BANGKOK, Jan 11 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Indonesia's
decision to return customary lands to indigenous peoples is a
breakthrough for their rights and a boost to campaigners pushing
for a slowdown in deforestation in the Southeast Asian country,
a leading rights activist said.
President Joko Widodo announced on Dec. 30 that Indonesia
would return 13,000 hectares of customary lands to nine
indigenous communities, and committed to giving back a total of
12.7 million hectares to local and indigenous groups.
Veteran indigenous rights campaigner Abdon Nababan, who
attended the announcement at the presidential palace, said it
was an encouraging sign for the traditional custodians of
"In our constitution, since (independence in) 1945, there
has been strong recognition and respect for indigenous rights,
but until the end of last year, there has been no real legal
recognition," said Nababan, secretary general of the Indigenous
Peoples Alliance of the Archipelago (AMAN).
"This is the first time," he told the Thomson Reuters
Foundation by telephone from Jakarta.
Indonesia has been a focus of global efforts to rein in
greenhouse gas emissions caused by widespread deforestation of
swampy, carbon-rich peatlands to make way for plantations for
industries such as palm oil, pulp and paper.
The deforested, drained peatlands are highly flammable, and
smouldering peatland fires have caused choking haze across
Southeast Asia in recent years.
These forests are often in remote areas long inhabited by
indigenous peoples, who may not have the documents proving their
land ownership or the ability to counter land acquisition by the
government and corporations.
Most of the returned land is state forestland, Nababan said.
It includes a 5,000-hectare concession in North Sumatra
province granted in 1992 to Indonesia-based pulp manufacturer
Toba Pulp Lestari, company official Anwar Lawden said.
"With regards to the land claimed within our concession by
several communities, we have been working with the Ministry of
Forestry office for a long term solution," Lawden said in an
emailed response to questions.
AMAN's Nababan, who began working on indigenous rights two
decades ago, said the returned lands comprise a fraction of the
8.23 million hectares that some 700 indigenous communities have
asked the government to return.
Government officials did not respond to requests for
Granting customary lands would be the most cost effective
solution to fighting climate change and securing sources of
water and food, he added.
"If you recognise and protect indigenous peoples' rights,
it's the cheapest way for the world to reduce emissions, to keep
land productive, to produce food organically and also to keep
hydrological systems working to provide water for people," he
Last year, research group, the World Resources Institute,
released a study showing deforestation rates on land formally
owned by indigenous groups were about 2.5 times lower than on
other territories because indigenous peoples were more likely to
conserve the forest than other users.
(Reporting by Alisa Tang @alisatang, editing by Katie Nguyen.
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