Last updated April 2010 
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Understanding local people's needs vital for forest development

Understanding what really matters to local people is essential for effective land resource management in forests. Without this knowledge, concerned groups like governments, development organizations and private companies may have difficulty tailoring development and regional management priorities to suit local people's priorities and needs in their efforts to develop a region.

Between 1999 and 2001 CIFOR researchers Douglas Sheil and Imam Basuki assessed the state of the land resources in the Malinau river region of East Kalimantan. Their research involved a range of biodiversity, biophysical and ethnographic data and also compared their findings with the knowledge of the local people.

"Imam and I were very interested to consider how variation in soil and other land conditions might influence the land-use choices of local people. We treated this both as a biophysical question and by assessing the views and judgments of the local Merap and Punan communities." Sheil said.
CIFOR's research clearly demonstrates that most of the region is unfertile and largely unsuited to sustainable agriculture. Results from 200 sample locations showed that lands with the potential for sustainable intensive farming and plantations are found in only a limited number of more fertile riverside locations, and even these are susceptible to occasional catastrophic flooding.

Beyond these flat riverside areas, low nutrients, shallow soil, poor drainage and high rainfall limit the development of large plantations. Further, the steep topography makes most of the land very susceptible to erosion.

In essence, then, some of the areas sampled may be suitable for developing dry land rice and coconut. But, overall, the region is not suited for large-scale agricultural activities, such as planting pepper, coffee, cocoa, candlenut, and rubber or oil palm.

"An especially interesting aspect of the research was learning how local people have learnt to live in such infertile conditions. The Merap and Punan people employ a shifting cultivation system in which temporary nutrients are generated by clearing and burning woody vegetation cover, but even in this system the farmers consider it important to evaluate the potential of the land by observing vegetation and soil conditions," Basuki said.

According to Basuki and Sheil, the people who have traditionally lived in or around the forest know that 'tana tiem', or black soil, found on alluvial plains and areas still covered by forest, is the most fertile and productive for farming. Similarly, they know that most swamps and the extensive regions of steeply sloping land offer little but poor infertile soils.

With their local knowledge and low population density, the people can fulfill their daily living needs by using the natural resources around them. The Merap appear to use almost all the limited fertile land available to them, while most of the unfertile land is left as forest. The Punan, who tend to reside in even more marginal areas, generally rely on augmenting the produce from their small-scale swidden agricultural activities by collecting products from the forest.

"In a very real sense, both our research and the centuries old traditional knowledge of the local people confirm that development possibilities outside the forestry sector are limited. Apart from using the native forest for small livelihood activities, the only feasible alternatives for sustainable land are probably agroforestry, low-impact timber felling and nature conservation," Basuki said.

It is this combination of hard science and traditional knowledge that can help policy makers make better decisions regarding forest landscapes and how they can best support local livelihoods.

"Good research and understanding the local people's perceptions of the forest are an important part of bringing about effective and sustainable land and forest resource management in the Malinau region," Sheil said.

Prior to the release of Basuki and Sheil's report, the Malinau Government signed an agreement in March with a Malaysian company to develop an oil palm plantation on 40,000 hectares, due to start within the next two years. The site covers a considerable area of infertile soil covered in natural forest that is an important source of livelihood for a number of villages.

Says Sheil, "We are concerned the plantation will be established on poor soil where all our evidence shows that it will not be economically viable. We are especially concerned this may include areas of forest important to local livelihoods, and with significant cultural value for the local people. And let's not forget the important role such forests play in sheltering the world's biodiversity. We have seen too many plantation schemes used as an excuse to remove valuable timber, but leaving the local communities worse off."