How indigenous groups and social forestry can save Indonesia’s rainforest

As people around the globe mark World Rainforest Day, Mohammad Zainuri Hasyim of the Rainforest Alliance in Indonesia says we must start recognising the power of Indigenous and local communities in preserving this vital natural resource

Mohammad Zainuri Hasyim
June 22, 2020
How indigenous groups and social forestry can save Indonesia’s rainforest
The Indonesian rainforest. Photo: Rainforest Alliance

Mohammad Zainuri Hasyim is the Indonesia Community & Smallholder Forestry Manager for Rainforest Alliance.

On June 22, World Rainforest Day, we celebrate that forests give us many gifts, including one we desperately need: slowing climate change. This is also the time to recognise the communities who have been guardians of the rainforest for as long as we can remember. 

Home to the world’s third largest area of rainforest – after Brazil and the Congo – Indonesia has turned to a centuries-old method for conserving these vital ecosystems: social forestry. This form of forest management ensures that local and Indigenous communities can keep managing the forest and its resources responsibly, as they have done for generations. With the health of the land and their livelihoods intertwined, these communities have the strongest incentive to keep forests intact. 

Trees capture greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide, preventing them from accumulating in the atmosphere and warming our planet. When we clear forests, we are knocking out our best ally in capturing the staggering amount of greenhouse gases we humans create. We are also creating emissions by cutting down trees, as when trees are felled and burned or allowed to rot, they release into the atmosphere all the carbon they’ve been storing. 

Deforestation also displaces wildlife species, putting them in closer proximity with each other and to humans. Scientists have been warning for years that this increases human exposure to new infectious diseases and makes us more vulnerable to pandemics like the deadly coronavirus, Covid-19. This connection between deforestation and pandemics gives us even more reason to protect what’s left of the world’s rainforests.

But while in Indonesia, and increasingly across the world, we now recognise the benefits of social forestry, this hasn’t always been the case. Logging and industrial timber companies have long been given priority when it comes to land access and forest management. 

For Indonesia, the shift to social forestry began many years ago, but this traditional way of managing forests still does not have the attention and resources it urgently needs. Implementing such an approach can sometimes face challenges, like issues over forest boundaries and conflicts at the grassroots level.  

Subsequent years of high rates of deforestation, particularly in the 1990s and early 2000s, finally reached a turning point in 2015.  

It is with the introduction of a simpler proposal process and longer permit schemes that the social forestry scheme flourished. As of December 2019, Indonesia’s Ministry of Environment and Forestry reported that four million hectares of forest is managed under a social forestry system, with more than 800,000 families serving as stewards of this land.

As part of a larger agreement signed in 2010, the Norwegian government is granting this month $56 million to the Indonesian government for their successful efforts to reduce deforestation and carbon emissions

Indonesia’s adoption of social forestry, along with other protective measures like a moratorium on palm oil plantation permits and stricter law enforcement, brought positive changes, with the country’s deforestation rate declining from 2015 to 2017.  

The commitments and progress made by Indonesia has not gone unnoticed by the international community. As part of a larger agreement signed in 2010, the Norwegian government is granting this month $56 million to the Indonesian government for their successful efforts to reduce deforestation and carbon emissions.  

Despite the growing recognition of its impact, actualising a social forestry strategy still faces many challenges. Even after a community receives their forest management permit, they still must establish a technical management plan, market their business and products, and closely monitor the sustainability of their land.

The lack of assistance after obtaining a permit remains a major obstacle to the success of this approach. Social and environmental NGOs can play an important role in bridging this gap by offering support that goes beyond the initial stages of securing permits.

The Rainforest Alliance, an international non-profit organisation, has championed social forestry strategies, like the community forestry model, for over 20 years, particularly in Guatemala’s Maya Biosphere Reserve. The success of this model in Guatemala, where a net forest gain was achieved, demonstrates the importance of a more holistic approach, working together with local communities, governments, and NGOs.

We should see World Rainforest Day as a moment not only to recognise the communities who have been guardians of the rainforest for as long as we can remember, but also to call on governments and our partners around the world to push for more social forestry and community-based conservation efforts.  

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