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The commercialisation of ancestral forest

March 29, 2017

Source: Pusaka
English Translation:

In late 2016, President Joko Widodo signed a decree to officially grant
legal status to the customarily-owned forest of nine indigenous
communities in different parts of Indonesia, covering a total area of
13,100 hectares. This amount of land is insignificant in comparison to
the millions of hectares of forest and other land which Jokowi had
promised to acknowledge or give to people around Indonesia during the
two years he has been in office.

The objective of establishing this customary forest is in general
predominantly for conservation and President Jokowi stressed that this
customary forest cannot be bought and sold, either now or in generations
to come. This stipulation not to commercialise customary forest and keep
it for conservation is in line with the perception that regulation is
necessary and that indigenous people need protection from the threats
and pressures of the power of capital.

The reality on the ground is that indigenous communities hold over their
customary land is continually being gnawed away at by the power of
capital through various means which result in the exclusion of
indigenous communities, which can even lose their access to their land
and customary forest entirely. According to Derek Hall et al (2011),
there are four interconnected powers which exclude people from their
land – Regulation, connected either with state laws or other forms of
regulation within society; market through economic relationships which
exclude the people, legitimation through government claims to make
administrative decisions based on economic and political reasons or
moral justifications, and force, which includes state military power or
violence from non-state actors.

The majority of indigenous people, possessing low social capital, do not
manage to avoid capitalist snares which over many years forcibly gnaw
away at community social and economic systems, changing value systems
concerning land. Concepts of land and ancestral forest, which once
prioritised their social value and function, change to regard forests as
sources of commercial commodities and disputes over claims of ownership
between groups or individuals emerge. Being trapped into dependence on
the market for their families’ subsistence needs forces them into
deciding to sell commercially assets such as land, ancestral forest and
other commercial property to which capital-rich investors assign a sale

This kind of commercialisation of customary forest which leads to the
exclusion of indigenous communities has been experienced by Papuans
living in Arso, Keerom Regency. In October 2011, timber company PT
Victory Cemerlang Indonesia Wood Industry was able to obtain a statement
of agreement to release rights over customary land from five clan
leaders who owned the land. PT VCIWI plans to convert around 6000
hectares of natural forest along the Begonggi River to an oil palm
plantation. The heads of the village administration, the Arso
sub-district administration, the customary council and the customary
chief are also all aware of this letter. The commercialisation of
ancestral forest enabled by these letters of agreement to release land
rights is being used as a justification to issue permits, including a
location permit in 2013 and a plantation business licence in 2015.

PT VCIWI has been in the commercial timber business in the area for many
years. The company has created a dependency in the community on capital
resources under the company’s control. This dependency and a desire for
envisaged profits have captured the local indigenous elite and persuaded
them to release the land, making their ancestral forest commercially
available to the company. Aside from this, the company has used
techniques of deception accompanied by promises of welfare.

The head of the Keerom Customary Council, Servo Tuamis, said “The
Victory company says it will us the land adjoining existing oil palm
plantations PTPN II and PT Tandan Sawita Papua, in fact it is taking the
customary forest that makes up the Arso people’s golden triangle”,
lamenting the company’s dishonesty and that the community leaders had
already signed the document.

This time round, the company didn’t need to use violence from state
forces, as had been the case in the past when state-owned company PTPN
II started work in the area in 1983. The new company is using non-state
power, the legitimation of the clan leaders’ decision and that of
traditional and local government leaders to obtain rights over the land
and permits to use the land, forest and the commercial timber. The
position of the elite assuming exclusive power, and the power of the
company in a relationship of production has already excluded the
interests of many people, including that of the indigenous people of
Arso over their ancestral forest.

Having obtained the approval of indigenous hierarchy and the state, the
company uses this to tear down ancestral forest, felling and harvesting
commercial timber. The ancestral forest which has been taken over by PT
VCIWI represents remnants of forest, sago groves, the Beuyend pools and
the sites of ancient villages Yatmi and Yamboria, which belong to the
Marap and Abrap peoples. The area also contains high value commercial
timber species, each log worth millions of Rupiah, which it is why it
was a target for companies and now lies within easy reach of PT VCIWI’s
timber business.

The community has been promised that they will benefit from a profit
sharing scheme, which would mean 30%, with reductions for the costs of
harvesting and transportation, while the remaining 70% would go to the
plantation owner. This sort of profit sharing scheme does not produce
benefits which are comparable with the use value of the forest, or the
losses they suffer when it is gone.

In July 2016 representatives of the Arso indigenous people, from the
Abrap, Marap and Manem groups organised in the Ngkawa Yimnawai Gir held
a blockade action and stopped PT VCIWI felling trees and clearing their
ancestral forest, and also blockaded a palm oil mill belonging to the
PTPN II company which operates in the Arso area. The organisation was
also asking the government to give the land and forest back to the Arso
indigenous people.

Jonatan Bate, the head of Yamara village in Manam sub-district, Keerom,
said “We want our ancestral forest given back to the indigenous people.
We oppose the letter of agreement signed by the Ondoafi which released
the rights over the land without the consent of the community.”

The company’s work was stopped, but it is possibly continuing at a new
location, moving into new villages and forests to reap and multiply its
profits. The people of Arso continue to give voice to and fight for
their aim of getting back their lands and forests.

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