By: Muhammad Zulfikar Rakhmat and Dikanaya Tarahita

In a combined bid to improve the lives of slash-and-burn farmers and to keep forests sustainable, the Indonesian government is several months into its Perhutanan Sosial (Social Forestry) program, put in place last September by President Joko Widodo. The program offers farmers the opportunity to use designated forest plots legally for up to 35 years. The government is also offering institutional and business support.

The program, part of agrarian reform for the forestry sector, targets the allocation of 12.7 million hectares of land to be managed by people who live in and around the forests. By December, 1.33 million hectares had been ceded to families who were given permission to use two hectares each. The Minister of Environment and Forestry, Siti Nurbaya Bakar, said the land available to families is scheduled to grow to a targeted 4.38 million hectares in 2019.

“The lands can be planted with anything they want such as tobacco, teak, chilli, pulses, and maize,” the president said in announcing the program. “It can also be made into fish ponds and shrimp. Anything as long as they are productive.”

Preventing Fires, Minimizing Deforestation

The policy is partly based on the determination to reduce the rate of deforestation, which in past years has seen the destruction by fire of millions of hectares of virgin forest and fouled the air across huge areas of Southeast Asia, making Indonesia one of the world’s top contributors to the release into the air of carbon dioxide. Deforestation figures do show a drop from 1.09 million hectares in 2015 to 0.479 million hectares in 2017, although those figures aren’t attributable to this program.

At the 3rd Asia Pacific Rainforest Summit 2018 in Yogyakarta in April, Siti Nurbaya Bakar promised that the rate will drop to 0.35 million hectares in 2030, or even more if the social forestry program is successful.

Deforested and other vacant land as well as dry grassland, one of the sources of forest fires, can be planted by local people with potentially large trees such as teak and sengon, a tropical wood that is planted and cultivated as a cash crop. The program is also designed to decrease the practice of illegal logging. Officials say more than  2 million trees including teak, mahogany, and sengon have been saved from illegal logging.

In addition, the land use will also be accompanied and monitored directly by the government so that the practice of burning forest land will hopefully decrease. Fire has, in the past 20 years, been used by both small and large-scale farming to clear land. Land clearing by slash and burn has become the new normal.

The program will also directly support Jokowi’s ambitious US$2.73 billion plan, as Asia Sentinel reported, to cut land and forest fire hotspots by nearly half, in part by protecting peat forests and aiming to ensure that 121,000 sq. km. of land, a fifth of it peat forest, will be fire-free by 2019.

Help for Forest People

The program is of special help to people like Tukijo, a resident of the village of Brani Wetan, Probolinggo, East Java, who received a certificate from Jokowi, as the president is known, allowing him to farm his two hectares.

He is now assured of being able to support his wife and four children, he says. That is a blessing because for 35 years he has worked odd jobs or sharecropped for others, receiving only 50 percent of the profit. He is also no longer afraid of being evicted by officers for illegally working land owned by the government.

Tukijo,who like many Indonesians has only one name, plans to use part of the land to grow corn. Another section will be turned into a catfish pond. In the past, he says, he didn’t dare to imagine his children would be able to go to school up to secondary level because of the stifling economic factors. But now, with this license certificate, he says, he feels some of the load is off his shoulders. The future looks brighter for him and his family.

Tukijo and thousands of others are examples of the impact of the Social Forestry program on communities surrounding Indonesian forests. Those who are usually marginalized and untouched by central government policies can now sigh with relief.

Providing Clear Legal Access

Forest utilization licenses are also designed to provide certainty for Tukijo and others as well as land  managers on the status of what they do. With that assurance, farmers can now have access to banking services in promoting businesses and can apply for credit loans (KUR) to obtain business capital.

The government’s cooperation with the Association of State Banks (Himbara) provided credit loans worth Rp105 trillion (US$7.53 billion) in 2017 with the number expected to increase to Rp120 trillion in 2018. In addition, the Ministry of Environment and Forestry and the Public Service Agency Center for Forest Development have directed funds worth of Rp200.56 billion in 2017 to 568 forest farmer groups, 9.610 families spread in 10 provinces.

The achievement of financing commitments also exceeded Rp442.76 billion in 2017. These funds were used to facilitate the production inputs, rehabilitation of ponds and offtaker crop production.

For example, a group of farmers in Muara Gembong in West Java, about 70 km from Jakarta, have received help with mangrove seeds, five tonnes of corn seeds, 1.2 million shrimp, 21.8 tonnes of shrimp food and 8,400 fish fingerlings for 1,070 households. Amenities to repair embankments and drainage channels, six borehole units and three km of power lines also support these activities.

A Catalyst for Stretching the Economy

 With the social forestry program, every village can develop commodity groups, such as creating a village of coffee, chocolate, prawns, etc. With the 9.610 families who have received permission for land use, it means that the same amount of people have gotten jobs and become economically independent.

A successful example of this program can be seen from the pond area of 17.2 hectares in the village of Muara Gembong, which has increased shrimp and fish production as much as 204 tonnes per year. Individual incomes also increased significantly, rising to US$50 million per year and absorbing the labor force of almost the entire village, which is more than 425 people. It is expected that the program will continue throughout 2018.

Muhammad Zulfikar Rakhmat and Dikanaya Tarahita write frequently on social issues in Indonesia