By: Our Correspondent

Indonesia’s Forestry Ministry, arguably the country’s most powerful state institution – and often named one of its most corrupt – is facing unprecedented questioning over its broken land rights system.  

The ministry, which oversees more than 70 percent of the country’s land area, also represents a major test of how serious Joko Widodo, the new president, is about cleaning it up, and in the final analysis will test how much clout Jokowi, as he is known, will have in a country where natural resources including timber have created vast fortunes, not all of them legal.

The ministry is the target of an initiative led by the fearsome Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK). In addition, a five-month national inquiry is underway pushed by native groups under the umbrella of the Indigenous Peoples’ Alliance of the Archipelago, an NGO.

The “forest zone” is not all trees and orangutans. By zoning forest area and handing out permits for exploitation, the ministry controls access to an unprecedented chunk of Indonesia’s natural resources.  A full fifth of the nation’s villages, some 33,000, stand inside the forest zone – entire cities even: Palangkaraya, the capital of Central Kalimantan province, exists completely within the forest zone. Its boundaries also encircle millions of indigenous peoples. 

Land conflicts affecting them are the subject of the inquiry, instigated by the National Human Rights Commission at the indigenous peoples’ NGO’s behest. The inquiry, Indonesia’s first ever, follows up last year’s landmark Constitutional Court ruling that took customary forests out of state forests. The decision was the result of a judicial review submitted by the indigenous people’s group, which has its sights on 40 million hectares where it says indigenous peoples live – roughly a fifth of the country’s land mass and more than a third of what the Forestry Ministry controls.

Meanwhile, the KPK is pressuring the ministry to legalize its claim to the land it controls – a process called “gazetting,” which until recently the ministry had completed only about tenth of, despite having decades to do it. That the land has been gazetted means jurisdictional certainty has been established, but in reality the forest zone is rife with competing claims. 

In 2013 the National Land Agency counted 8,000 land disputes in Indonesia, almost invariably to the greater detriment of the local people who live there than the companies that come for their land.

Born of the Dutch

The story of the Forestry Ministry’s power is older than Indonesia. Beginning in 1865, Dutch colonialists with their eye on Java’s prized teak forests declared all “unclaimed” and forest lands the domain of the state. 

Until the Japanese booted them out in 1942, the Dutch sought to turn it all into government property, the better to lease it out to European investors. To carry out the project, they established what was then known as the Forestry Service.

After World War Two, Sukarno, Indonesia’s founding president, envisioned an Indonesian-style socialist society, discarding the “state domain” concept in favor of a land-reform project in which “the peoples’ economy” would eclipse foreign capital. The 1960 Basic Agrarian Law was supposed to mobilize a national land redistribution program, but vested interests used Dutch legal precedents to exempt the forestry and plantation sectors. Outraged, the Indonesian Communist Party took matters into its own hands, launching “unilateral land occupation actions.” Tensions mounted, pitting leftists against landed elites, Islamic groups and the military.

Finally it all came to a bloody head. In 1965, after a mysterious coup attempt against Sukarno was blamed on the communists, General Suharto held the balance of power. In the ensuing months, alleged communists were slaughtered by the hundreds of thousands in a barbaric mass-killing campaign backed by the army. 

Once solidly in control, Suharto passed a series of laws that repudiated the Basic Agrarian Law, restored state ownership of forests and opened the gates to foreign capital that Sukarno had slammed shut. Land reform was dead. The memory of the pogroms would keep it so.

In Suharto’s regime, the Forestry Ministry would enjoy unprecedented power. By the end of the Dutch era, the state had brought almost all of the teak and a third of the rest of the forest in Java and neighboring Madura – about 1.6 million hectares – under its control, though it failed to expand much farther than that. 

In 1983 Suharto turned the successor to the old Forestry Service, then a directorate in the Agriculture Ministry, into a full-fledged ministry of its own, charging it with overseeing the whole archipelago. It would eventually preside over a forest zone that at its peak spanned 145 million hectares, more than three-fourths of the massive country, comprised of more than 18,000 islands and peopled by 252 million citizens.

The ministry was supposed to gazette the land, but it never fully did. Instead it inundated more than half of the forest zone with logging and pulp-and-paper concessions with little regard for local communities. 

It was a feeding frenzy that benefited Suharto’s cronies and children more than anyone else. From the 1960s to the 1990s, Indonesia lost about 10 percent of its rainforest cover every decade, a total area larger than Thailand. Another six million hectares disappeared from 2000 to 2012, about the size of Sri Lanka.

Belinda Margono, the Forestry Ministry’s former head of data-gathering who is now with the University of Maryland, published a paper this year showing that her former employer was greatly under reporting forest loss. The country’s deforestation rate now exceeds that of Brazil, making it the highest in the world.

