Can Jokowi tame Indonesia’s Forestry Ministry?

Indonesian President Joko Widodo (R) answers journalists' questions outside the Palace in Jakarta on October 21, 2014. AFP file

JAKARTA, Indonesia – Indonesia’s Forestry Ministry, arguably the country’s most powerful state institution – and often named one of its most corrupt – is facing unprecedented questioning over its broken land rights system.

The ministry, which oversees more than 70% of the country’s land area, also represents a major test of how serious Joko Widodo, the new president, is about cleaning it up, and in the final analysis will test how much clout Jokowi will have in a country where natural resources including timber have created vast fortunes, not all of them legal.

The ministry is the target of an initiative led by the fearsome Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK). In addition, a 5-month national inquiry is underway pushed by native groups under the umbrella of the Indigenous Peoples’ Alliance of the Archipelago, an NGO.

The “forest zone” is not all trees and orangutans. By zoning forest area and handing out permits for exploitation, the ministry controls access to an unprecedented chunk of Indonesia’s natural resources. A full fifth of the nation’s villages, some 33,000, stand inside the forest zone – entire cities even: Palangkaraya, the capital of Central Kalimantan province, exists completely within the forest zone. Its boundaries also encircle millions of indigenous peoples.

Land conflicts affecting them are the subject of the inquiry, instigated by the National Human Rights Commission at the indigenous peoples’ NGO’s behest. The inquiry, Indonesia’s first ever, follows up last year’s landmark Constitutional Court ruling that took customary forests out of state forests. The decision was the result of a judicial review submitted by the indigenous people’s group, which has its sights on 40 million hectares where it says indigenous peoples live – roughly a fifth of the country’s land mass and more than a third of what the Forestry Ministry controls.

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