Fighting over Indonesia’s forests

Indonesia deforestation photo
Drainage canals flank roads throughout PT KAL's 18,000-hectare palm oil concession in West Kalimantan. The canals are necessary to accommodate water released once peatland has been cleared. Photo: Sara Schonhardt

Yohanes Terang, a farmer and conservationist, started keeping a notebook titled “dreams” when he noticed the forest around him disappearing. But the entries are less dreams than convictions on how communities should treat the land they are charged with protecting.

“We must be willing to share and have respect for the earth,” writes the 58-year-old resident of Lamon Satong.

As a former village head, he once warned neighbours that the fallout from illegal logging – timber scarcity, dry rivers and the death of native animal species – would be far greater than the economic benefits. He calls those who do not believe in conservation “blind” or in cahoots with companies seeking to exploit the region’s wealth of natural resources.

But increasingly, his sermons are ignored, or called naïve; his hope of sharing the land with those who want to harvest its riches crushed by its scarcity.

Land-use conflicts between communities and companies are proving one of the biggest threats to conservation in remote, but resource-rich northern Indonesia, where overlapping ownership claims and undefined property lines are common.

Land-use conflict: A clash of two titans

In Lamon Satong the conflict has a twist, as it pits two companies against each other with villagers stuck in the middle as pawns.

On one side is palm oil firm PT Kayung Agro Lestari (PT KAL), which says it wants to conserve more than 40 per cent of its 18,000-hectare concession to reduce emissions from deforestation and degradation, or REDD, the United Nations-backed mechanism where developed nations would pay heavily forested developing ones to not cut down trees.

On the other side is Laman Mining, a local firm that wants to start extracting bauxite in the area PT KAL is hoping to protect.

Both companies say they have government-granted rights to the land, but with a protracted dispute increasingly likely, they are looking to win over residents whose consent is protocol before any company can begin activities.

Laman says it would mine certain mineral-rich hills in return for rubber seedlings and other types of community development, like roads. Samuel Lee, a mining consultant who represents the company, says its plan has the community’s backing.

PT KAL speculates that the mining firm is paying off people to support its activities.

“They are using the local community as a fence,” said Hari Witono, the head of corporate services at parent company ANJ Agri, pointing to a road Laman is currently constructing that will cut into PT KAL’s planned conservation area.  Laman says it is building the road at the behest of the community; PT KAL claims it leads only to the mine site.

Witono says his company understands the importance of community support –community buy-in is required for REDD certification – and it has started to engage more with local leaders.

PT KAL’s manager Mohammad Akhir bin Man says the company has built mosques and churches, and provided employment to 400 people from Ketapang district. He says more jobs will come once the area has been fully planted and the processing mill is up and running.

Not everyone is so optimistic. Some say other companies have made similar promises of development, higher salaries and even up to a 20 per cent cut of company revenues. But few of them have materialised.

With stakes between those who want the land and those who claim it driving up property prices, many poor villagers have been tempted into sell off their only assets.

REDD schemes threatened

Antonius Salim, a regional parliamentarian representing Ketapang, says people welcome businesses if they involve them in a positive way – by seeking their input and creating jobs.

Respected village elder Palus Untu agrees that jobs are important – but so is keeping a hold on ancestral territory. He says people already conserves parts of the area, but the company dispute involves important ceremonial land rich in fruit and rubber trees that should not be closed off to the community.

PT KAL’s plan to conserve parts of the forest has caused confusion. Bin Man says villagers don’t understand REDD; they believe it’s a money-making venture and expect a portion of the profits, he explains. Villagers say the company is shutting them out from productive land from which they deserve to benefit.

The tensions have long-term implications for the viability of pay-to preserve schemes, like REDD.

They also illustrate flaws in the way the Indonesian government hands out land-use licenses, as officials too often side with the interests of developers over those wanting to protect the country’s rapidly disappearing forests.

Green groups say regional autonomy and opaque laws are at the heart of the problem. But so too are the lack of rights indigenous people have over areas they consider theirs by inheritance.

A mapping system released early this year by the national government is meant to manage forest use, but forest campaigners say the zoning is inconsistent.

They note that deep peat areas not defined as forest are open to development. Deep peat releases huge amounts of greenhouse gas when disturbed, adding to the amount of climate-changing carbon in the atmosphere.

Some groups also speculate that officials are exploiting flaws in the spatial plan for their own benefit.

“If they see an area not being utilised, they see it as an opening for other investors to come in,” said Aditya Bayunanda, the Global Forest and Trade Coordinator with the World Wildlife Fund in Indonesia.

Governance at the heart of the problem

A recent Reuter’s report found that Indonesia’s Forestry Ministry earns US$15 billion a year in land permit fees, while private watchdog Indonesia Corruption Watch estimates that $2.3 billion of that comes from illegal logging and kickbacks from improperly issued licenses. Executives at one palm oil company told this reporter that individual licenses start at around $15,000, with auditors also demanding money for regular, obligatory inspections.

While the current situation needs reforming, forest management has improved since the days of former strongman Suharto, when the central government controlled the forests and parceled them out without consulting or compensating local villagers.

Local governments now vet land-use applications before the Forestry Ministry approves them. But applications for non-forest land use, such as mining, go through the Ministry of Mines and Energy.

Mr. Masyhud, the chief spokesman at the Forestry Ministry, says the lack of coordination has produced overlapping licenses in West Kalimantan, an area some liken to the American Wild West for its isolation and lawlessness. In Ketapang, for instance, cellular reception is sporadic and roads are almost impassable. Illegal logging is rampant.

If Laman wins government approval to start mining, it will kill PT KAL’s chances of using the conservation area to earn carbon credits and harm the green image it is trying to build. The subsidiary of Indonesian palm oil firm ANJ Agri, is planning an initial public offering on the Jakarta stock exchange in 2013, and company heads say REDD certification would boost it international image.

It will also come with a hefty price tag. PT KAL has already spent $100,000 on a biodiversity assessment, while international donors, including Flora and Fauna International (FFI), have coughed up an additional $100,000 to determine the amount of carbon stored within the deep-peat area.

Cahyo Nugroho, an FFI analyst who worked on the carbon assessment, says the project was considered an ideal pilot. If it worked, it would make it easier for more companies to help finance conservation and community development through REDD. “It would be a very bad sign if it fails,” he said.

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