Who rules the forests? (Indonesia)

New owners?

The Alliance of Indigenous Peoples of the Archipelago (AMAN) filed a petition for constitutional review back in March asking the Mahkamah Konstitusi to remove state ownership from customary forests. According to Art. 1f of the 1999 Law on Forestry, “customary forests are state forests located in the areas of custom-based communities” (emphasis added). The justices agreed with AMAN. According to Justice Alim, “Members of customary societies have the right to clear forests belonging to them and use the land to fulfill their personal and family needs. The rights of indigenous communities will not be eradicated, as long as they’re protected under Article 18b of the Constitution.”

What’s perhaps more surprising is that the government seems fine with having lost the case. According to The Jakarta Globe, Ministry of Forestry spokesperson Sumarto claimed, “The Ministry of Forestry considers indigenous peoples living in a certain area as being part of the forest itself. They cannot be separated.” Of course, this could just be PR spin. After all, why would the central government want to cede control over forest resources? However, there also seems to be an implicit subtext in his comments, namely that the government might be glad to be rid of some of the burden in managing the forests.

One broader question is why the MK has found itself handling so many forestry cases in the first place. According to the MK website, the justices have heard 10 cases dealing with forestry law. To some extent, this is not surprising given the importance of forest resources in Indonesia, which has the largest remaining forest reserves in Southeast Asia (and possibly East Asia as a whole). However, it also seems to stem from the legacy of the New Order era and the lack of clarity in ownership over natural resources (or, put another way, the clarity that the government might seize resources and distribute them to clients). 
Another possibility (one I am investigating through my dissertation) is that forestry law appears so frequently in the court’s docket because the plaintiffs – often indigenous peoples with limited resources – cannot fight their battles in the legislature but can appeal to the court. This would suggest that the MK acts as something of an equalizing force in Indonesian politics, giving disadvantaged groups a greater say in policymaking. 

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