Indonesian communities coping with crisis depend on forests

An Indonesian Woman searches through debris in the rain, where her house once stood. Photo courtesy of U.S. Navy by Photographer's Mate Airman Jordon R. Beesley/flickr.

BOGOR, Indonesia (29 February, 2012)_Six years ago, hundreds of homes and rice fields in a number of small villages in East Kalimantan were hit by a devastating flood and buried under two meters of water. While no lives were lost, large amounts of property were destroyed — including houses, school buildings, livestock and rice stores – leaving the self-reliant villagers struggling to cope.

Destruction wrought by the natural disaster meant that many villagers turned to their surrounding forest as a source of food, goods and marketable products, which could then be sold for cash to buy food or replace items lost in the flood.

“Some experts have tried to down play the role of forests as a lifeline to communities after disasters but this study clearly shows that importance of this relationship and the mistake that can be made if it is neglected,” said Nining Liswanti, CIFOR researcher and lead author of Falling back on forests: how forest-dwelling people cope with catastrophe in a changing landscape.

“If you take the forest away they [villagers] will be more desperate. It is a moral imperative that we better recognise this support and safety role,” agreed Douglas Sheil, CIFOR Senior Associate and co-author of the study.

“Disasters” has been highlighted as one of the critical issues for new sustainable development goals that will be released during the upcoming Rio+20 conference. Environmental degradation and climate change contribute to the increasing occurrence of disasters linked to natural hazards. No country is immune, however the ability of people and places to withstand impacts following disasters, recover quickly and remain resilient is closely related to social and economic development.

“We hope that all those who attend the Rio meeting will be aware of the role that forests play in allowing communities to withstand crises such as floods. This is simply one more reason to see how the future of these forests and local people are intertwined and how local people must be given a key role in guiding this future,” Sheil said.

The study surveyed 42 locally-affected households, and showed that the most vulnerable relied heavily on being able to access forest resources to feed themselves and make money during emergency situations.

However some villagers interviewed as part of the study – which focused on the Punan and Merap ethnic groups – said they were finding it increasingly difficult to access nearby forest resources in their daily lives.

Recently the Indonesian government has sought to resettle more remote communities closer to schools and clinics. At the same time, the expansion of businesses, such as palm oil, timber and mining, has cut off access to land and further degraded forests. As villagers become increasingly excluded from forests, they also risk not being able to cope with the aftermath of natural disasters if, and when, they occur.

The study advocates that the link between people and forests should be considered by district governments when developing disaster management strategies.

Such vital and fragile lifelines need to be formally “recognised and considered,” Sheil said.

One potential solution, Liswanti said, is to boost long-term local access to and the sustainability of forests through the creation of community forests. By allowing villagers to manage forests sustainably and in a way that supports their livelihoods this could help ease current constraints on access to and use of forest resources.

“Communities should be granted continued access to the forest, particularly in times of crisis,” Liswanti argued.

Other possibilities include protecting forests in the vicinity of villages, revising regulations governing the harvesting of timber species (such as better protection of resources like sago), protecting key resources and providing employment.

“The factors that would serve to maintain the ecological and conservation value of these forests – environmental planning, reduced impact harvest, etc. – are the same as those that would maintain the forest’s security function,” the study said.

With some villagers reluctant to relocate away from potential flood zones and vulnerable to droughts and crop pests, it is even more important that forests, and their various goods and services, are maintained as a safety net.

“Finding suitable locations with both water and access to facilities proved difficult,” the authors said. “As a consequence the community still remains vulnerable to future floods.”

This new publication is part of CIFOR’s research program on Forests and Environment and was sponsored by the European Commission.

To ensure that  Rio+20 deliver a global message that forests matter to sustainable development, CIFOR will coordinate one of the most important conferences on forests on 19 June, 2012. Forests: The 8th Roundtable at Rio+20 will discuss new research findings, remaining knowledge gaps and policy implications for integrating forests into the solutions to four key challenges to progress toward a green economy: energy, food and incomewater, and climate. Seats are limited so register here to avoid disappointment!