Monday, October 7, 2013

One word may save Indonesia's forests

John Hudson in Bloomberg News: Indonesia’s forest and peatland fires have flared up again this season, sending smoke and haze from the island of Sumatra north across the Malacca Strait to Malaysia. The fires are now an annual consequence of the mismanagement of Indonesia’s forests. With the removal of a single word from the country’s constitution, however, that may change for the better.

On May 16, Indonesia’s Constitutional Court deleted the word “state” from this clause: “Customary forests are state forests located in the areas of custom-based communities.” That one adjustment denied the government ownership of forests on the lands of the nation’s indigenous people. By returning the forests to their traditional stewards, the court’s ruling could come close to turning off Indonesia’s greenhouse-gas spigot. Yet more work is needed.

In practice, the change means the central and local governments will no longer be able to grant leases to logging, plantation and mining companies in forests of indigenous people. The consequences of government control are visible from satellite photos showing enormous loss of forests and peatlands, as well as the fires that have resulted. Today, the World Bank ranks Indonesia as the world’s third-largest emitter of greenhouse gases.

This pattern of development has brought little benefit to the tens of millions of indigenous people, whose customary forests account for 30 percent of Indonesia’s total, according to AMAN, the National People’s Indigenous Organization. These communities have lost access to these lands, and fights over them have added to religious and ethnic conflicts over the last 40 years. Those who challenged the forest giveaways were imprisoned or even killed.

That was a tragedy. There is strong evidence from the Amazon and elsewhere that indigenous communities are the best stewards of the forests and prioritize keeping their lands intact even as they strive for economic improvement. Countries with increasing areas of forests, such as Chile, China, India, South Korea and Vietnam, have embraced land reforms and other policy changes that include the return of forest ownership to indigenous people....

NASA image of smoke over Sumatra

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