Aceh’s Grassroots Resurgence

In Focus, September 2006

By Ben Jolliffe

The pressures on Aceh’s remaining lowland forests have never been more intense.

Timber demand for post-tsunami reconstruction is high, while the 2005 ceasefire between the Indonesian government and separatist rebels in the Sumatran province is making it easier for illegal loggers to access some remote forest areas as the threat of violence recedes.

Furthermore, in May 2006, new logging permits were issued for the first time since 2001.

Yet at the grassroots level, communities bound together by Islamic traditions and strengthened by increasing political decentralization are breathing new life into old ways of protecting the forests that sustain them in this remote region of the Sundaland biodiversity hotspot.

Resurrecting Traditional Land Tenure

In the rural community of Lampanah, about two hours south of the provincial capital of Banda Aceh, local nongovernmental organization (NGO) Yayasan Rumpun Bambu Indonesia (YRBI) is piloting a sustainable forest management system using traditional practices of land tenure.

The scheme targets nearly 12,000 hectares of communally owned lowland forest that is also home to the Critically Endangered Sumatran tiger (Panthera tigris sumatrae) and the Vulnerable sandalwood tree (Santalum album).

The project is supported by the Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund (CEPF) under its strategic direction of empowering civil society to organize in favor of conserving biodiversity in the hotspot.

YRBI started work in 2003 when the Indonesian government introduced new legislation returning limited authority over historically communal land to traditional institutions at the community or “mukim” level – the traditional Muslim administrative unit in Indonesia.

“But it’s a big change for people to understand,” YRBI Executive Director Sanusi Syarif says. “It took over a year to persuade villagers they have the rights and authority to manage their own resources.”

Community Managed Natural Resources

Before the colonial period, a proportion of land in rural areas was held communally. The whole community would decide on appropriate regulations for managing it as part of a wider system of law based on Muslim teaching known as “adat.”

In Lampanah, YRBI’s first task was to work with local people to develop new maps detailing this communal land as well as accurate mukim boundaries that could then be used to verify existing government maps.

Adat leaders, who are elected community representatives, then worked with YRBI to hold consultations with villagers to draw up regulations that address not only forest management issues but also other natural resource concerns such as water access, grazing, and fishing rights. They also extend to issues such as education and marriage and the boundaries of sacred lands.

“We needed the full participation from everyone in the five villages in Lampanah mukim,” Muhamad Irwan, program officer at YRBI, said. “But CEPF funds enabled us to attend training on mapping, documentation processes, and facilitating community discussions which made the task much easier.”

In spite of the 2004 tsunami tragedy, which took more than 110,000 lives in the region and left over 500,000 homeless, the community agreed on the regulations – and the penalties for breaking them – in June 2005.

“Mercifully none of the villages here were hit [by the tsunami],” Irwan said. “So we have been able to continue our work and share the pilot scheme with the neighboring mukims of Lam Teuba and Lam Kabeu.”

Scaling Up Across the District

Irwan said that YRBI still plans to expand their work to include a further 15,000 hectares of forest, but the process has taken longer than expected, especially due to the remote location of, and ongoing conflict in, some of the areas.

YRBI has also been encouraging community leaders from five more mukim in the Aceh Besar district to develop similar regulations.

Furthermore, the NGO has been working with government officials in partnership with representatives from WWF-Indonesia and Jaringan Kerja Maysarakat Adat, a local indigenous peoples network, to draft regulations that would be acceptable at the provincial level and would expand the amount of land under adat law in the district to 250,000 hectares.

The provincial government and Indonesia’s Ministry of Forestry have expressed interest in these regulations, but slow progress in their discussions on the post-ceasefire legislative framework for the province has stalled the process.

Without integration into provincial law, however, adat regulations can only achieve so much, as became clear in December 2005 when two illegal loggers and a driver were arrested in Lampanah.

“The men were brought to the main mosque and questioned by the mukim head,” Irwan said. “He discovered the men were from Lam Teuba, but although they imposed a fine and confiscated the lumber, they could not prosecute them further.”

Seeing the Benefits of Conservation

Even with these challenges, YRBI has brought other benefits to the area by helping to establish an agroforestry business which so far employs around 50 people on 20 hectares. The business provides some income but, perhaps more importantly, villagers can also see the benefits of using their resources sustainably.

“Even if the future is uncertain politically, we can see why conservation is important,” says Pak Idham, who works as a farmer, teacher, and fisherman in Lampanah. “Our springs and rivers will continue to have water and, under adat law, we can still hunt for deer in the forest and collect honey and rattan.”

For more information, contact , executive director, YRBI.

Read more about YRBI’s work in Aceh in the aftermath of the 2004 tsunami.