Dressed in a red batik shirt and carrying a symbolic long wooden dagger, Dayak tribal leader Lewis K.D.R. prepares for a sacred ritual performed for centuries to tell the forest spirits that villagers want to use the land to build houses, farm, and to start planting.
A priest, sitting on a tree stump next to Lewis, chants prayers and mantras and scatters rice to the ground. Farmers and other villagers run over and bend down so a few of the grains can land on their heads — a traditional blessing to ward off dangers and bad omens.
“We will never destroy the environment, because this is where we live and survive,” Lewis said, explaining that the rice represents the presence of humans and is used to communicate to those the naked eye can’t see.
“We want to preserve it so we can hand it down to the next generation.”
Indonesia is one of the most heavily forested countries in the world, but trees are being cut down at an alarming rate for logging and mining and to make way for pulp, paper and, palm oil plantations.
Many concessions have been awarded on land and in forests where Dayaks and other Indigenous peoples have lived for generations, sometimes sparking bloody conflicts — a problem exacerbated because no comprehensive maps outlining customary lands exist.
That’s starting to change, thanks in part to Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD+), a UN-backed scheme aimed at slowing climate change.
Armed with mapping tools, GPS equipment and compasses, indigenous groups have got a big boost on funding and technical support from REDD+ on work that started 15 years ago to reach an agreement on customary land borders.
“Today, everywhere across Indonesia, there are tremendous overlapping claims over land,” said Abdon Nababan, Secretary General of the Indigenous Peoples Alliance of the Archipelago (AMAN), noting that the troubles started nearly four decades ago with the passage of the Forestry Law, when the government started claiming huge swathes of land and converting them for timber concessions.
“If by chance oil and gas are discovered on the Indigenous lands, then mining permits are issued.”
The idea behind REDD+ is simple: Offer financial incentives to countries that sequester carbon or avoid deforestation, compensate them for lost opportunities, and suspend payments if they don’t follow through on their promises.
But while numerous initiatives have started in Indonesia, some in Dayak lands, success hinges in part on how the customary land rights issue is settled.
“How will we determine who has the rights to the carbon in the forest?” asked Daju Resosudarmo, scientist with the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR), whose work on REDD+ has recently also been published in the book Analysing REDD+.
“Who is going to get the financial benefits from trading carbon?” she asked, noting that with no regulations in place on carbon tenure the question of who has the rights to the land is key. Subsequently, “who is going to be liable if Indonesia’s carbon emissions reduction is not fulfilled?”
Indigenous communities under AMAN are covering the bulk of the mapping-project costs, and facilitators have provided them with the equipment and the necessary training.
The hope is that these maps will eventually be integrated into the REDD+ One Map Initiative (OMI) – a single, all-encompassing map of Indonesia that aims to contain all relevant information linked to forest licensing and land use claims.
“The process of having this map is to [invite] public participation .. so they can make corrections, adjustments, changes and reviews,” said Kuntoro Mangkusubroto, Chairman of Indonesia’s REDD+ Taskforce, adding that these joint-efforts increase the likelihood of fair and accurate borders.
It is Nababan’s hope that, by the end of the year, at least 5 million hectares of indigenous lands will be mapped.