Indigenous Papuans won their forest back from a palm oil firm, but still lack land title

  • Indigenous villagers in Sorong district, West Papua province, have for years resisted the arrival of the palm oil industry into their territory, yet still saw their ancestral forests signed away by the government for an oil palm concession.
  • Earlier this year, the Sorong district government revoked the concession, citing a litany of violations by the concession holder.
  • The villagers have welcomed the move, but are demanding the government take further action to ensure the legal recognition of their rights to their customary forests.
  • They say it’s important to prevent the customary forests from being given away to other companies in the future.

SORONG, West Papua — Indigenous people in Indonesia’s West Papua province are fighting for the rights to their ancestral forests, now that the local government has rescinded licenses for oil palm concessions on their lands.

For years, the residents of Segun village in West Papua’s Sorong district feared that their forests would be razed to make way for the overlapping concession awarded to PT Sorong Agro Sawitindo (SAS), a palm oil company.

So the announcement in April by Sorong district head Johny Kamuru that the concession had been revoked came as a major relief for the villagers.

In revoking the company’s permits, Johny’s administration cited myriad violations, including SAS’s failure to obtain a right-to-cultivate permit, or HGU, the last in a series of licenses that oil palm companies must obtain before being allowed to start planting. As a result, the concession had been left uncultivated and abandoned for years.

“We are really grateful for the Sorong district head,” Felix Magalik, a Segun village elder, says. “I really support the district head’s [decision] because that’s what’s right for the future of our children and grandchildren.”

Yet despite the permit revocation, the villagers’ rights to their ancestral forests still hasn’t been officially recognized by the government. In fact, no ancestral forests in the region have been recognized as such by the national government, and the process to gain this legal recognition is usually a costly and time-consuming one.

The Segun villagers are now asking the government to grant them legal recognition to their land rights to prevent their areas from being given away to other companies in the future.

“We, the Indigenous elders in Segun, don’t approve of palm oil companies,” Felix says. “We don’t want our forests to be bald. Where would our children and grandchildren eat [if the forests are gone]?”

West Papua is home to some of the richest swaths of forest remaining in Indonesia, and Indigenous communities like the one in Segun rely on the forests for their livelihoods.

Samuel Ketumlas, the Segun village secretary, says the forests provide everything the villagers need.

“Since we were young, we have lived from nothing but the trees,” he says. “We think ahead by looking back at the lives of our elders. People who live from the forests — they will not live a hard life.”

Felix Magalik (left), a Segun village elder, and Perminas Hay (right), the current village chief, speak at the latter’s house in West Papua, Indonesia. Image by Hans Nicholas Jong/Mongabay.

Enter palm oil

In 2006, the Segun villagers were approached in by businesspeople and politicians who had plans to raze the village’s ancestral forests for oil palm plantations. Some of the villagers welcomed the plan after SAS promised them better livelihoods, infrastructure and money, according to Perminas Hay, the current village chief.

The company gave each of the five clans in the village 10 million rupiah ($700), he says.

Then, in 2007, a local lawmaker invited two villagers, Saung Salagilik and Josias Ketumlas, on a trip to visit oil palm plantations in Kalimantan, the Indonesian portion of the island of Borneo, Perminas says.

“Once there, the native people in Kalimantan told Saung, ‘If you return to Papua, don’t accept the company. If you do that, you’ll end up suffering like us. You’ll end up with nothing,’” Permias tells Mongabay during a visit to his house.

Once Saung returned to his village, he spread the word of caution to his neighbors. In the end, the villagers rejected the palm oil company’s offer. At the same time, however, other villages in the region, like Waimon and Gisim, were signing agreements with other palm oil companies.

The Segun villagers held their ground. Yet despite this opposition, SAS managed to obtain licenses from the government to convert the community’s forests for oil palm plantations.

The villagers were left in the dark.

“We already rejected [the company]. We didn’t know how they got in,” says Ishak Mili, the cultural leader in Segun.

Segun village in West Papua, Indonesia. Image by Hans Nicholas Jong/Mongabay.

Rights recognition

Following the latest developments, the local government has taken over SAS’s concession and is preparing the next steps to ensure that the villagers’ rights to their ancestral lands are legally recognized by the national government.

