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Tanjung Gusta – Indigenous communities in Indonesia on Friday urged President Joko Widodo to grant them greater rights to forest management, saying they are the best protectors of forests.
The call was made at the Archipelago Indigenous Peoples Congress attended by hundreds of representatives from dozens of Indonesia’s indigenous communities at Tanjung Gusta in North Sumatra province.
“We’ll fight for our rights to the last drop of our blood,” said the secretary general of the Archipelago Indigenous Peoples Alliance (AMAN), Abdon Nababan, to the cheers of those attending.
“We’ve been engaging in dialogue with little result, but we still believe Mr Jokowi will make good on his promises, at least for now,” he said, using the president’s popular nickname.
Joko cancelled his scheduled attendance at the congress and instead sent Minister of the Environment and Forestry Siti Nurbaya Bakar.
AMAN says more than 8.2 million hectares of forest belongs to the nation’s myriad indigenous groups, but Joko’s government has so far only granted a total of 13,122 hectares to nine customary communities.
Bakar said the government was in the process of verifying other claims.
“There should be no doubt that the government is taking real action with respect to this important subject,” she said.
“This government is a government that is providing solutions and can be trusted to support the struggle of indigenous peoples.”
Studies to be presented at the World Bank’s 18th Annual Land and Poverty Conference in Washington next week confirm indigenous leaders’ claims that local communities are best-equipped to protect forests around the globe, the indigenous congress’ organizers said.
One study suggests that carbon-rich peatlands that have been ravaged by annual forest fires in Indonesia could be saved if the government gives greater forest rights to local communities.
“The findings suggest that granting communal land rights to indigenous inhabitants of tropical forests is among the most underused and effective solutions to combating violence, poverty and the illegal deforestation that fuels climate change,” they said in a statement.
Environmental activists said they would wait for a year at the minimum to see whether a fatwa or edict issued by the Indonesian Ulemma Council (MUI), which says it is haram or forbidden in Islam to deliberately set fires in a forest and to not act to prevent forest-burning, would work to curb the annual forest burning.
“I think it would take at least two years to see whether this edict would work in preventing forest burning,” said Henri Subagio, the executive director of the Indonesian Center for Environmental Law.
Greenpeace Indonesia forest campaigner, Yuyun Indardi estimated it would be at least a year to determine if the moral weight that the fatwa carries could be effective to curb people from setting forests on fire.
The six-point fatwa, issued on Sep 13, says land clearing to grow crops by burning a forest, which causes environmental devastation, losses to others, had a negative impact on health and other adverse impacts is a sin.
Other points in the fatwa say facilitating, allowing, ignoring or taking benefits from forest burning are also forbidden and that it is obligatory for Muslims to take part in preventing and controlling forest burning.
“The MUI issued the fatwa after a lengthy deliberation process, which involved research, hearings with forestry and environmental experts and field studies to collect inputs from locals to see the impact of forest fires,” said Arwani Faisal, a member of MUI’s fatwa commission.
Novrizal, a spokesman for the Forestry and Environmental Ministry said the ministry hopes the fatwa could serve as a “soft power” in the government’s efforts to curb forest burning that has been taking place annually since late 1990s, in addition to positive law enforcement.
The worst forest fire so far was last year when choking haze blanketed Singapore and parts of Malaysia and Thailand. Data from the National Disaster Mitigation Agency showed the fires cost the country 20 trillion rupiah in material losses, caused 24 deaths and led to millions of others suffering various degree of respiratory illnesses.
Khusna Amal, an Islamic scholar at State Islamic Institute Jember in East Java, said a fatwa holds a considerable authority as a moral law that Islamic clerics produce.
But whether the authority would be held in high regards enough to prevent people from burning the forests would depend on the Muslim society’s emotional attachment to the clerics.
“Traditionalist Muslims may not see the clerical body with close, emotional attachment since it is an official body founded by the government, so they may not take the fatwa seriously,” Khusna said, adding it would be more effective if it were clerics with cultural, personal and emotional attachment to people at the grassroot level who issued the fatwa.
“In addition, grassroot Muslims are very fragmented and they may have different level of compliance and points of view about a fatwa,” he said.
However, Khusna commended MUI for issuing a fatwa that draws attention to a dire ecological and environmental issue that continues to plague the country.
“Basically every Muslim knows that it is a sin to destroy the environment but this fatwa could exert moral pressures to that view, with more substantive arguments about the importance to protect the environment,” he said.
Henri also praised the MUI for issuing the fatwa, saying that despite doubts on the fatwa’s effectiveness, it signifies that Muslims in the country in general support the prevention of forest burning and it is a step that other religious societies in the country could emulate.
“In the context of campaigning, the fatwa could help,” Yuyun of Greenpeace Indonesia said.
MUI’s Arwani said the clerical body has plans to disseminate the fatwa through sermons and other religious outreach activities at the grassroots level in various regions, especially in areas where forest fires often originated.
“We hope the fatwa will be effective, complementary to the existing positive law. We want Muslims not to burn forests, despite whatever reasons they may have and we want them also to actively take part on preventing the fires, not just in extinguishing the fires,” Arwani said.
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Five orangutans have now returned to living in their natural habitat in an East Kalimantan forest after spending up to six years in rehabilitation.
“The five orangutans have been successfully released back into the forest on Saturday morning,” Paulina Laurensia, a spokeswoman for a conservation and rescue agency for the endangered species, Borneo Orangutan Survival Foundation (BOS Foundation) told The Parrot.
The three males and two females, named Angely, Gadis, Kenji, Hope and Raymond, were transported overland from Samboja Lestari rehabilitation center near Balikpapan to Kehje Sewen forest in East Kutai and Kutai Kertanegara regencies.
Kehje Wehen means ‘orangutan’ in the dialect of Dayak Wehea, the indigenous tribe who live in the East Kalimantan forest.
According to BOS Foundation, Kehje Sewen is a 86,450-hectare rainforest that managed as an ecosystem restoration concession. The foundation bought the forest in 2010 so they can have a place to release rehabilitated orangutans back into their natural habitat.
The rehabilitation center team and the orangutans departed Friday from Samboja and traveled for about 12 hours to Muara Wahau, a sub-district in East Kalimantan with regular stops in every two hours to check on the big apes’ conditions. They then took another five-hour trip to the edge of the forest and continued the journey by boat across the river to reach the release points in the forest.
Agus Irwanto, a veterinarian at the Samboja Lestari said in a press release that they hope the released orangutans could generate a new wild population, as they joined the other 40 previously released orangutans in the forest that were released between 2012 – 2015.
The rehabilitation program was in doubt last year when more than 150 hectares of forest surrounding Samboja Lestari was destroyed by fire as they would not be able to find a place that can accommodate the center’s 200 orangutans, should they need to be evacuated, said Jamartin Sihite, CEO of the BOS Foundation.
“We need participation from everyone to make sure this will not happen again. The East Kalimantan Natural Resources Conservation Agency (BKSDA) and other authorities have been generously supporting our efforts, nevertheless we still need much firmer law enforcement to help protect orangutans and their habitat in East Kalimantan,” Jamartin said.