Village Forest licenses in Indonesia: what are they really for?
While the new Government of Indonesia is keen to promote community-based forest management, World Agroforestry Centre researchers working in villages granted the licenses have found confusion and frustration over purpose, beneficiaries and support
The Government of Indonesia has initiated a forest and agrarian reform process aiming to bring at least 30% of Indonesian forests under community-based forest management schemes. The scope is ambitious: 10 million ha in 2015 alone followed by another 40 million ha up to 2019.
Jambi Province in Sumatra has often been considered a pioneer in the development of community-based forest management in Indonesia. It was home to the granting of the first Village Forest (Hutan Desa) licence in 2009 to the village of Lubuk Beringin.
Village Forest licences are issued over State-owned forest and can be for both ‘protection’ and ‘production’ forest categories. The licence mechanism has been promoted as a way to resolve land disputes and for communities to be ready for REDD+. The Village Forest licence is also expected to increase forest sustainability, improve community welfare and reduce pressure over land availability owing to rapid expansion of oil-palm plantations in the province.
However, almost nothing is known about how villages actually manage after receiving a license. A recent study conducted by the World Agroforestry Centre has revealed that the management of forested land by local communities is threatened by deeply-rooted issues, unclear responsibilities and policies, and a lack of financial support.
Activities under the licence that are allowed by communities are mainly the collection of non-timber forest products (NTFPs). However, owing to relatively stable incomes from tapping rubber and a dependency on cash crops, villagers rarely rely on NTFPs. They only harvest when prices for rubber drop; and it represents a marginal proportion of their economy.
NTFPs, such as rattan, are mainly consumed domestically and the legality gained through the licence to collect NTFPs has not been accompanied by any economic improvement in the studied villages. The researchers found that the NTFPs were mainly used by outsiders of the villages, especially by nomadic groups known as the Orang Rimba whose economy is based on hunting and gathering. Another restricting factor to engage actively in collection of NTFPs is the long distance and difficult access to the Village Forest areas.
Villagers have often inherited plots of land that are now formally located in the Village Forest. They are unused, abandoned lands, hosting old and unproductive rubber trees, that are partially covered by re-grown secondary forest. Villagers interviewed stated that they were eager to re-open these lands and replant them with productive trees. This, however, is prohibited under ‘protection’ forest rules even with a Village Forest licence. In ‘production’ forests, where clearing land by households is formally allowed for rubber cultivation under Village Forest regulations, the wealthiest members of the villages have benefited the most by buying use rights from less-advantaged members who lack the initial capital to invest in making the land productive. Most of these lands are underused since the villages do not have adequate infrastructure to use that land efficiently, that is, they have poor access roads, if any, nor the capital to optimize them.
This type of situation led the Village Forest committee members in Jelutih Village to enter into a business agreement with a logging company. The logging fees were to flow through a Village Company for the benefit of the entire village. However, in order for logging to be operational, the village required a community logging licence (Izin Usaha Pemanfaatan Hasil Hutan Kayu dalam Hutan Desa/IUPHHK-HD), which at the time of writing had not yet been granted by the Ministry of Environment and Forestry owing to the recently revised regulation on Village Forest (P. 89/Menhut-II/2014), which stipulates that forests still in primary condition located in Village Forest areas (either protection or production zones) are to be preserved.
In Jelutih, the researchers noted a lot of bitterness, with villagers feeling as if the Government wanted to wash its hands of responsibility through the Village Forest licence. According to them, they had become objects of the Government as free labour to protect the forest without being rewarded for their efforts. The only benefits they perceived were indirect and related to use of a water catchment for irrigation, running their micro-hydropower plant, and flood and erosion control. There was an overall feeling of frustration since the granting of the licence had not been accompanied by economic improvement; they did not perceive any benefit from protecting the forest. Having no budget to implement the work plan, committee members planned to return the permit if support was not provided.
Further findings showed that women had little power in the decision-making process about management of the Village Forest area and had very restricted access to information about the scheme. Their participation was marginalized in the initial explanations and meetings; the majority of participants were males. Women interviewed said that they didn’t have much to say because forest management was a male affair. But the women nevertheless also had expectations about the schemes. They wanted a licence to extract timber and engage in partnerships with a company for employment. They saw it as potential for future generations owing to population increase and scarcity of land. They also wanted to have better access to the Village Forest area so they could develop eco-tourism activities. They also hoped that they could receive support for accessing good-quality seedlings. The only link between the committee and the women was through handicraft groups from NTFPs collection. However, women were still facing challenges in marketing their products and stated that they were rarely going to the forest any longer owing to the long walking distance and difficult terrain.
If the objective of a Village Forest licence is to improve community welfare, this does not seem to have been achieved. Local governments have proven unsuccessful in allocating budgets and in providing technical assistance for the management of the licences. If the objective is to conserve forests and protect watersheds, villagers need to be rewarded for their efforts and engaged in co-benefit arrangements. Technical support in management of NTFPs, including production and marketing, from local governments is also required to ensure the success of any such scheme.
This work is linked to the CGIAR Research Program on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry