The commercialisation of ancestral forest

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 decisons 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 value.

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.

Source: Pusaka

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