Recognising community rights in ‘political forests’

Indonesia‘s courts recently recognised community forests (or customary ‘adat‘ forests) as distinct from state forests (i.e., government land). This is a landmark decision, as shown in an excellent analysis by Elizabeth Kahurani [1].  It overturns a presumption that the state is first and foremost the guardian and manager of forests, and vests more rights in local communities.  In the context of south-east Asia, where states have a poor history of protecting forests (especially in ways that respect local indigenous people), this is an important victory. In contrast, here in Fiji and in much of the rest of the Pacific, the situation is quite different:  most land (and hence forest) is ‘native land’ and belongs to traditional village structures.  Revenue from logging goes to the iTaukei land board and the villages (the forest service just overseas licences), also two state owned companies grow pine and mahogany on leased native and crown land [2]. In Madagascar, the situation is different again.  The presumption of unoccupied land (hence, forests) as state domain comes first, and most significant areas of forestland have been demarcated as parks, reserves, or classified forests.  Since the mid-1990s, neighbouring communities may gain use and management rights to some forest areas, but the forest is still fundamentally the state’s [3]. Rural social movements are much weaker than in Indonesia, and the conservation lobby (which usually tends to favour state control) is stronger, in relative terms.

Indonesia’s decision can be read through the Nancy Peluso and Peter Vandergeest’s ideas about “political forests”.  Their article in Journal of Asian Studies [4] traces the history of the idea of state forests, and how it was constituted dialectically with customary rights:

“The idea of state territorial sovereignty over a category of land cover called ‘forests’ emerged in Southeast Asia in the nineteenth century…. the idea of state forests not only revolutionized people’s lives and livelihoods but created new, almost inescapable means of imagining land, resources, and people…..  At the basis of this transformation is a particular discourse of state property that takes a unique form in ‘political forests,’ that is to say, lands states declare as forests…. “ (p. 762)

“Two crucial legal inventions were common to all the areas we studied and must be attributed to these colonial forest practices.  They also need to be understood as mutually constituitive.  The first is the political forest.  ‘Forest land’ became that land that was either demarcated by the state for permanent reservation or that land that was claimed by the state.  Not all forest cover was included in the area allocated for state forestry, nor was all state forest land actually forested.  The second critical legacy of this era is the creation of a legal category of Customary Rights, which in many cases led toa racialization of the landscape.”  (p. 801)

“Political forests are a critical part of colonial-era state-making both in terms of the territorialization and legal framing of forests and the institutionalization of forest management as a technology of state power….  ‘Forests’ were normalized as categories of both nature and state power by the end of the late colonial period.  As a result, the very basis – the possible starting point – of debates about land use and customary practice was transformed and constrained…(p. 762 & 766)

“Customary Rights can be seen as a panoply of exceptions to the whole repertoire of customary practices that existed before legislation of the political forest by colonial governments.  By reducing customary practices to circumscribed – and often individualized – sets of Customary Rights, foresters and other government authorities attempted to totalize control of resources and land.  By doing so, they produced ‘truths’ (and confusions) about political and biological forests and Customary Rights that have contined to hold sway into the present” (p. 802)

The decision of Indonesia’s courts maintains this colonial-era distinction between political forests and state-recognized customary rights, but does so in a way that has the potential to be empowering for local indigenous communities.  Have we come full circle?  No, it looks more like a spiral to me.  Furthermore, it brings up a crucial scale issue.   Who should have control over forests or other resources.  Nation states are meant to serve as impartial arbiters of the common good, aren’t they?  In the case of Indonesia, the track record isn’t great, hence the need for more local approaches.  But elsewhere, state control might be best.  It is a debate I frequently highlight in my class on resource management: is top-down or bottom-up better?  The answer:  it depends, on history, politics, social and ecology context, ideology.  In all cases, it will be negotiated in one way or another.  What we’ve seen in Indonesia is an example of that negotiation – a long standing process – and what appears to be a good outcome.


[1]  Elizabeth Kahurani, Indonesia upholds Indigenous People’s Rights to Forest (see also this blog).

[2] Sue, D (2010) Facilitating financing for Sustainable Forest Management in Small Islands Developing States and Low Forest Cover Countries: country case study Fiji.  Helsinki: Indufor for the United Nations Forum on Forests.

[3]  Kull, CA (2002) Empowering pyromaniacs in Madagascar:  ideology and legitimacy in community-based resource management. Development and Change 33 (1):57-78 link; Dressler, WH, B Büscher, M Schoon, D Brockington, T Hayes, CA Kull, J McCarthy & K Shrestha (2010) From hope to crisis and back again? A critical history of the global CBNRM narrative. Environmental Conservation 37 (1):5-15. link pdf

[4]  Peluso, NL & P Vandergeest (2001) Genealogies of the political forest and customary rights in Indonesia, Malaysia, and Thailand. The Journal of Asian Studies 60 (3):761-812. pdf


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