Indonesia's First Indigenous Forestry Festival

Down to Earth No.75, November 2007

A gathering of indigenous peoples from across Indonesia was organised by the Bogor-based NGO KpSHK in August this year, with the aim of promoting sustainable forest management. This report, compiled from a variety of materials from the Festival, gives some insights into the positive developments and continuing concerns at grassroots level in indigenous forest areas.

The rationale for the first Indonesian Indigenous Forestry Festival was the continuing conflict over Indonesia's forest areas, claimed on the one hand by the state and, on the hand, by indigenous peoples. Most of Indonesia's indigenous peoples live in forest areas and 70% of forests remain under the control of the Forestry Department, so there has been plenty of scope for conflicting claims.

Indonesian law has offered very little protection for indigenous rights over forests - or even recognition of indigenous peoples' existence - while regional autonomy laws introduced in 1999 have driven further unsustainable exploitation. KpSHK - the Consortium for Supporting Community-based Forest Management Systems - believes that legal recognition of indigenous peoples by regional governments is crucial if their rights to manage their customary areas are to be fulfilled.


Community spirit

The problems faced by indigenous peoples in the forests have sometimes had the effect of reducing awareness of their own capacity to manage their areas. Revitalising or returning to a 'community spirit' is a fitting way to fight for recognition of indigenous peoples and their forest management rights, especially for those communities who still depend wholly on forest resources.

To foster this community spirit, KpSHK, supported by many others, organised a gathering on the theme of indigenous peoples and their management of forest areas. The general aim was for communities to find ways of working together to improve forestry conditions in Indonesia. More specifically, the aims of the Festival were to:

  1. initiate an Indonesian Indigenous Forestry Forum - a forum for communication between indigenous communities in defending their customary areas and forest resources;
  2. find common strategies for securing indigenous forests;
  3. share knowledge about exploiting forest products - an exchange of experiences between communities in the development of forest products.
  4. promoting indigenous peoples' models of traditional knowledge in sustainable forest management.

The Indonesia Indigenous Forest Festival, which took place from August 4-9 in Bogor, was organised into four main events:

  • A workshop on traditional knowledge in forest management: a series of presentations on indigenous traditional knowledge on food security, energy, water, medicine and ritual, managing resources and a discussion on the role of women in natural resources management. The workshop was held in Cirewed, Kiarasari village, in Bogor district.
  • Establishing an Indonesian Indigenous Forestry Forum: preparing a strategy and creating a forum for communication for indigenous communities across Indonesia.
  • Panel discussion, between experts on indigenous law, forestry, ethnology/anthropology, NGOs and indigenous peoples organisations on policy and legal and reforms, to enable indigenous communities to find out directly about developments in Indonesian forest policy.
  • Dialogue between indigenous peoples with the Indonesian Forestry Minister: an exchange of views with the hope of gaining political support from the minister for indigenous peoples and indigenous forest management rights. (Unfortunately this session had to be cancelled because the minister could not attend).

The festival attracted quite a lot of interest from indigenous communities: twenty one communities from Java, Sumatra, Kalimantan, Sulawesi, and East and West Nusa Tenggara registered as participants for this first gathering.


Indigenous experiences

Sharing experiences was a major part of the festival, based on the idea that 'experience is the best teacher'. Among the experiences shared were: how to sustain a livelihood when the state imports cheap rice, how to create electricity from alternative means when there is no electricity in the village, or electricity and fuel bills are spiralling upward, and how to profit from non-timber forest products, when a lot of noise is being made about illegal logging.

"We can all live, as long as we know what we have and how we can benefit from it", said Herman from Kiarasari. "We have water and by using it wisely, we have enough electricity, we can irrigate the rice fields and our fishponds don't dry up", he said (Herman's community benefits from a 40 Kwh micro-hydro system).

It is clear that indigenous sustainable practices which protect forest functions can make a contribution to tackling climate change. Despite increasing economic pressures and government policies that disadvantage indigenous peoples, they remain committed to safeguarding their forests.

As reported by Yorri, a participant from Tondano in North Sulawesi, several community members had managed to create fuel (ethanol) from sugar palm (Arenga Pinata), by reprocessing a palm-derived alcoholic drink called cap tikus, a home-produced local speciality.

It is clear how outside pressures are affecting indigenous peoples socially and economically. Laik, a farmer and rattan artisan from Kutai in East Kalimantan, explained how "rattan and Kutai people are inseparable: it grows around our houses and in our gardens". But rattan prices have plummeted to Rp500-1000 per kilo because of a government policy change which considers rattan as a wild plant as opposed to a cultivated one, and is therefore subject to taxes, which make it difficult to sell. This has taken a heavy economic toll on the indigenous community, since rattan is their main product. "Our rattan has stayed in the village because of regulations that don't allow us to sell unprocessed rattan, on top of forestry minister regulations issued in 2006 (no 55 and no 63) which have made rattan much more difficult to distribute", said Patmawaty, head of the Kutai Rattan Farmers and Artisans Association.

Traditions in Flores have been undermined by an influx of cheap products. Here, the famous woven cloth (kain tenun) is under threat from the chemical dyes and commercially-made sarongs brought in from outside. "This cloth is our identity; we can identify eachother just by looking at the cloth" said Melania, who was wearing a Flores kain tenun that showed she was an unmarried woman. "It makes me very sad that our people can't get the materials to weave cloth because we've been forced out of our forest homes, even though it is part of our identity", she said angrily.

Indigenous peoples are tenacious in the face of threats to their lives and identity, as expressed by Selester from the Mentawai indigenous community: "we, Mentawai people are a communal people used to living together, but the government programme forced us to live in separate houses, so we couldn't live in the way we'd wished." Despite this, he stressed, "Times may change, symbols may change, but we must still safeguard our values."


UN General Assembly adopts Indigenous Peoples Declaration

After twenty years of negotiations between indigenous peoples and states, the UN General Assembly adopted the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples on September 13th 2007. With 143 countries voting in favour, including Indonesia and the UK, there were only 4 negative votes cast (Canada, Australia, New Zealand, United States), plus 11 abstentions. Indigenous peoples representatives welcomed the historic move.

Les Malezer, Chair of the Global Indigenous Peoples' Caucus said: the declaration combined the interests and views of the United Nations and Indigenous Peoples, and was “a tool for peace and justice, based upon mutual recognition and mutual respect."

(Source: Iwgia website: