Indonesia: Jambi Villagers Fight to Save Their Forests

Fawziah Selamat - Straits Times Indonesia Jakarta Globe 3 Sep 11;

Jambi. The green and seemingly boundless landscape of Jambi province has tempted oil palm and logging companies for years. Some of them have already acquired large swathes of the province, leasing them out in parcels to smallholders who burn the land illegally before planting, as it is the cheapest and easiest way to clear vegetation.

During Indonesia's dry season from May to September, thick smoke from the fires blow into neighboring Singapore and Malaysia.

But now, villagers in Merangin regency are fighting back. Worried that their forests will be wiped out, 17 villages in the regency are seeking central government approval for the green areas to be recognized as hutan desa, or village forests, under a 2008 law.

If they succeed, they will secure rights to manage the forest for up to 35 years.

Applying for hutan desa status essentially pits villagers against large firms, and throws them into a tedious and complicated process. The villagers have to use their own funds to map out the exact perimeters of their forest, and the boundaries have to be approved by the local, provincial and central governments.

Once approval is given, they must then submit reports on their management plans and the state of forest cover to the government every five years.

So far, only one village - Lubuk Beringin, also in Jambi province - has been awarded hutan desa status.

The founder of a Jambi-based conservation group, Eko Waskito, says this is because the big companies with “million-dollar investment plans” wield more influence with government officials.

“The onus is on the villagers to prove that their plan will provide a greater net benefit than a concessionaire,” he says. “The difficult part is in convincing people that that benefit should not just be measured in financial terms.”

One benefit is obvious. In Indonesia, violent and sometimes deadly conflict is rife due to overlapping land ownership rights and unclear boundaries. The hutan desa scheme allows rural communities to map out their territories and gives them a stake in managing their land while warding off competing claims from companies and illegal migrants.

Rosidi, the village chief of Durian Rambun, one of the 17 villages, is leading the campaign to win hutan desa status.

Last year, he fought back an attempt by plantation company PT Duta Alam Makmur to seek provincial government approval to convert 85,000 ha of forest into an acacia plantation. PT Duta is a subsidiary of Sinar Mas Forestry, the sole supplier of pulpwood fiber to Asia Pulp & Paper, one of the world's largest paper companies.

The 41-year-old said the benefits from plantation ventures never last long.

“What lasts are the environmental and social damages the companies inflict on the community,” he says.

Indeed, the Merangin villagers still remember with dread the environmental fallout from a timber concession on 50,000ha of forest between 1987 and 2004.

SaysMr Rahmany, the chief of Lubuk Birah, another of the band of 17 villages: “Rivers ran dry, fish were hard to come by and it was difficult to find timber to build our houses.”

The company that got the concession, PT Injapsin, had received it during the 30-year regime of former president Suharto, when Indonesia's rich forest resources came under complete control of the central government. Forest-edge villages were not consulted on concessions or compensated for any damages incurred.

By the time Suharto fell from power in 1998, deforestation across the archipelago had reached a peak of 1.7 million ha a year, according to a World Bank report released in 2005.

With power devolved to the regions, Jakarta and provincial governments now share responsibility for approving forest usage licenses.

But with big money to be made in the sector - the Forestry Ministry reportedly earns $15 billion   a year in land permit fees from investors - illegal logging and violations in issuing forest-use permits are rampant. According to estimates from private watchdog Indonesia Corruption Watch, ill-gotten gains total 20 trillion rupiah each year.

Waskito, however, remains positive despite having to contend with vested interests and bureaucratic red tape.

“Ten years ago, it would have been unheard of for villagers to demand the right to manage and conserve the forests. Now we have one hutan desa, and hopefully 17 more in the making. The tide is changing,” he says.

Boosting the villagers' chances in this David versus Goliath battle is the fact that Jambi is one of nine provinces taking part in an international scheme that has developed countries paying forest-rich ones to protect their trees.

With funds coming in under the Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation scheme, the financial cost of forgoing the conversion of forests into large plantation estates does not have to be a big issue for Indonesia.

The Merangin villagers, meanwhile, are committed to the hutan desa scheme. Those who want to clear the forest or build homes there need to get approval. If they flout this rule, they face a fine of two buffaloes - which could cost them US$1,200, a hefty sum considering the average villager earns US$3 a day.

The villagers have also formed monthly patrol teams to ward off illegal occupation and land clearing by outsiders.

Durian Rambun's chief, Rosidi, says migrants from provinces near Jambi, like Bengkulu and South Sumatra, used to arrive by the truckloads to take over the land left by the timber concession.

“Like the plantation companies, they come to take what they can, with little regard for how their actions impact the environment, as they can leave when things get bad,” he says.

“But this is our home and we have lived here for generations; we want to make sure that our forests and our way of life exist for our children and their children.”