“After [the permits are] revoked, our journey is not over yet,” says Benidiktus Hery Wijayanto, head of the West Papua provincial agriculture department. “There are more processes to make sure that these areas are returned to their customary owners because de facto, even de jure, there’s not a single centimeter of land in Papua and West Papua provinces that doesn’t have owners.”

The first step toward the recognition of the ancestral lands is mapping the Indigenous territories.

“Actually the key is in the mapping process of customary lands,” Benidiktus says. “If that process is completed, it’ll be the basis [for recognition of customary lands].”

But he adds it’s a big challenge.

“In my opinion, this task is quite heavy because [we have to] map vast territories,” Benidiktus says. “We all know that in one region there can be a number of clans.”

Sorong district head Johny says his government began mapping Indigenous territories in 2018, following the issuance of a local regulation in 2017 that serves as the basis for acknowledging Indigenous rights.

He says his government will continue to facilitate the mapping by working with the LMA, the umbrella organization for Indigenous communities in Sorong.

Once the maps of the Indigenous territories have been drawn up, the local government can issue an executive decree formally recognizing the Indigenous status of the community.

This decree and the maps will then be submitted to the Ministry of Environment and Forestry, which in turn will issue its own decree recognizing the rights of the Indigenous community to their forests under the customary forest scheme.

That will mean the state would finally relinquish control over the forests to the Indigenous community.

Every step of this process is long, arduous, and expensive. Nationwide, the ministry has granted titles to just 80 communities for a total of 59,442 hectares (146,900 acres) of land under the customary scheme as of July this year — far short of the 10.56 million hectares (26 million acres) of customary forests that have been independently mapped by 833 Indigenous communities across Indonesia. Those maps were submitted to the ministry in 2019.

There have been no customary forest titles granted in the provinces of West Papua and Papua, despite Indigenous communities across the region having mapped their territories.

Sorong district head Johny Kamuru. Image by Hans Nicholas Jong/Mongabay.

Special autonomy

Since the Sorong government facilitated the recognition of Indigenous peoples’ rights to their customary forests through the issuance of the executive decree in 2017, the ball is now in the court of the national government, according to Suroso, an adviser to the Sorong district head.

Indigenous communities in the Malaumkarta Raya area of Sorong have already mapped out their territory and applied to the environment ministry for title to more than 12,000 hectares (29,600 acres) of customary forests, Suroso says. They’re still waiting for their application to be verified by the ministry.

“But to date, no verification team [has been sent by the ministry] to declare the customary forests,” Suroso says. “The determination of customary forests still falls under the authority of [the national government in] Jakarta as stipulated in a regulation issued by the environment ministry. Local governments have no rights [to declare customary forests].”

Suroro says the special autonomy granted to West Papua and Papua provinces should allow local governments here to declare customary forests for their Indigenous communities. But it’s overridden by the regulation issued by the environment ministry.

District head Johny says the special autonomy should be followed up with an implementing regulation that grants local governments in West Papua and Papua the authority to declare customary forests.

“The special autonomy law shouldn’t be seen only as a law that facilitates the disbursement of money [from the national government to local governments],” he says, adding it “will become a ticking time bomb” if it fails to protect Indigenous peoples in these provinces. “And at some point, it will explode.”

For now, a special committee in the West Papua provincial legislature is tasked with drafting the implementing regulations for the special autonomy law.

“Please communicate [this issue] to the committee, so that it comes to their attention and [the authority to declare customary forests] is included in the draft of the implementing regulation,” Johny says. “That’s what’s most important if we want to protect and keep customary forests in Papua.”

And protecting customary forests in the region means ensuring the future of the Indigenous peoples there, for whom the forests are an integral part of their lives, according to Paulus Safisa, the chief of the Indigenous Moi peoples under the LMA in Sorong.

“Our friends in Java can cultivate rice. But we in Papua, we depend on our forests,” he says. “For the Moi Indigenous people, forests are like their birth mother who breastfeeds them every day. Or like their backbone. If it’s broken, we can’t walk and live. It’s the same as death.”


Editor’s note: The reporter traveled to West Papua as a guest of the EcoNusa Foundation, which advocates for sustainable resource management. EcoNusa does not have any editorial influence on this or any other story Mongabay produces.


Banner image: Mangrove forests around the Segun village in West Papua, Indonesia. Image by Hans Nicholas Jong/Mongabay.


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