Written by: Kaleigh Rhoads

 Deforestation in Indonesia is currently an issue of primary international concern. Recent estimates identify the rate of deforestation in Indonesia between 1.6 million and 2.5 million hectares per year (Nawir et al. 2007, pg 16). There is deforestation in timber, oil, mining, and palm oil; there exist underlying causes to the levels of mass deforestation in Indonesia. The underlying causes can lead to socio-economic forces, policy failures, market failures, and weaknesses in the government (Nawir et al. 2007 pg. 17).

Since gaining independence, logging aided in Indonesia’s economy, but now illegal logging practices account for the majority of deforestation in Indonesia. Increases in illicit logging activities seem to correlate with Indonesia’s decision in 1998 to decentralize its government and implement regional autonomy. Throughout Indonesia’s history, indigenous communities felt the impact of the displacement from their land due to increased agricultural development.

Still, the decentralization of the government provided the hope of having local voices heard. By examining the underlying forces and shifts in power dynamics, this paper aims to explain the socio-natural history, political economy, and cultural politics of deforestation in Indonesia.

 Deforestation due to Indonesia’s agriculture has a long history, and changes in political power, structure, and economy have throughout this history created shifts like deforestation practices. During the Dutch colonial era spanning from 1602-1942, deforestation was primarily a result of timber harvesting for shipbuilding by the Dutch East India Company. From the beginning of World War II in 1942 until its end in 1945, Indonesia was occupied by the Japanese Empire.

During this period, deforestation persisted as the Japanese harvested teak plantations twice the Annual Allowable Cut to pay for the war effort. By the late summer of 1945, Indonesia’s government declared its independence and was finally able to manage its own country without Dutch or Japanese rule (Nawir et al. 2007 pg 12).

In the early 1970s, deforestation increased when the Indonesian government provided logging permits to concessionaires to boost the national economy. Although the Indonesian government benefited from the timber industry’s revenue, this new policy, which supported agricultural expansion into forest areas, resulted in natural disasters, such as floods and land erosion. The increase in agriculture led to increased labor requirements.

 Failures in land clearing practices account for much of the deforestation of increased agriculture. Even though crops such as oil-palms are capable of growing on degraded land that is already clear of any forest, many companies choose to clear massive amounts of the woods to make extra money by selling the timber to international markets. A common practice for converting forest to the plantation is the use of fire to clear large areas.

In the early 1980s, forest fires became a devastating contributor to deforestation. The first significant forest fire occurred during a long period of drought caused by El Niño. This dry period made the fires of industrial forest clearing uncontainable. The first considerable forest fire occurring in 1982-1983, burnt about 3.2 million hectares of forest. In 1997–1998, a significant outbreak of forest fire originating from industrial forest clearing scorched nearly 9.8 million hectares. 

 In 1997 Indonesia faced an economic crisis, which led to further forest clearing for the industry. 68% of companies interviewed admitted to clearing new forest at this time. (Nawir et al. 2007 pg 15) In 1998 Indonesia decentralized its government and implemented regional autonomy. Policies were put in place to allow local communities to become more involved in managing forests; this caused logging operations to fall under small scale forest concession licenses, which had been granted by the district governments.

Under this new decentralized system, the district governments have a greater responsibility than the provincial governments for controlling forest resources. (Nawir et al. 2007 pg 15) The Center for International Forestry Research calls this decentralization premature and suggests that the local government and Forestry Services at the district level are inadequate.

Though the government declared its commitment to achieving sustainably managed forests by the year 2000 and the number of logging companies began to decrease, deforestation continues to occur due to an increase in illegal logging. Illegal logging contributed to 64% of total timber production in 2000, and 83% in 2001 (Nawir et al. 2007 pg 20-22).

 How is it that illegal logging practices can account for such a high percentage of deforestation in Indonesia? First, we must understand how state authority is involved in these practices. The first step in the Indonesian government’s accumulation of land, further commoditization of forests, and creating new forms of access was the creation of political forests. In doing so, the government declared:

  [national] states were the sovereign owners of all land and resources within their internationally recognized territorial boundaries. They all enacted laws enabling the demarcation of permanent state forests, causing forests to be defined subsequently rather than ecologically in terms of state property regimes. (Peluso and Vandergeest 2001 pg. 768).

 It may use this power to acquire and redistribute land for development purposes, which dispossess indigenous people who utilize the land for subsistence purposes. (Chrystanto and Justianto 2010 pg 158) The documentary film, Green Desert, features a Dayak community that has yet to receive compensation for their land now occupied by a palm oil plantation. A Dayak farmer of this community explains: 

 We have received an official statement letter regarding the land issued by the local Sukaraja village government, which serves as clear evidence that the land should be in our ownership. So frankly, we residents of the Sukaraja village disagree with the existence of the palm oil company PT Agro Indomas in this village because they have stolen people’s land. We feel that PT Agro Indomas wants to establish their own country at this location in the Sepaku subdistrict, Sukaraja village. Why? Because just like gangsters, they do whatever they want without asking permission from the village’s society or the village’s headmen. It is like the village people had no meaning at all. We are not human beings. But now, people want to farm, but they can’t because PT Agro has taken the land, and the government is doing nothing about it. Do they want to kill the society slowly? (Green Desert 2012).

 The decentralization of the Indonesian government created the conditions for district heads to grant logging companies access to resources outside of official concessions and inside national forests and grant concessions for clear-cutting without the legal authority to do so. Following the economic crisis and the cessation of the Soeharto governmental regime, the number of districts in Indonesia’s main islands increased from 146 districts to 311 districts in the decade between 1998 and 2008.

