By Alisa Tang
BANGKOK (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Indonesia's decision to return customary lands to indigenous peoples is a breakthrough for their rights and a boost to campaigners pushing for a slowdown in deforestation in the Southeast Asian country, a leading rights activist said.
President Joko Widodo announced on Dec. 30 that Indonesia would return 13,000 hectares of customary lands to nine indigenous communities, and committed to giving back a total of 12.7 million hectares to local and indigenous groups.
Veteran indigenous rights campaigner Abdon Nababan, who attended the announcement at the presidential palace, said it was an encouraging sign for the traditional custodians of Indonesia's forests.
"In our constitution, since (independence in) 1945, there has been strong recognition and respect for indigenous rights, but until the end of last year, there has been no real legal recognition," said Nababan, secretary general of the Indigenous Peoples Alliance of the Archipelago (AMAN).
"This is the first time," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by telephone from Jakarta.
Indonesia has been a focus of global efforts to rein in greenhouse gas emissions caused by widespread deforestation of swampy, carbon-rich peatlands to make way for plantations for industries such as palm oil, pulp and paper.
The deforested, drained peatlands are highly flammable, and smouldering peatland fires have caused choking haze across Southeast Asia in recent years.
These forests are often in remote areas long inhabited by indigenous peoples, who may not have the documents proving their land ownership or the ability to counter land acquisition by the government and corporations.
Most of the returned land is state forestland, Nababan said.
It includes a 5,000-hectare concession in North Sumatra province granted in 1992 to Indonesia-based pulp manufacturer Toba Pulp Lestari, company official Anwar Lawden said.
"With regards to the land claimed within our concession by several communities, we have been working with the Ministry of Forestry office for a long term solution," Lawden said in an emailed response to questions.
AMAN's Nababan, who began working on indigenous rights two decades ago, said the returned lands comprise a fraction of the 8.23 million hectares that some 700 indigenous communities have asked the government to return.
Government officials did not respond to requests for comment.
Granting customary lands would be the most cost effective solution to fighting climate change and securing sources of water and food, he added.
"If you recognize and protect indigenous peoples' rights, it's the cheapest way for the world to reduce emissions, to keep land productive, to produce food organically and also to keep hydrological systems working to provide water for people," he said.
Last year, research group, the World Resources Institute, released a study showing deforestation rates on land formally owned by indigenous groups were about 2.5 times lower than on other territories because indigenous peoples were more likely to conserve the forest than other users.
(Reporting by Alisa Tang @alisatang, editing by Katie Nguyen. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women’s rights, corruption and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org to see more stories)