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3 Ways to Strengthen Customary Land Rights in Indonesia

Until 2012, Indonesia did not formally recognize the existence of its indigenous peoples. Its 1999 Forestry Law effectively allowed the government to convert adat or customary forests into state forests. Once within state jurisdiction, forests could be converted into private concessions. Thirty percent of Indonesia’s territories have been handed over to private companies as concessions, with many of them overlapping with indigenous lands.

Since then, Indonesia has undergone significant reform and is moving in the right direction in terms of recognizing customary land rights. However, such efforts are beset by challenges, the most recent of which was the Ministry of Environment and Forestry’s decision to postpone the formation of a task force to protect indigenous peoples’ customary land rights.

Here are three ways Indonesia can strengthen land rights for indigenous peoples and local communities that will also benefit the government, businesses and the environment.

1. Form the long-awaited task force and ratify legislation acknowledging indigenous land rights

President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo must fulfill his commitment to form a task force that will protect customary land rights. Establishing this task force would signal the government’s seriousness about tackling this issue.

The task force is an important step towards ratifying the Indigenous People’s Rights Acknowledgment and Protection Bill (PPMHA), which would define indigenous communities and set up procedures to settle customary land disputes. The measure was labeled a priority for 2014 but was not enacted. Since then, President “Jokowi” has reiterated his commitment to ratify the bill. Such a decision would follow the landmark 2013 Constitutional Court ruling recognizing indigenous peoples’ lands as no longer being a part of state forests. The Ministry of Environment and Forestry recently announced that it will redistribute 12.7 million hectares (about 31 million acres) of concessions and state forests as village, community and partnership forests in the next four years. This redistribution is another good move, but must be accompanied by effective implementation. According to Indigenous People’s Alliance of the Archipelago (AMAN), indigenous lands cover between 40 and 70 million hectares (between 99 and 173 million acres) in Indonesia.

2. Leverage collaboration with actors involved in sustainable palm oil

Strengthening customary land rights and sustainable palm oil are compatible goals with overlapping objectives and should be addressed collaboratively.

As the largest palm oil producer in the world, Indonesia has made progress in working with businesses to move towards zero-deforestation palm oil. President “Jokowi” recently extended a moratorium on issuing new conversion permits for primary forest and peatlands, putting the total land covered by the moratorium at just over 65 million hectares (160 million acres). Indonesia has also initiated the Indonesia Palm Oil Pledge (IPOP), a partnership between the Indonesian Chamber of Commerce and Industry (KADIN) and palm oil companies to improve sustainability and make palm oil deforestation-free. This follows efforts by many major palm oil companies to sign on to a zero-deforestation pledge; these companies cover 96 percent of global palm oil production.

However, both the government and businesses should give greater emphasis to secure customary land rights as a strategy to achieve zero-deforestation palm oil. There is growing literature on the link between community-owned forests and reduced deforestation. WRI’s 2014 report, Securing Rights, Combating Climate Change, found that legal land and forest rights for communities and government protection of their rights tend to lower deforestation and carbon dioxide emissions.

In addition, conflicts over land ownership may result in unexpected legal and material costs for businesses and the government. Analysis by The Munden Project shows that companies that ignore land tenure rights expose themselves to potentially catastrophic financial risks. Conflict with local communities can also result in lost productivity and opportunity costs that are irreversible, according to a Harvard Kennedy school report.

3. Prepare and release better geospatial data

Any legislation that aims to protect indigenous and community land rights or foster business-government partnership to prioritize community land rights as part of sustainable palm oil will need more geospatial information in order for them to be implemented effectively.

AMAN recently provided 604 customary land maps to the director-general for social forests in the Ministry of Environment and Forestry. These maps cover a total of 6.8 million hectares (17 million acres) and is a promising early sign of collaboration between AMAN and the ministry. Indonesia’s One Map Initiative, unveiled by the National Data Spatial Infrastructure (NDSI) in 2014 aims to resolve disputes over overlapping land use permits. But that initiative only included some 4.8 million hectares (12 million acres) of indigenous lands, a fragment of Indonesia’s estimated total. Such a map or database needs more maps of customary lands and state forests to seriously represent indigenous peoples’ rights.

Secure Customary Land Rights Benefits Local Peoples, Environment and Business

If these three steps are implemented, we can end up with stronger land tenure rights for local peoples, reduced deforestation and carbon emissions, lower cost risks for businesses and better management of Indonesia’s state forests. That way, indigenous peoples and local communities stand to benefit in a way that is also favorable for the government, businesses and the environment.

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