Hans Nicholas Jong, Jakarta – An independent initiative in Indonesia has ramped up its efforts in mapping Indigenous lands, with 6 million hectares (14.8 million acres) mapped in the past year alone.
As of August, the Ancestral Domain Registration Agency (BRWA) had mapped 26.9 million hectares (66.5 million acres) – an area twice the size of Java – of land claimed by Indigenous communities.
This is up from 20.7 million hectares (51.2 million acres) of land mapped by the same point last year.
The BRWA was established by a group of NGOs to guide Indigenous groups in mapping their own territories, including forests, rivers and sea, in response to the government's slow progress in recognizing these ancestral land rights.
Most of the areas mapped recently are in Malinau district, in the Bornean province of North Kalimantan, with the mapping of 1.8 million hectares (4.4 million acres) of land claimed by one Indigenous community there.
While the BRWA has been making rapid progress in mapping Indigenous lands, the government's efforts in recognizing these lands continue to lag behind.
To date, the government has recognized only 219 Indigenous territories spanning a combined 3.73 million hectares (9.21 million acres) – just 14% of what the BRWA has mapped, spanning 1,336 territories.
This recognition comes in the form of the issuance of local regulations and decrees by the regional heads.
BRWA head Kasmita Widodo said the government's progress in recognizing Indigenous lands had been sluggish due to lack of capacity from local governments.
To facilitate the recognition of Indigenous groups and lands, local heads established committees.
However, many of these committees don't understand the process and procedure to verify Indigenous territories and peoples, Kasmita said.
Furthermore, there are very few local governments that allocate budget for the recognition of Indigenous peoples and their lands, he added.
And while the government has recognized some 3.73 million hectares (9.2 million acres) of Indigenous territories, the level of formal recognition is still limited to local governments, Kasmita said.
This, he said, is not enough to fully protect Indigenous communities from having their lands grabbed by industries or infrastructure projects.
Therefore, the BRWA is calling for the central government to also recognize customary lands by officially identifying and mapping them.
So far, the central government, in this case the national land agency (BPN), which has authority over the country's lands, has issued land certificates for customary lands in only two provinces, 12 hectares (29 acres) of land certified in West Sumatra and 699.7 hectares (1,728 acres) in Papua, both in October 2023.
"We want to make sure that all customary lands are registered in the land book," Kasmita told Mongabay.
A land book is a document that contains the judicial data and all or some of the physical data on a land parcel whose right has been established.
BPN director-general of land registration, Suyus Windayana, said the agency aimed to register and certify all customary lands throughout Indonesia by 2024-25.
Some Indigenous territories are located in areas zoned as forest, with 6 million hectares (14.8 million acres) of them identified in protected forest areas.
The government institution that has the authority to grant formal titles to the territories is the Ministry of Environment and Forestry.
So far, the BRWA has identified 20.85 million hectares (51.5 million acres) of customary forests, or hutan adat.
The environment ministry has recognized only 244,195 hectares (603,400 acres) of customary forests as of October 2023 as a part of President Joko Widodo's social forestry program.
Under the program, the government aims to reallocate 12.7 million hectares (31.4 million acres) of state forest to local communities and give them the legal standing to manage their forests, usually for 35 years. So far, the government has granted rights for communities to manage 6.37 million hectares (15.7 million acres) of lands.
In the case of customary forests, the government would award formal title over the land, in perpetuity, to the Indigenous and local communities that have long occupied them.
This essentially means the state is completely relinquishing its control over the forests to Indigenous communities.
That's why it's necessary to not only recognize customary forests at the local level through local regulations and decrees, but also for the environment ministry to issue formal title to the forests, Kasmita said.
But with only 244,195 hectares of customary forests recognized by the environment ministry so far, there are still many Indigenous groups without legal protection over the rights to their forests.
"This is still far behind the hope of Indigenous peoples [to have their rights to their ancestral forests recognized]," Kasmita said.
Nora Hidayati, the manager of legal advocacy at the NGO Law and Community Association (HuMa), said the environment ministry's team, which is tasked to verify communities' claims to ancestral forests, has its work hampered by budgetary and time constraints.
These constraints make the team capable of recognizing only around a dozen customary forests each year, she said.
As a result, the team prioritizes the recognition of customary forests in areas where communities have collectively submitted applications for more than one customary forest, instead of areas where a single community applies for one customary forest, Nora said.
The environment ministry has its own initiative to map customary forests and so far has mapped more than 900,000 hectares (2.2 million acres), according to Kasmita.
The forests that have been mapped by the ministry are earmarked for formal recognition in the future, and thus they are off-limits for business licenses.
Kasmita said these 900,000 hectares of forests mapped are low-hanging fruits, with the ministry only having to verify the forests before granting formal recognition.
"[But] I'm worried that if the procedure and the budget [allocated for the recognition of ancestral forests and lands] remain like what they are now, then the government wouldn't even be able to recognize the 900,000 hectares of mapped forests by the end of President Widodo's administration [in October 2024]," he said.