Mapping a brighter future for Indonesia's forests

An Mi-17 helicopter carries water to be dumped on a burning forest at Ogan Komering Ulu area in Indonesia's south Sumatra province September 10, 2015. REUTERS/Beawiharta

* Any views expressed in this article are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

One of the biggest barriers to ending this enduring illegality and corruption is the uncertainty over land ownership Indonesia - including that caused by overlapping maps

Flower arrangements decorated the Jakarta pier as containers filled with wood products were loaded on to ocean liners heading for Belgium and the UK. The heat was scorching, but the mood buoyant.

Government and company officials in light batik shirts congratulated each other for the long awaited day. It was 15 November 2016, and Indonesia had just become the first country in the world to be awarded a Forest Law Enforcement Governance and Trade (FLEGT) license: guaranteeing that the wood products bound for Europe had been harvested, exported and processed legally.

“We hope [the Indonesian FLEGT license] will increase our competitiveness and open up new markets,” the Coordinating Minister of Economic Affairs Darmin Nasution said at a launch ceremony a week later.

During that first week alone, 845 licenses were issued for exports to 24 European destinations at a value of US$24.96 million. Almost half of the shipments were wood paneling, and the rest were for furniture, handicrafts, woodchips, paper and other wood products.

The Indonesian timber industry’s abject history added weight to the significance of the moment.

For many years the forests that dominate much of Indonesia’s archipelago of 17,000 islands were a hotbed of illegality and corruption.

It was previously estimated that three quarters of the wood used by the country’s timber industry came from illegal logging and Indonesia’s tropical rainforests were vanishing faster than those of any other country.

This epidemic of illegal deforestation can be traced back to the nationalisation of the country’s forests in 1967 by the late President Suharto, which led to a massive growth in the logging industry.

At the turn of this century, the tide began to turn: in 2001 at the first East Asia Ministerial Conference on Forest Law Enforcement and Governance (FLEG), Indonesia committed itself to “intensify efforts… to address forest crime and violations of forest law”, and in 2002 the country signed a memorandum of understanding with the UK government, which laid some of the groundwork for its subsequent agreement with the EU under FLEGT.

But the road towards legality has not been smooth. And serious obstacles remain.

A recent investigation by Indonesia’s Independent Forestry Monitoring Network (JPIK), found that Indonesia’s timber legality system - known locally as SVLK - is riddled with loopholes and has so far been unable to stop companies from using illegally sourced timber.

JPIK, which works with indigenous people and local communities to uncover illegalities in timber concessions areas, discovered that rogue companies were colluding with corrupt officials to launder illegal timbers into the SVLK system.

Muhammad Kosar, JPIK national coordinator, says: “We found evidence of illegal timber entering the SVLK supply. There are also cases of illegal logging from national parks and we suspect these logs enter the wood processing industries.” 

This is especially problematic, since once an exporter qualifies for SVLK, they automatically obtain the FLEGT license and can export to the EU without the need for importers to conduct further due diligence checks.

One of the biggest barriers to ending this enduring illegality and corruption is the uncertainty over land ownership Indonesia - including that caused by overlapping maps.

In a 2014 study, the Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK) found that “legal uncertainty [over tenure] in forest areas caused injustice in forest management and proneness to corruption.” The study also pointed out that indigenous communities only manage one per cent of 41.69 million hectares of managed forest.

The KPK study also showed that many conflicts over land tenure occurred within forest areas, and were between the state and local indigenous communities. Around 1.3 million hectares of mining concessions are located within conservation forests, and 4.9 million hectares are in conservation forests.

In 2013, Forest Watch Indonesia (FWI) found that the figure for overlapping licenses for forest concessions, industrial forest plantations and mining areas was 14.7 million hectares. 

For forest communities this confusion can spell disaster.

Most indigenous communities in Indonesia have no written record of their customary land. So when their traditional forest areas overlap with mining, timber or palm oil companies’ concessions or even national parks, their legitimate means of existence – and way of life that has often endured for centuries – becomes technically illegal based on national law.

A solution - and one which is not imposed from above but which, crucially, includes forest communities - is participatory mapping.

In the early 1990s the participatory mapping movement emerged from the community of Long Uli in Malinau, North Kalimantan. Today that movement has become national.

In essence, it works like this: community members use a scaled map to depict what they collectively identify as their territory, noting its relevant natural features.

Deny Rahadian, National Coordinator of the Participatory Mapping Network or JKPP, explains: “Mapping is used to confirm the community’s management area. Our main objective is to document the community’s existence in their ancestral land.”[1]

JKPP was founded in 1996 to assist communities to map their own land and to date, it has mapped around ten million hectares, including nine million hectares of customary land across the country.

As a consequence, indigenous people have been empowered to claim rights to their natural resources and dictate plans for its development. Collaboration between the government and communities has also been cultivated, and community-generated maps have helped inform both the national and local government in its spatial planning.

Another solution to securing tenure rights for forest dependent communities is social forestry schemes, in which communities living in and around forests are given legal rights to manage them.

There are currently five schemes in social forestry, including village forest and customary forest. “The community participatory mapping is also used in identifying and delineating social forestry borders,” adds Rahadian.

As the anniversary approaches of Indonesia becoming the world’s first nation to be awarded a coveted FLEGT license, these grassroots initiatives show how to resolve the illegalities in Indonesia’s forests that have been caused by land conflicts.

Indonesia has come a long way since the dark days when corruption and forest destruction were all-pervasive. But it has some way to go to before they are truly eradicated.

Nabiha Shahab is currently studying for a PhD at the University of Indonesia. Her academic research involves identifying conflict areas caused by overlapping maps and uncertain tenure rights and showing how it can be resolved from the ground up. 

Sign up for our weekly newsletter