas for other purposes, like oil palm plantations,” Christian says. “The companies have already mapped them. That’s why it’d be so easy for the government to just issue new permits” to replace the previous ones.
Customary forest title
Key to the Kombai tribe’s struggle to protect their forest is the need to have their ancestral rights to the land recognized by the government.
It’s a long process that begins with convincing the district council of Boven Digoel to pass a local bylaw that would serve as the basis for their application to the national government for customary forest title.
“There is already a draft of the regulation that hopefully will be approved [by the council] in near future,” says Geir Erichsrud, program coordinator with the Rainforest Foundation Norway (RFN), who works with the Kombai people. “And that will be the basis for applying for customary forest [status] at the Ministry of Environment and Forestry.”
Christian says the council promised to start deliberations on the draft bylaw in October. But Ayub Santi, the district council speaker, says he needs to study the necessity of passing such a bylaw before even considering moving forward with the deliberation.
“If having the bylaw truly benefits the local people, then we will push for it as fast as possible,” he tells Mongabay on the eve of the grub festival, where he is later fêted among the guests.
Ayub says he understands the urgency of recognizing the Kombai tribe’s rights over its customary forest, given the companies circling above. He says an oil palm plantation will soon be developed in the Boven Digoel subdistrict of Fofi, a relatively short 90-minute boat ride from the Kombai village of Uni in Bomakia subdistrict.
The proximity of this soon-to-be developed plantation to where the Kombai people live, Ayub says, makes it very likely that companies will soon be targeting the Kombai forest.
“I hear there’s going to be forest clearing for a new oil palm plantation soon there,” Ayub says. “So we’ll be very responsive if there’s a need for a customary forest permit so that the forest can be protected.”
The Boven Digoel district head, Benediktus Tambonop, also among the invited guests at the sago grub feast, says he supports the Kombai fight for recognition of their ancestral land rights. He adds he hopes that Ayub’s presence at the feast can help spur the local council into issuing the bylaw, “so that the management of the customary forest can have a clear legal basis.”
The Kombai appeared to get a boost in September when President Joko Widodo issued a long-awaited moratorium on oil palm licenses, which includes a review of existing permits in force around the country.
But the moratorium doesn’t guarantee that indigenous groups like the Kombai won’t eventually lose their forests to palm oil companies, Christian says, because it only lasts for three years.
“The moratorium is only good for now,” he says. “There’s a time limit and it’s not long.”
Should they succeed in petitioning first the local council and then the forestry ministry for recognition of their customary rights, they will become the first indigenous group in Indonesia’s easternmost region, comprising the provinces of Papua and West Papua, to do so.
Indonesia is home to hundreds of indigenous groups, but for decades their land rights were trumped by state control over all land in the country. In 2013, a historic Constitutional Court ruling removed customary forests from under state control. Since then, President Widodo has vowed to grant customary forest ownership titles to indigenous groups. As of September this year, the government has issued just 33 such titles, accounting for a combined 251 square kilometers (97 square miles) of land. The latest titles were distributed in September to 16 indigenous groups: 10 in Sumatra’s Jambi province, three in the Bornean province of West Kalimantan, two in South Sulawesi, and one in West Java.
The Papua region, covering the western half of the island of New Guinea, is home to the greatest number of indigenous groups in Indonesia, but none have been granted titles to their ancestral forests. In Papua province alone, an estimated 6,400 square kilometers (2,500 square miles) of forest, spanning five districts and 54 villages, qualify as customary land, according to Christian.
This dwarfs the total area already granted customary title, but is reasonable, Christian says, because of the sheer size of the region, a large proportion of which is still pristine forest, and low population density.
“It’s different from Java” — one of the most densely populated places on Earth — “where people usually only have a small plot of land,” Christian says. “In Papua, a clan can manage thousands of hectares of land.”
These sprawling rainforests are both a blessing and a challenge, not least because it makes it difficult to map their extent — a prerequisite for petitioning for recognition of customary rights.
Yuli Prasetyo Nugroho, the forestry ministry official in charge of sanctioning customary forests, says the mapping problem lies at the core of why no indigenous groups in Papua have had their ancestral land rights formally recognized yet.
“Mapping [customary forests] in Papua is indeed complicated. That’s why there’s a lack of progress in issuing local bylaws there for recognition of indigenous forest rights,” he says.
