Indonesia remains Asia’s most-forested nation, but it has suffered serious deforestation in recent decades, contributing to Indonesia’s status as the third-largest emitter of carbon after the U.S. and China. And perhaps there is no starker example than Borneo — roughly three-quarters of which belongs to Indonesia, the rest to Malaysia and Brunei. Conservationists are urging Indonesia’s government to respect the Dayak’s rights to their traditional lands and to affirm their stewardship of the forests based on their animist religion. But in much of Borneo, it appears too late.
Where forests once stood, towns now hum with traffic and commerce. According to Indonesian government statistics, 60 percent of Borneo’s rainforests have been cut down. Only 8 percent of its virgin forests remain, mostly in national parks. Western Borneo is the most denuded. Efforts to combat deforestation are under way. In May, the Indonesian government announced a two-year moratorium on cutting down virgin forests. As well, a U.N.-backed scheme will see developed countries paying Indonesia to protect its rainforests. But it’s too soon to say how effective these measures will be, calling into question the sustainability of Indonesia’s current economic boom, which is largely dependent on the extraction of natural resources.
Andy White, a coordinator at the Washington, D.C.-based Rights and Resources Initiative, a coalition of groups focusing on land rights, says confusion over property rights [generates conflict]. “Seventy percent of the territory of the country, tens of millions of people are essentially squatters on their own historic lands,” he says. “And over 20,000 villages are in this contested status, basically sitting on land that they think is their own and the ministry of forestry claims as their own.” In the future, the children and grandchildren of the indigenous people will not own these lands. They will become beggars or criminals, because the bounty before their eyes is no longer theirs. Corruption is endemic at all levels of government in Indonesia, but some observers point to the forestry ministry as an egregious example. A recent expose in Indonesia’s Tempo magazine accuses officials from the forestry ministry of filling their political party’s war chests with bribes, which businessmen pay in exchange for tracts of forested land. The ministry denies the allegations. But Kuntoro Mangkusobroto, a troubleshooter for Indonesia’s president and the chairman of a government task force on deforestation and climate change, says the reports are “not surprising.” Indonesia’s Corruption Eradication Commission will investigate suspected illegal grants of forested land, but Kuntoro says that the problem has become deeply entrenched and hard to root out. “Forests are a means for the power holder to maintain his power, by giving concessions to the military commander in the regions, governors or those who can support the regime,” he explains. “You cut trees, you got money, OK? And it’s been practiced like that for 40 years.”
Conservationists’ hopes of saving Borneo’s rainforests and its inhabitants’ traditions may be unrealistic, romantic, or simply too late. They may also obscure indigenous peoples’ fight to control the terms on which they develop and modernize. Some Indonesians see the Dayaks as culturally backwards, and many Dayaks themselves seem unsentimental about shedding the ways of their forefathers.
White, of the Rights and Resources Initiative, notes that forests can be re-grown to support communities and store carbon. Indigenous people have the right to choose their own path of development, he adds, and the issue of rights will not go away with the destruction Indonesia’s forests. “Of course it’s sad, of course it should be stopped, but that does not diminish the importance of this issue,” he says, “or the potential of these lands to be restored and for these communities to live much better lives in the future and for these areas to contribute much, much more to their country’s development.”
Excerpts from Anthony Kuhn, Battle Is Under Way For The Forests Of Borneo, NPR, Aug.21, 2011
See also Rights and Resources Initiative