Sustaining Customary Forests: A Story of Change in Indonesia

Kulbir Mehta, Solidaridad’s Indonesia Country Manager outlines why local communities should be recognised as the lawful custodian of forests. He argues that local wisdom is key to protecting and sustaining the environment and hopes that going forward, international standards will incorporate local wisdom in their approach.

In December 2016, the President of the Republic of Indonesia, Joko Widodo, signed a decree which acknowledged nine indigenous communities’ rights to customary forests and at the start of 2017, more than 13,000 hectares of land was handed over. 

This decree certified that local communities can be officially recognised as the lawful custodian and guardian of customary forests. Prior to this, a customary forest was defined as “a state-owned forest located within the area belonging to a customary lawful community.” With this revision, the term “state-owned” was removed.


The Seringin Forest is located in the Sepauk area in the Sintang district of Indonesia. Since 1997, the people of this village have been mapping this forest. This had been supported by Keling Kumang Group and Solidaridad Network, as well as the the David and Lucile Packard Foundation.

The Headman of the Sepulut Village, Samuel, explains that while it wasn’t simple, after one year the Seringin Forest was recognised as an official customary forest of the Sepulut people. Samuel thanked Keling Kumang Group and Solidaridad who actively facilitated the mapping. He said:

The group also facilitated us to produce a Village Decree on Customary Forest. We were provided with experts on mapping satellite data and even drones until finally, we could officially declare Seringin forest as the customary forest of Sepulut village.

Before receiving this status, wood was often stolen and land was taken over for personal cropping. Samel explains that the original size of forest was two or three times larger and that “reckless behaviour has reduced the size of the forest significantly.” However, despite this encroachment, he said the new official recognition provided by President Widodo decree is good news.

Even though it is not like the way it used to be, we are grateful, because we still have some areas that can be preserved.

This decree has made it easy for local people to take legal action if any theft occurs within the forest. Unlike before, Samuel explain “now the village people only allow themselves to take rattan, vegetables, maram and other vegetation for their daily needs.”

Recognition of the Seringin Forest as a customary forest has provided certainty, especially on the legal status of the area says Musandy, the Headman of Dusun Tanah Putih. He believes the forest plays the role of a livelihood provider and an irreplaceable water reservation area. Dusun hopes that in the future, the people of Sepulut village will be involved in managing natural resources and believes this will provide economic sustainability for the local people without harming the environment.

To date, about 500 hectares of the Seringin Forest is at an advanced stage of conversion and protection. To further enhance this, Solidaridad and Keling Kumang Group have engaged in a replanting programme and provided seedlings of Jengkol for Dusun Junjung Tani area, sugar palm for Dusun Tanah Putih, petai for Dusun Mengkurai and seedlings of areca nut for Dusun Seringin. This replanting programme has been implemented to further conserve and protect the environment.

With the issuance of this decree, the role of indigenous communities will become more strategic in determining the fate of their forests. Going forward, we believe it would be good if international standards incorporate local wisdom in their approach. Only by joining forces, can we all be responsible agents of change and partners in sustainable development. As Mahatma Gandhi once said: 

What we are doing to the forests of the world is but a mirror reflection of what we are doing to ourselves and to one another.

Learn more about Solidaridad programmes in South & South-East Asia.