Signs of growing justice in forest business

Jakarta Post – January 23, 2007
Opinion: Charlie Pye-Smith

No matter where you go in rural Indonesia, you will come across people who have fallen foul of the country’s forest laws. Take what happened in West Lampung, Sumatra, in the mid-1990s. In Simpang Sari, the police pulled up the coffee bushes planted by the villagers on state land, and drove them from the forests. And in nearby Dwi Kora, elephants were used to destroy homes and crops on state land, depriving the villagers of shelter and a means of making a living.

You will hear similar stories across rural Indonesia. Most date from the Soeharto era, and nowadays the authorities seldom adopt such a heavy-handed approach to law enforcement. However, forest laws still discriminate against the poor, in Indonesia and many other countries. This is one of the key findings of a report published by the Bogor-based Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR).

A series of agreements have recently begun to redefine the way governments tackle illegal logging, and most promote better law enforcement. In principle, suggests Marcus Colchester, co-author of Justice in the Forest, this makes sense: Illegal logging accounts for over half the timber harvest in Amazonia, and even more in Indonesia. Illegal logging is leading to massive losses of biodiversity and it deprives governments of billions of dollar of revenue. It also destroys the resources the rural poor need for their survival.

But stricter law enforcement, on its own, is not necessarily a good thing. "Our report confirms that this new emphasis on forest law enforcement could have a negative effect on tens of millions of forest-dwellers if existing laws are simply enforced more vigorously," explains Colchester. In short, the law itself is often the problem.

In many countries, forest laws have been framed to favor the commercial and political ‚lites, and they frequently prevent local communities from using forests which have been in their care for generations. This is precisely what happened in Indonesia when the Basic Forestry Law was passed in 1967. All of a sudden, the daily subsistence activities of millions of forest-dwellers — harvesting wild fruit, collecting firewood, clearing small plots of land to grow rice, became illegal over much of Indonesia.

According to Colchester, forest law enforcement initiatives should be guided by a series of principles that ensure that proper attention is paid to the rights of forest-dwelling communities. What is needed in Indonesia is a new natural resource policy, and laws that give greater protection to communities and acknowledge their customary rights to forest land," suggests Colchester.

Over the past few years, Indonesia has made encouraging progress when it comes to reforming forest policy to take greater account of community needs. Some of the credit must go to the Multistakeholder Forestry Program (MFP), a joint venture between the Government of Indonesia and the UK Department for International Development (DFID). MFP-funded processes have encouraged local governments to introduce over 70 new measures that have paved the way for community-based forest management.

Among those to benefit have been the once persecuted villagers in Simpang Sari, West Lampung. District forestry officers are now helping the villagers to improve their livelihoods, and a new regulation has given them the right to use state forest land so that "we have a significant degree of security," explains Wahono, the leader of a local farmers’ group.

Secure access to the land, and rights of tenure have enabled many families in Simpang Sari to lift themselves out of poverty. Hundreds of other communities are also benefiting from new local-government regulations that provide them with access to state land.

Just as significantly, the central government has acknowledged the need for a radical change in national forest legislation. On Jan. 8, 2007, the President signed a new regulation, Government Regulation No. 6 of 2007, which will provide local communities with a greater say in how state forest land is used, and long-term access to state land. Indeed, the area of state land under community management could rise to 5 million hectares.

None of this is to deny that illegal logging remains a major problem in Indonesia, and that the government’s attempts to clamp down on the illegal trade have had mixed results. Major law enforcement operations, such as Operasi Wanalaga, have resulted in thousands of arrests, but the big players, the cukong, have nearly always eluded arrest.

Nevertheless, there are encouraging signs, in West Kalimantan in particular, that the authorities are adopting a new approach to law enforcement, one that penalizes the timber barons rather than local communities.

During the past three years, the illegal timber harvest in West Kalimantan has probably been reduced by 50 percent, largely as a result of an innovative partnership between the Provincial Forestry Office, the Provincial Police and the Kalimantan Anti-Illegal Logging Consortium (KAIL), a civil society network whose illegal logging research has been funded by the Indonesia/UK Memorandum of Understanding on illegal logging.

"KAIL have provided us with important intelligence about the activities of many cukong," explains Police Commissioner Sriyono in Pontianak, "and they have helped us to develop a new approach to forest crime."

The police, he says, now have a much better understanding of the key factors that encourage illegal logging. They are now targeting corrupt government officials involved in illegal logging and the cukong, rather than the villagers, who are driven by poverty to do the dirty work of getting illegal timber out of the forests.

Reform is in the air now, and the central government, and some local governments, finally recognize the need for justice in the forest.

The writer is a freelance writer specializing in development issues

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