Headwinds and tailwinds

Last year Zulkifli Hasan, a bespectacled lawmaker who formerly headed the Forestry Ministry until he was named speaker of the People’s Consultatative Assembly this year, found himself unceremoniously thrust into the spotlight when film star Harrison Ford stormed into his ministry office in Jakarta for a television show and grilled him about Indonesia’s disappearing forests. 

When Ford confronted him about the destruction of Tesso Nilo National Park, one of the darkest blights on Indonesia’s dismal conservation record, Zulkifli was quick to blame it on the nation’s democratic growing pains. “We have just started with what we call ‘reform’,” he told Ford, adding, “Sometimes we have too much freedom.”

It is perhaps an irony of Indonesia’s reformasi era that the dev

olution of power failed to crack open the Forestry Ministry’s monopoly over state forests, leaving it with the freedom to decide the fate of lucrative development projects in the provinces. 

That the ministry has abused its authority is no secret: in 2012, the KPK named it the country’s most corrupt institution. Zulkifli himself has been called in for questioning about his role in a pair of land-conversion permit abuse cases in Riau and West Java provinces, although investigators have yet to name him a suspect. When he became House speaker, anti-corruption activists berated the  opposition party coalition for putting him in the position.

Fighting Reforms

The inquiry and the gazetting drive are just the latest reform efforts aimed at the ministry, which has always resisted attempts to dilute its power. 

A few years after the fall of Suharto, the legislature issued a potentially transformational decree that threatened to put land reform back on the agenda, but that was scuttled when the Forestry Ministry and other vested interests blocked the drafting of follow-up legislation, according to agrarian studies expert Noer Fauzi Rachman. 

A 2007 effort to redistribute state land to poor farmers also flopped when the ministry refused to cede 8.2 million hectares of state forest that were central to the program.

In response to the court ruling separating customary forests from state forests, the ministry has played the role of spoiler, setting up new hoops for indigenous peoples to jump through on the path to recognition and leaving cash-strapped local governments in charge of implementation, the NGO Down to Earth has written. 

The ministry also failed to move forward a first-of-its-kind draft bill on indigenous people’s rights which it was in charge of shepherding through parliament in the previous government’s last days, effectively shelving the law until at least next year. Resolving these issues is one of the aims of the inquiry, which will conclude in early December with a set of recommendations for the new administration.

Now, however, proponents of Forestry Ministry reform have a powerful new friend: the KPK. The corruption watchdog is using its prevention arm to compel thoroughgoing land-tenure reform, rallying 12 ministries, to sign an agreement – called the NKB — whose core goal is “to accelerate the process of land gazettement,” according to Myrna Safitri, an expert on forestry issues and executive director of the Epistema Institute in Jakarta.

The Forestry Ministry has responded with alacrity, formally processing some 67 percent of the forest zone since the agreement was signed last March. The sprint to gazettement has raised red flags, however, as it precluded internal reforms that were supposed to happen first, like the refining of the gazetting method itself. Others have questioned the ministry’s transparency in the process. At present a task force under the banner of the NKB has commenced three pilot projects to make sure the Forestry Ministry has truly adhered to that agreement. The first pilot project’s findings are expected before the year is out.

A month into his term, the extent of  Jokowi’s support for the inquiry and the NKB – both of which were initiated before he took office – remain unknown quantities. His proposal to streamline the government’s convoluted permit-issuance process by combining ministry licenses into a “one-stop shop” hints he may be sympathetic to land reform, but skeptics wonder if the move is less about concern for the environment and more about attracting business. 

Meanwhile, Jokowi’s appointee atop the Forestry Ministry – since merged with the Environment Ministry and rebranded as the Environment and Forestry Ministry – has ordered a halt on forest-exploitation permits until the one-stop service is up and running, hinting the new president may be priming the pump for reform. 

Environmentalists and reformers are eagerly watching the new minister,  Siti Nurbaya Bakar,  to see if she will be a change agent. The former bureaucrat turned politician from the pro-Jokowi National Democrat Party (NasDem), has a background in agricultural studies and a career in planning agencies.

Last week’s slashing of Indonesia’s poorly targeted fuel subsidies proved Jokowi was willing to make unpopular decisions on priority issues. Whether he considers Forestry Ministry reform a top priority – and whether he has the political muscle to orchestrate it – remain to be seen. Avy Mahaningtyas, an adviser to the Climate Land Use Alliance put it this way:“ If he’s serious about change, he really shouldn’t let his cabinet sleep at all during these first 100 days.” Not a wink.