Source: IPS- July 21, 2011
By Amantha Perera
The delicate aroma of skewered dices of meat roasting over open fires wafts over the trail. Women, assisted by their children, are doing brisk business selling the ‘satay’ to the visitors.
Hunched over the small fires, the women blend in with the giant trees rising high over them. If they exude an air of belonging it is for good reason – they have firm tenure rights in the forests.
Sesaot reserve, which stretches over 3,600 hectares, in the southern island of Lombok, 1,060 km from Jakarta, has been managed as a community forest area since 1957 – an exception in Indonesia where the government controls over 70 percent of the 190 million ha of land.
A village committee at Sesaot oversees the economy of this village of over 6,000 families that depend on eco-tourism and crops like coffee, banana, papaya and other produce. Last year the committee earned 1.2 billion Indonesian Rupiah or around 160,000 US dollars.
“This is my home. We are all the same here. The community understands the forest,” Elisa Lastari, a community member, told IPS. “The community really needs the forest and cannot let it be destroyed,” she said.
Villagers can improve their incomes by ferrying their produce outside the reserve. Lastari said fruits like papaya can fetch ten times more if they can be transported and sold to buyers outside the village.
In the village of Kekait, about 15 km from Sesaot, there is more money to be made from planting seedlings in home nurseries and selling them to individuals, community groups and local government bodies embarked on reforestation projects.
Over 100 Kekait households are engaged in maintaining these small backyard nurseries that each year produce around 100,000 seedlings of valuable tree varieties like mahogany, eucalyptus and durian.
Fathul Asis, a 41-year-old villager, makes a living selling bananas but also maintains a small nursery located behind his house. “My wife does most of the work because I go out to sell the bananas,” he told IPS. The extra income helps support his household of four, including two young children.
“The best buyers are village body members who come here when they plan reforestation programmes. They know there is a sure supply here. Some even come from nearby islands,” he told IPS.
After years of trying to manage vast stretches of forest the Indonesian government is now keen on replicating the successes at Sesaot and Kekait elsewhere.
At the conclusion of the international forestry conference in Lombok, last week, the Indonesian government said it was willing to consider local community participation in forest management.
“The policies we have now are not effective in solving the tenure problem, but at least we are committed to doing much better,” Pak Hadi Pasaribu, a high-level official with the ministry of forests, said.
Research papers released at the conference said that Indonesia lagged behind other Asian countries like China, Vietnam, Nepal and India which had recorded successes in conserving forest cover by allowing local communities more land rights.
“With no clear tenure rights in 70 percent of Indonesia’s forests, the country is not producing value beyond export revenue and it is not meeting its food security and climate change goals,” said Andy White, coordinator for Rights and Resources Initiative, an international forestry research body.
Despite the commitment, the actual devolvement of land rights is not expected to be easy.
Even in Sesaot where the community has managed the forest for over half a century, rights to only 185 of the 3,600 ha have been legally handed over.
Big business interests, especially the palm oil lobby that is worth 20 billion dollars, will also prove difficult to overcome. However, since 2010, the government has frozen new licences for corporations to honour an emission reduction agreement with Norway worth one billion dollars.
Violence often erupts between local communities and business interests over land use. During the Lombok conference heavy equipment belonging to a paper mill in northern Riau island was set on fire, killing one person.
“Land rights in Indonesia is about corruption and the lack of tenure, and reforms must be about resolving these,” said Abdon Nababan, head of AMAN, a coalition of Indonesia’s indigenous and forest community groups. “If we do not do these two things the forests of Indonesia will die.”