- The Indonesian government has recognized 22,549 hectares (55,700 acres) of ancestral forests in Aceh, on the northern tip of Sumatra — the first time for the region.
- In total, Indigenous communities in Aceh seek recognition of 144,497 hectares (357,060 acres) of customary forests, and thus activists are calling for the government to recognize the rest of the forests.
- The communities welcome the recognition, saying it will give them legal protection to manage their forests in a sustainable manner.
JAKARTA — The Indonesian government has recognized community claims to ancestral forests in the Sumatran province of Aceh for the first time in history.
In September, the Ministry of Environment and Forestry issued legal recognition to 22,549 hectares (55,700 acres) of ancestral forests in Aceh, on the northern tip of Sumatra.
These forests are managed by eight traditional communities, locally known as mukim, an extra administrative level specific to Aceh that sits between subdistrict and ward.
The mukims that have their ancestral forest rights recognized are Blang Birah, Krueng and Kuta Jeumpa in Bireuen district; Paloh, Kunyet and Beungga in Pidie district; and Krueng Sabee and Panga Pasi in Aceh Jaya district.
But these represent only a portion of the forests that traditional communities hope to see recognized.
Thirteen mukims 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.
This means the ministry had so far recognized only 15% of the forests proposed by the communities.
Some of the customary forests recognized by the government also didn’t match with the ones proposed by the Indigenous communities, according to Yuli Prasetyo Nugroho, the ministry’s head of customary forest management who also coordinate the verification process of the ancestral forests in Aceh.
“There are many maps [of customary forests submitted to the ministry] where the communities weren’t involved in the proposal and the mapping [process],” he said.
Nevertheless, some of the mukim chiefs said the legal recognition could go a long way in emboldening the Indigenous peoples’ efforts to manage their forests sustainably.
Ilyas, the chief of the Beungga mukim, said the community had proposed for recognition 10,900 hectares (26,900 acres) of its ancestral forests, with the ministry recognizing 4,060 hectares (10,000 acres) of them.
He said his mukim had been fighting to get its customary forest rights recognized for seven years.
Now that the government has formally recognized the ancestral forests, Ilyas said his mukim would manage its forests collectively in a sustainable manner, by zoning 1,000 hectares (2,470 acres) of the forests as a protected area.
“One thousand hectares will be zoned as a protected area, as a source of clean water and to mitigate disasters,” he said, as quoted by Kompas daily.
Nasir, the chief of the Paloh Nasir mukim, said his community members had been cultivating their forests by planting betel palm trees, cacao and banana, while some parts of the forests were off-limit to any economic activities.
After receiving the titles for their ancestral forests, members of the mukim would formulate a plan to manage the forests, he said.
Abdul Hanan, the head of Aceh’s forestry agency, said each Indigenous community that has received legal title to their ancestral forests is obligated to come up with plans on how it will manage its forests without altering the function of the ecosystems.
“Prioritize planting and reforestation. We provide tree seeds to be planted in customary forests,” he said.
Besides cultivating crops that could be sold to the market, the forests could also provide income to the community through carbon trading, Abdul said.
“This is an opportunity for Indigenous peoples to protect their forests and receive income from carbon trading [in the process],” he said.
In September, Indonesia launched its first carbon emissions trading market, where companies that emit more carbon than their quota can buy carbon credits from companies that emit pollution below a limit set by the government or from renewable power plants.
Over-emitting companies could also buy carbon credit certificates that are issued for activities or projects that remove carbon from the atmosphere, such as forest conservation.
This is where Indigenous and local communities could participate in the market, by conserving their forests and selling the carbon.
However, there are concerns that Indigenous communities will be sidelined from the market since carbon trading is a much more complex concept to grasp than forestry businesses like timber sales.
Therefore, it’s not enough for the government to only recognize the rights of these communities to their ancestral forests, said Hariadi Kartodihardjo, a lecturer in forestry policy at the Bogor Institute of Agriculture.
The government also needs to ensure that Indigenous and local communities are benefitting from carbon trading by educating them about the subject and encouraging them to participate in the market, he said.
With the environment ministry recognizing only 15% of the ancestral forests proposed by Indigenous communities in Aceh, the ministry needs to work on granting titles to the rest of the forests as a part of the government’s social forestry program, said Zulfikar Arma, the secretary of Aceh Indigenous Community Network (JKMA).
Data from JKMA Aceh shows that 112,712 hectares (278,500 acres) of ancestral forests that hadn’t been recognized in the province had been included in the environment ministry’s map of customary forests earmarked to be recognized in the future.
“There are still many customary forests proposed by other mukims that need to be recognized by the environment ministry,” Zulfikar said.
Banner image: 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.
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