Social forestry: panacea or problem?

Author

Abidah Setyowati is a postdoctoral research fellow at the Department of International Relations, Australian National University.

President Joko Widodo (right) receives a traditional cloth from members of the Pandumaan-Sipituhuta community, from Humbang Hasundutan, North Sumatra. The community was one of nine indigenous communities handed customary rights to 13,100 hectares of land in a ceremony in late 2016. Photo by Widodo S Jusuf for Antara.

 

President Joko Widodo ushered in a new era for Indonesian forest management in 2015, announcing the ambitious target of allocating 12.7 million hectares of forests to communities by 2019. The initiative represents a promising pathway for more inclusive and equitable local development, as it can increase community access to productive assets and resources.

 

Communities will be able to manage ‘state forest’ through various schemes, such as community forestry (hutan kemasyarakatan), village forests (hutan desa), community plantation forests (hutan tanaman rakyat) and customary forests (hutan adat). They will also be able to form partnerships for collaborative forest management. Unlike other social forestry schemes, which only provide communities with rights to access forest resources, adat forest allows communities to have ownership rights over their customary forests. This was made possible by a landmark 2013 Constitutional Court ruling, which found that adat forests should no longer be considered part of state forests.

 

The move towards social forestry has been welcomed by many, especially advocates of forest tenure and agrarian reform. It increases communities’ access to, and ability to obtain benefits from, forest resources. And it could also be the policy breakthrough needed to resolve many of the country’s longstanding forest tenure conflicts.

 

The indigenous peoples and land tenure-focused organisation Rights and Resources Initiative reports that around 90 per cent of forested areas in Indonesia are still controlled and administered by the state, leaving communities in 31,957 villages in and around these state areas with insecure access to forests and livelihoods. In this situation, forest conflicts are inevitable.

 

Over the last few months, the government has made more concerted efforts to achieve its social forestry target. At the end of last year, a new Forestry and Environment Ministerial Regulation (83/2016) was issued to simplify bureaucratic procedures for obtaining social forestry permits. The government claims it could reduce the time to obtain social forestry permits from a few years to a maximum of three months. An online application process and digital mapping enables applicants to easily submit and track their applications.

 

To streamline the social forestry initiative into the broader development agenda at the local level, more ministries have been engaged, such as the Coordinating Ministry for Economic Affairs and the Ministry of Villages, Disadvantaged Regions and Transmigration. Recently, the government has made a push to speed up the achievement of social forestry targets in Java, which includes the forested areas now managed by state-owned forestry firm Perhutani – a decision that has ignited considerable public debate in light of the already perilous state of forests in Java.

Slow Progress

Despite these efforts, progress toward the 12.7 million hectare target has been slow. From January to July 2017, only about 358,000 hectares of forest were allocated for communities through social forestry permits. This is partly because of different development priorities at different levels of government and competition between state agencies. Further, some researchers and civil society activists argue that 12.7 million hectares is an almost impossible target to achieve by 2019 because of the large investment of budget, human resources and time needed to speed up the permitting process.

 

Data from the Directorate of Social Forestry and Environmental Partnership at the Ministry of Forestry and Environment suggests that the government has allocated a mere Rp 13,000 (around US$1) per hectare for verification processes in 2017. Verification is a crucial step in the issuance of social forestry permits.

 

A further concern is that focusing solely on the number of hectares transferred to community management shifts attention away from the important work of facilitating these communities to have long-term stewardship over forested land, and the skills to obtain multiple benefits from the forests.

 

There are four issues in particular that still need attention to ensure that the social forestry initiative can support inclusive and equitable development.

 

First, there has been increasing concern about the possibility of the initiative to trigger so-called ‘horizontal conflicts’ between or among communities if the rapid push toward allocating forested land to communities is not accompanied by proper implementation of social and gender safeguards. Before permits are issued, all social groups in a community must be engaged in a participatory process so they are aware of their rights and responsibilities in social forestry.

 

In two sites in Central Kalimantan, where I conducted a rapid assessment of the implementation of social forestry, some community members felt that the land they had been allocated was an additional burden, as they were now obliged to manage forest areas that were neither productive nor easily accessible.

 

Previous studies on community forestry in Southeast Asia, including Indonesia, suggest that forest lands allocated to communities are often degraded areas in need of rehabilitation. Unless there is sufficient technical and budgetary support, social forestry allocations could limit local economic aspirations and further marginalise local communities instead of improving local development.

 

Second, getting a social forestry permit will not immediately guarantee the improvement of local livelihoods. As mentioned, communities often do not have sufficient means and capital to manage and obtain benefits from the forested lands. Their ability to benefit from forests is influenced by many other factors, including access to markets, capital, technology, and decision-making processes.

 

Third, a more nuanced understanding of local dynamics and community interests in forest resource management is needed to implement targeted development assistance to support the achievement of social forestry targets. Development programs to support social forestry initiatives are often designed on a simplistic assumption that communities have an innate interest in managing the forest sustainably and will willingly forgo economic opportunities to secure access to forests for their subsistence needs. This has not been the case. Many communities living in and around forests are, in fact, well integrated into the market. They have explored economic opportunities that provide them with benefits beyond subsistence needs, sometimes at the cost of forest sustainability.

 

Finally, it is also necessary to strengthen local institutions and community capacity to manage forests in a manner that is both sustainable and ensures equal distribution of benefits – especially for the poorest and most marginal groups in the community. The presence of community-based institutions to manage the forest and a mechanism for fair distribution of forestlands and benefits will help limit elite capture.

 

Only if these factors are addressed will the government be able to meet the promise of the social forestry initiative.

 

 

The views expressed here are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent those of ANU or the University of Melbourne.