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How Indonesian forest law is being used against poor people

Published on 18 August 2015 Indonesia

“Why are you leaving now? Come back here! I have told the truth but you do not believe me. Let’s take an oath on our lives!” Asyani, a frail, 63-year old woman from eastern Java, broke down into hysterics and pleaded with the panel of judges who had just convicted her for stealing teak wood. 

Asyani claimed she took the wood from her own land years ago, but because she lacked the requisite documentation, she faced potential jail time and a fine close to US$40,000, despite making only about a dollar a day.

Asyani makes a living as a masseuse for babies in her village. Since she doesn’t make enough, her neighbors help her out by giving her food. 

Five years ago, her husband became terminally ill with cancer. 

Before he died, they sold a piece of land to cover his medical costs. Prior to selling the land, they cut their teak trees and the wood has been stored in front of their house for six years.

Recently, Asyani decided to use this wood to make herself a new chair and a massage table. She brought the wood to the local carpenter, and was consequently accused by the public Forestry Estate PT Perhutani of stealing this wood from a nearby concession. 

Asyani was arrested in a police operation and detained for three months before being sentenced. The shock from the court ruling sent her to the hospital for three days.

Asyani’s case is not unique. Hundreds of people are detained in Indonesian jails for having claimed their rights on their land, forests and other resources while resisting eviction and land grabs. 

Indonesia’s Forest Law No. 18/2003 on Prevention and Eradication of Forest Destruction, ostensibly intended to protect the forests from organized crime and illegal logging, is instead being used to criminalize Indigenous Peoples and local communities. 

Many have lived off and managed their lands and resources for generations. Few have the monetary resources necessary to defend these rights against powerful and sometimes corrupt interests that seek to control Indonesia’s forests

Civil society organizations and academics have called for this Law to be abrogated because of its impact on poor and marginal communities. Teguh Yuwono, professor of Forestry at Gadjah Mada University in Yogyakarta, states that the law is “used as a weapon against poor people […] while the conglomerate heavily suspected to be involved in major forest plundering can still roam free.”

Criminalizing Indonesia’s poor is nothing new. 

Noer Fauzi Rachman, a senior researcher at the Sajogyo Institute, describes it as a tactic for the perpetuation of domination and control over forest lands and peoples, “meant to remind the people around the forest who have the real power in controlling the land.” 

“This situation is not significantly different from the pattern of relationships that took place in the colonial era,” he notes.

For Noer Fauzi, the case of Asyani is symptomatic of a criminalization process related to the Indonesian forest tenure system inherited from the Dutch colonial rule. The Dutch rulers established the first regulatory system for Java and Madura forests. In 1870, all forest land that was not under private ownership was declared to be state-owned. 

Then the Colonial Forestry Service (Boschwezen) drew delimited boundaries between forest and non-forest areas (agriculture, plantations, settlements, etc.) and classified the forest areas based on different functions. This led to determination of legality in their access and utilization. 

Those who had a permit were considered as having legal access, while all others who lacked formal permission were declared illegal. 

Although the laws have changed since then, one constant has remained: those who traditionally depend on the forests have struggled to have their rights recognized. Rather than forbidding communities to use the land, the government should enlist their aid in managing forests. 

Research shows that when they have legal title to their lands, Indigenous Peoples and local communities do a better job of preventing deforestation and climate change, and preserving biodiversity than governments. Some have even been able to protect their lands against illegal loggers.

Indigenous Peoples and local communities do a better job of preventing deforestation and climate change.

Instead, the Indonesian Government has transferred land belonging to Indonesia’s rural poor to corporations on a massive scale. Over 30 percent of the country’s land is currently part of some sort of concession. And the poor face disproportionately high punishments when they run afoul of concessions and protected areas. 

Asyani, who was convicted of stealing seven pieces of 1.5 meter long teak wood worth about Rp 4 million (US$296), received a fine five times that of a businessman sentenced the same week for paying a bribe of Rp 5 billion.

Asyani has written to President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo and received promises of support from the Environment and Forestry Minister Siti Nurbaya. And on Aug. 17, President Jokowi will have an opportunity at the Independence Day celebration to grant his presidential grace to those who are unfairly detained. 

Let’s hope that Asyani will be among those receiving Jokowi’s attention, but increasing criminalization and human rights abuses related to land conflict require a firm political position and affirmative steps by the government. It is time to stop using the law to oppress poor people and grant marginalized citizens effective access to justice.

Source: The Jakarta Post | 16 August 2015