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In Indonesia’s Aceh, Indigenous communities seek recognition of their forest rights

Group of Indigenous People from the Mukim of Lueng Bata in Aceh, Indonesia. Image courtesy of Uploaded a work by Author Christiaan Snouck Hurgronje/Wikimedia Commons.

  • The Indonesian government is set to recognize community claims to ancestral forests in Aceh province, on the island of Sumatra, for the first time in history.
  • Thirteen Indigenous communities in Aceh are seeking recognition of their rights to 144,497 hectares (357,060 acres) of customary forests, an area nearly the size of London.
  • The Ministry of Environment and Forestry says there are still some challenges, like unclear boundaries, that could prevent the issuance of the legal titles for the customary forests.

JAKARTA — The Indonesian government plans this year to recognize community claims to ancestral forests in the Sumatran province of Aceh for the first time in history.

The Ministry of Environment and Forestry has a target of recognizing the customary forests of 15 Indigenous communities this year. Among the targeted communities are those in Aceh, on the northern tip of Sumatra, said Yuli Prasetyo Nugroho, the ministry’s head of customary forest management.

Thirteen Indigenous communities in Aceh are seeking recognition of their rights to 144,497 hectares (357,060 acres) of customary forests, an area nearly the size of London.

“[But] until today, there hasn’t been any customary forest [formally recognized by the government] in Aceh,” Yuli told Mongabay in Jakarta. “So it is our priority” to recognize customary forests in Aceh.

Aceh enjoys rare special autonomy status among Indonesia’s provinces, giving the local government greater authority compared to governments of other provinces. Two other provinces with special autonomy, Papua and West Papua, are also home to large Indigenous populations and vast swaths of tropical forest — but unlike Aceh, communities there recently had their rights to their customary forests recognized by the government.

This is another reason why the ministry is keen to also recognize the customary forest rights of Indigenous communities in Aceh, Yuli said.

Together with the neighboring province of North Sumatra, Aceh is home to the Leuser Ecosystem, one of the richest expanses of tropical forest found in Southeast Asia, home to critically endangered orangutans, rhinos, elephants and tigers.

Yuli said the plan for national recognition follows from local authorities’ recognition of some of the Indigenous communities in Aceh.

Under Indonesian law, Indigenous communities that want to apply for land titles are required to gain formal recognition of their Indigenous status first, which can only be conferred through a local government bylaw. In the case of Aceh, such bylaws have been issued for five Indigenous communities: three in Pidie district and two in Aceh Jaya district.

These will likely become the first communities in the province to have their customary forest rights recognized first, Yuli said. Even so, national recognition could be hampered by a bureaucratic quirk, he added.

Newly planted oil palm plantation
Newly planted oil palm plantation in Aceh, Indonesia.  Image by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay.

The mukim question

In the hierarchy of administrative divisions in Indonesia, districts and cities are made up of several subdistricts. Each subdistrict is in turn split up into several wards. In Aceh, however, there’s an extra administrative level, sandwiched between subdistrict and ward, known as mukim.

Proposals for official recognition of customary forests are typically made at the ward level. The forestry ministry has always taken issue with proposals made at the mukim level, according to Teuku Muttaqin Mansur, a lecturer of customary laws at Syiah Kuala University in Aceh. That’s because the ministry is concerned that basing a customary forest around a mukim rather than a ward could give rise to conflict between the various wards that make up a mukim, he said.

Another concern is that, specifically in Pidie district, the mukims don’t have formally defined boundaries, Muttaqin added.

Yuli said this gives rise to uncertainty over how to allocate customary forests when boundaries remain hazy.

“It’s still unclear whether the Indigenous peoples live in mukims or in wards,” he added.

Yuli said the ministry had no issue with recognizing customary forests in administrative divisions larger than wards, citing the case of the Citorek Indigenous communities in Banten province. There, the ministry has issued formal recognition of a single customary forest to a group of five wards.

“So it doesn’t have to be a single village. It could be a group of villages,” Yuli said. “What’s important is to have collective recognition [of the Indigenous status], have clear boundaries and no overlapping claims. When all these have been sorted out, it’s faster [to get recognition].”

Fungi grows on the forest floor in Gunung Leuser National Park. Image by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay.

Call for recognition

Muhammad Nasir, the chief of the Paloh mukim in Pidie, said residents of his mukim were keen to have their proposal for customary forests approved by the ministry.

He questioned why this hasn’t happened yet, pointing to Indigenous communities in other regions that have had their customary forest rights recognized.

“We’ve been managing and protecting forests from generation to generation,” Nasir said as quoted by Indonesian daily Kompas. “But we need legal certainty so that [our] forests are not taken over by other parties.”

Forests stewarded by Indigenous communities have repeatedly been shown to be healthier and better protected than those that aren’t. Mukims in Aceh already practice robust customary laws to manage their forests, such as a ban on clearing forests within 200 meters (660 feet) of water sources and 100 m (330 ft) from riverbanks.

These laws also prohibit the cutting down of specific trees as well as large trees that host beehives or whose wood can be made into boats or barges.

Besides contributing to forest protection, the recognition of customary forests in Aceh would also contribute to President Joko Widodo’s social forestry program. Under the program, the Widodo administration aims to reallocate 12.7 million hectares (31.4 million acres) of state forest to local communities and given them the legal standing to manage their forests.

This equals about 7% of the total land area of Indonesia, which makes it one of the largest social and environmental experiments in recent history.

As of the end of May, the forestry ministry had granted recognition of 152,000 hectares (375,600 acres) of customary forests to 108 Indigenous communities in 36 districts and cities.

Nasir said that without legal protection, he’s worried that his Indigenous community members will lose their forests and subsequently their livelihoods.

“Even now, the forests have started to be degraded [by] illegal mining and encroachment,” he said. “We can’t stop them because we don’t have the authority, even though, historically speaking, these are customary forests bequeathed us by our ancestors.”


Banner image: Group of Indigenous People from the Mukim of Lueng Bata in Aceh, Indonesia. Image courtesy of Uploaded a work by Christiaan Snouck Hurgronje/Wikimedia Commons.


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