While it may seem a daunting task to comprehensively map 6,400 square kilometers of mostly untouched forest, an area the size of the state of Delaware, Christian says the solution lies in the system of participatory mapping. It’s a method whereby the indigenous groups themselves map out their own areas and collectively determine the spatial planning of their own territories.
“We’ve trained indigenous communities in villages on how to map their own customary forests,” he says. “It will take quite a while and indeed it won’t be easy, but some of them have started, including here” in Boven Digoel.
The mapping aside, Christian says the biggest hurdle to Papua’s indigenous groups attaining legal title to their ancestral land is the lack of the necessary bylaws recognizing their rights. In 2016, authorities in Jayapura, the provincial capital, issued a bylaw on customary villages, which the NGO Indigenous Peoples Empowerment and Research Association (PPMA) then used to apply for customary land title from the forestry ministry.
But the bylaw has fallen short on a technicality: “It doesn’t specifically acknowledge the indigenous groups in Papua,” Christian says. “It only recognizes customary villages. That’s why PPMA is having difficulty [getting the customary forest title], because the bylaw is a little different from what the ministry requires.”
Yuli confirms that PPMA’s application comes up short in that regard.
“So far we’ve only analyzed the application submitted by PPMA, but it’s still lacking in the legal aspect,” he says. “So far that’s the only application [we’ve received] from the Papua and Maluku regions.”
He says that for groups like the Kombai, an interim solution is to apply for another type of permit, called a village forest license. Both the village forest scheme and the customary forest scheme are parts of President Jokowi’s wider land reform plan, which calls for the distribution of access rights to 127,000 square kilometers (49,000 square miles) to local communities, villagers and indigenous peoples.
The government defines a village forest as a state forest not encumbered by previous rights and managed by a village to improve its welfare. Last year, two villages in South Sorong district, in West Papua province, became the first to receive village forest titles from the forestry ministry.
“There are already village forests in Papua, so that can be an option” for the Kombai tribe, Yuli says. “What’s important is that with a village forest title, businesses can’t take over the forest and turn them into concessions. And the village forest scheme can be a bridge for a village to eventually obtain customary forest title.”
Antoni Ungirwalu, from the University of Papua in Manokwari, has researched social forestry in the region and says that while the village forest scheme might work in places like Java, it won’t in Papua.
“In Java, people might be OK with the village forest scheme because it’s basically a state forest whose management is ceded to a village for a given period of time, up to 35 years,” he says. “But in Papua, all of the forests are basically customary forests owned by indigenous peoples. How can you impose a deadline on them for managing their own forests?”
Indigenous role in climate fight
Protecting forests can help meet up to a third of global carbon emissions reduction goals by 2030. And a wealth of research shows that indigenous and local communities, whose lands comprise nearly a sixth of global forest cover, are far better stewards of the forests than their countries’ governments.
Indigenous communities often work to keep forests intact, which, in turn, keeps carbon locked in trees, vegetation, roots and soil, instead of being released into the atmosphere through deforestation and soil disturbance for ranching, mining or logging.
Indigenous communities worldwide manage nearly 300 billion metric tons of carbon stored above and below ground on their lands, according to a new study led by Rights and Resources International (RRI). That sequestered carbon, the study says, is equal to 33 years’ worth of worldwide emissions, given a 2017 baseline.
“We’ve been working for almost 30 years with RFN and we know that rainforest is best protected by indigenous peoples and those people who live in the forest,” says Øyvind Eggen, director of the Rainforest Foundation Norway. “We’ve seen so many forests where if the people who live there are granted rights, they will be managed better.”
And Papua, with its mostly intact forest cover, plays a vital role as a carbon sink against global emissions, Eggen says.
“Papua is the only region in Indonesia with all areas still intact with rainforest. So we see this area and the rainforest area is of value, not only to Papua and Indonesia, but also to the world,” he says.
But as forest is cleared in Papua, the region’s capacity to soak up carbon dioxide from the atmosphere diminishes — a repeat of what happened with the Amazon. Over the past two decades, trees in the Amazon have been dying at an increasing rate, rendering the lungs of the world increasingly weaker as a carbon sink.
Worldwide, tropical forests have switched from being carbon sinks to sources of emissions due to worsening deforestation, releasing an estimated 425 million tons of CO2 each year — more than the annual emissions from U.S. cars and trucks combined, according to a study led by Woods Hole Research Center and Boston University.
