Recognising Indonesia’s customary territories: A call for greater commitment

by Nabiha Shahab

As of March 2024, the Indigenous Territory Registration Agency or Badan Registrasi Wilayah Adat (BRWA) has registered 1,425 customary territories covering 28.2 million hectares in Indonesia. The total area of customary territories recognised by local governments reached 240 customary territories with an area of 3.9 million hectares. This is only 13.8 per cent of the total customary territories registered at BRWA.

As Indonesia strides on the environmental stage, recognising and managing indigenous territories remains a critical yet under-addressed issue. This slow pace of recognition is particularly concerning given their significant potential in forest conservation and climate mitigation.

In 2012, the Constitutional Court decided that forests in indigenous territories should be acknowledged as such and are no longer registered under State Forests (Decision No. 35/PUU-X/2012). However, the Ministry of Environment and Forestry (KLHK) has only designated 244,195 hectares in 131 indigenous territories, a far cry from the millions of hectares registered by BRWA.

The current efforts fall short of meeting the urgent needs of indigenous communities and the environmental imperatives these forests represent. Indigenous territories are not merely parcels of land; they are the lifeblood of the communities that have stewarded them for generations, often showcasing more effective conservation practices than externally imposed methods.

The convening of the 19th United Nations Forum on Forests (UNFF) session in New York this week underscores the global imperative to bolster forest management. This year’s session themes resonate deeply with Indonesia’s challenges and opportunities, notably enhancing forest-based socio-economic, social, and environmental benefits and significantly increasing protected forest areas.

Indonesia must leverage this global platform to secure the technical and financial resources necessary for scaling up the recognition and protection of customary territories. The disparity between registered territories and those recognized formally reveals a gap in political commitment and resource allocation.

Indonesia’s path forward requires a multifaceted approach. Enhancing collaboration between governmental bodies, indigenous communities, and environmental organisations is crucial. The government must streamline and expedite the recognition process and ensure that these areas are managed to respect indigenous knowledge and promote biodiversity conservation.

Moreover, through forums like the UNFF, the international community should continue to support Indonesia in these endeavours, providing guidance and the necessary resources to implement sustainable practices effectively. This support is essential for Indonesia to meet its commitments under the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, particularly in conserving and sustainably managing its forests.

As the world looks to forests as a solution to climate change and biodiversity loss, acknowledging and empowering the traditional custodians of these forests is not just beneficial—it’s imperative. Indonesia’s recognition of its customary territories is not merely a local issue but a global one, reflecting our collective responsibility to foster a sustainable and equitable environmental future.

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