An Indonesian farmer harvests paddy in Cianjur, West Java. Photo: AFP / Adek Berry

Marsudi has mixed feelings about the visit this month by Indonesian President Joko Widodo to his small village of Nganduk in East Java province. On the one hand, it was cause for celebration, as Jokowi handed out permits to the 58 members of Marsudi’s farmers’ association that would allow them to manage and protect a swath of nearby forest – part of the president’s flagship land-reform program.

On the other hand, the permits were only the first in a series of hurdles to overcome before the plan can become reality.

“Truthfully, I felt pessimistic right after the president’s visit,” Marsudi said. “Because usually when there’s a festive ceremony [like the visit], the impact only lasts for two or three months.”

Marsudi was among dozens of farmers from across Java who spoke at an event at the Ministry of Environment and Forestry in early November in honor of the permits they have received as part of Jokowi’s “social forestry” program. Under the program, indigenous and other rural communities will gain greater control over 127,000 square kilometers of land, nearly 15% of Indonesia’s total land area.

Marsudi and his fellow farmers received 35-year leases to manage idle or degraded forest land owned by state plantation company Perhutani, which controls 24,000 square kilometers of plantations throughout Java.

During the first week of November, Jokowi handed out permits to 5,915 farmers from 22 farmers’ associations in Java to manage a combined 95.5 square kilometers of Perhutani’s land. Under the program, the government plans to distribute management rights to 5,700 square kilometers of idle land to farmers in Java.

Farmers’ woes

Some farmers have raised doubts about the program’s sustainability, using the event at the ministry to air their concerns.

Among the biggest worries: difficulties in obtaining bank loans; a lack of detailed maps of how the land will be distributed; and unclear boundaries between land that can be managed by the farmers and land that is off-limits.

Sujoko, a farmer from Brani Wetan village in East Java, said bank loans were what his farmers’ association needed most to develop their land as timber plantations. He said he was worried that the state-owned Bank Negara Indonesia (BNI), appointed to distribute loans to the East Java farmers, would not approve the funding they needed, given that some of the farmers already had loans from other banks, and there was no guarantee that BNI would approve of how they had mapped out their area. BNI had not given a response at time of press.

‘We’re pessimistic that we can minimize these illegal activities because they’re related to people’s livelihoods’

Other farmers haven’t drawn up the detailed maps needed to apply for a bank loan, given the lack of clarity over the boundaries.

“We are confused about the border between the social forestry land and the Perhutani land,” said Rahmat, from the Rimba Agro Abadi farmers’ association in Pemalang, Central Java.

Yet others have not received permits under the social forestry program. Only 403 of the more than 670 corn farmers from the Wono Lestari association in Boyolali, Central Java, have received permits from Jokowi, said group member Jundy Wasonohadi.

“What about our friends who are left behind and not yet verified?” he said.

Marsudi, the farmer from Nganduk, said he was worried that illegal activities by some in the community might threaten the sustainability of the program. He said his farmers’ association had been fighting illegal logging, firewood collection, burning and poaching on the part of villagers, and had photographs purporting to show these illicit activities, including one of an old woman carrying firewood.

“We’re pessimistic that we can minimize these illegal activities because they’re related to people’s livelihoods,” Marsudi said. “When it comes to livelihoods, who can prevent them [from doing it]?”

Government’s response

Environment and Forestry Minister Siti Nurbaya Bakar said she was well aware that problems would arise in the implementation of the social forestry program because of complexities on the ground.

“We’re not dealing with vacant land, but with complex areas,” she told reporters on the sidelines of the event. She added that her office would address the farmers’ concerns in the coming weeks by helping them with mapmaking and planning.

Bambang Supriyanto, the ministry’s director general for social forestry and environmental partnerships, said his team would immediately map out the farmers’ areas and validate existing maps using the Global Positioning System (GPS).

These maps will then be distributed to each farmers’ associations, “so the farmers will be the ones who determine how much land each farmer will get,” Bambang said during the event. “This is important to get bank loans.”

The maps will also be used to make agricultural plans, such as what kind of crops the farmers will cultivate.

“After these plans are made, we’d like for the program to be sustainable,” Bambang said. “We’d like to empower the farmers’ groups with the hope that they can be independent.”

‘Those who take firewood are often branded as criminals because they’re taking advantage of wood from Perhutani’s land. I don’t want these people to be criminalized. These people are the ones who should manage social forestry’

Noer Fauzi Rachman from the office of the president’s chief of staff, which is tasked with monitoring ministries and their coordination, said he hoped the social forestry program would lead to a change in mindset regarding the use and exploitation of forest resources.

He cited the case of an old woman photographed carrying firewood, noting the stigma attached to low-income people who depend on natural resources.

“Those who take firewood are often branded as criminals because they’re taking advantage of wood from Perhutani’s land,” Noer said. “I don’t want these people to be criminalized. These people are the ones who should manage social forestry.”

He said the program should be inclusive, by allowing villagers to participate in the initiative or join a farmers’ association.

Marsudi agreed that more villagers should be included in the program. “I have a plan to recruit those who collect firewood to become members of my group,” he said. “I’ll invite them to plant corn and cassava.”

This article was originally published at Mongabay.

Read it here: As Indonesia pushes flagship land reform program, farmers remain wary