All this makes it increasingly important to preserve Papua’s rainforests, Eggen says.
“We are at an important crossroad where the past and the future of the forest area [in Papua] is determined now,” he says.
The region lost 3,705 square kilometers (1,430 square miles) of forest between 2001 and 2016, according to a recent study by the World Resources Institute (WRI). This leaves Papua with 82 percent of its forest, or about 260,000 square kilometers (100,400 square miles) — an area the size of Colorado — still intact or degraded to some degree, according to the study.
That number, as large as it may seem, isn’t expected to last. Under a 2014 presidential regulation, the provinces of Papua and West Papua must keep a collective 70 percent of their forests intact, which means up to 38,000 square kilometers (14,700 square miles) can still be deforested — an area nearly the size of Switzerland.
If the deforestation continues down to the 70 percent threshold, it will release 2.24 gigatons of CO2 into the atmosphere, says Arief Wijaya, climate and forests senior manager at WRI Indonesia. And given that Indonesia has pledged to reduce its carbon emissions by 846 megatons of CO2 by 2029 under the Paris Agreement, clearing Papua’s forests is a surefire way to miss that target, he says.
“But before that happens, there are a lot of what-if scenarios,” Arief says. “So there’s still a chance to save Papua’s forests.”
For one thing, he questions the need for the palm oil industry to move into Papua.
“Do we really need to expand oil palm plantations? And if we do, does it have to be in Papua? Can’t it be done in other regions, where the forests have already been degraded?” he says.
Benediktus, the Boven Digoel district head, says there’s no point in having indigenous communities like the Kombai protect their forests if they don’t stand to benefit economically, as promised by the REDD+ scheme.
REDD+, short for reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation, is a global initiative that aims to generate financial flows for forest-related carbon emissions reduction and removal schemes. This can take the form of payments from net emitters to indigenous peoples and other forest communities to offset the same amount of emissions through conservation of their forests.
But Benediktus says he hasn’t seen any benefits to indigenous communities from REDD+.
“These indigenous peoples want their children to be doctors as well,” he said. “How can they pay for their children’s education if they’re only told to protect their forests?”
He says he worries that the offer of quick cash for their land will tempt indigenous communities to give up their forests.
“The main problem for Papuans is that they don’t have a reliable source of income to provide for their families,” he says. “That’s why some of them give up their lands so that they can get easy money to send their children to school. That’s what needs to be changed.”
Erichsrud of the RFN says indigenous communities like the Kombai can actually earn money by protecting their ancestral forests, with local NGOs like PSPL working to establish various sources of income for them, such as planting pepper and rubber trees.
“Because source of income is really important [for them],” he says. “Even though tribes like the Kombai still live in the forest, they’re still connected to the market. That’s why they need cash.”
Those working with the Kombai are also exploring the idea of developing the village of Uni and its sago grub festival as a tourist attraction. Separately, the Papua provincial forestry agency is developing its own tourist village in a sago forest in the Sentani area of Jayapura.
John Herman Mampioper, from Ottow Geissler University in Jayapura, says the idea is to turn the village in Sentani into a ecotourism spot much like the better-known mangrove village in the Indonesia tourist hub of Bali.
“This has never been done before in Indonesia,” he says of the sago village. “Tourists will be able to explore sago forests and know what they’re like. They can also learn how Papuans use sago traditionally.”
John, a sago researcher who also works for the provincial forestry agency, says sago forests like those of the Kombai are a source of more than just food and livelihood.
Sago used to be the staple food for the people of Papua, before being replaced by rice, the mainstay of the rest of Indonesia. Yet sago continues to play an important role in Papuan society, including as a ritual food, as in the Kombai sago grub feast.
“Sago is a part of their culture. Can you imagine what will happen if they lose their sago forests? Their culture will disappear along with that,” John says.
For Kombai tribesmen like Daniel Mitop, the forests are simply a place to call home, not a tool to fight climate change or a tourist attraction. The tribe’s name derives from the indigenous word hombai, which translates roughly into “there are people on this land.”
“If we lose our forests,” he says before rejoining the sago grub feast, “then our tribe can no longer be called Kombai.”
Banner image: Kombai men march toward the village of Uni in Boven Digoel district, Papua, for the sago grub feast. Image by EcoNusa Foundation.