A pattern discovered by the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) suggests that when a new district splits, the initial disorganization, such as forest officials’ reassignment, disrupts legal logging activities. In response surrounding districts in the same province increase both illegal and overall extraction in anticipation that the prices will fall once the district manages to establish itself and resumes its legal logging activity.

Districts do not split at the same time; this process occurs over and over again with each new district formation (Burgess et al 2011 pg 19-23).

 This same study by NBER shows a pattern in which logging of the protected areas increases by 29% two years before an election and by 42% in the year before an election. In the year following an election illegal logging practices decrease by 36% and increases do not resume until the next election. Many small logging companies exist that are willing to employ illegal practices, seeking to boost the capital accumulation process, but they must bribe district officials in order to do so.

A candidate who believes he might lose re-election may choose to cash in on bribes at this point while the opportunity is available. Another contributor to this pattern of political logging cycles is that officials may increase logging permits or decrease enforcement, allowing logging companies access to protected areas, in order to gain funds for election or to increase popularity for re-election (Burgess et al. 2011 pg 25-27).

 The decentralization of the Indonesian government held high hopes for local communities. Still, with much disappointment in 1999, the government decentralized the issuing of small scale, short, term harvesting permits. These new permits were quickly seized by local entrepreneurs and elite, leading to further logging. Though this decree was repealed by the year 2000, many did not abide by it.

Once they had to experience the profits of forest exploitation, districts began to push for further autonomy (Moeliono, Wollenberg, and Limberg 2009 pg 16).

 Other reforms in this post Soeharto regime included the recognition of adat (customary law) communities and their communal rights. As a result, allied local and traditional communities support to make claims to communal land negotiate directly with investors to receive compensation for the exploitation of forest resources from the local government and private contracting companies.

The recognition and registration of adat communities is the discretion of the district head. This recognition of communal rights succeeded only in placing a monetary value on these rights, while rights to ownership remained unresolved. Ethnicity and historical roots to a place have become major avenues for asserting power, creating conflicts between groups of villagers.

The most conflict-ridden categories are that of orang asli, indigenous person, and pendatang, a migrant/newcomer (Moeliono, Wollenberg, anpost-Soeharto9 pg 46): this was threatening to groups who migrated to the region in the 1970s as it jeopardizes their claims to territory. NGOs such as the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) and the World Wildlife Fund for Nature (WWF) supported adat claims through the use of GIS technology in the mapping of traditional village territories.

This aids in providing villagers material evidence and a cer,tain way to speak to officials in their claims to territorial rights. These NGOs have also engaged in applied research focusing on improved livelihoods and sustainable forest management, raising international concern to support the claims of these villagers (Moeliono, Wollenberg, and Limberg 2009 pg 49).

 The inclusion of Dayak people in positions of authority within district government also held thAsliospect for mobilizing villagers’ claims. However, the ethnic affiliations of these representatives have not guaranteed their accountability to villagers. For example, Steve Rhee writes in his article, The Cultural Politics of Collaboration to Control and Access Forest Resources in Malinau, East Kalimantan: “When government officials speak casually or outside of their official their rationale and statements are not different from the villagers themselves; yet once they put on their uniforms they are transformed into bureaucrats who regarding influenced by the Soeharto regime’s notions of ‘development” (Moeliono, Wollenberg, and Limberg 2009 pg 51).

Rhee suggests that even though the decentralization of the government as villagers’ claims can more readily have their voices heard by bringing the state closer to its citizens, in reality, it creates more of a distance between the state and citizens through additional layers of bureaucracy. These districts fragment further into various sub-districts, meaning that the villagers must follow the protocol of first having their claims heard by lower-level officials with very little decision making power.

While villagers feel more confident to express their discontent with the government in the post-Soeharto regime, they face difficulty and distance to influence and access true decision-makers (Moeliono, Wollenberg, and Limberg 2009 pg 52).

 Indonesia’s forests have a long history of exploitation, and the people who reside in these rural forest areas have a long history of being marginalized. Upon gaining independence, logging and agriculture provided a means to develop the country’s emerging economy. The decentralization of the Indonesian government created the conditions for district heads to grant logging companies access to resources outside of official concessions and inside of national forests, as well as to grant concessions for clear-cutting without the legal authority to do so.

Illegal logging increases before an election. The formation of new districts and staggered timing of both of these events creates a constant increase in illegal deforestation to the point that it now accounts for the majority of deforestation in Indonesia. Market failures such as the undervaluing of timber and short term concessions granted by the Indonesian government encourage illegal logging practices.

With a plentiful supply of illegally logged timber and prices that fail to reflect the resources’ social and environmental values, there are plenty of factors to discourage the adoption of sustainable logging practices. The decentralization of the government provided rural communities with the hope of having their claims to rights to land heard. Still, it was disappointed in the lack of transparency and accountability of the district governments.

After such a long history of exploitation, it seems unlikely that the situation will improve until the Indonesian government at all levels commits to enforcing the laws against illegal logging and agriculture practices, and incentives begin to encourage sustainable industry practices. 


Works Cited

 Burgess, Robin, Matthew Hansen, Benjamen A. Olken, Peter Potapov, and Stephanie Sieber. “NATIONAL BUREAU OF ECONOMIC RESEARCH.” NATIONAL BUREAU OF ECONOMIC RESEARCH. (2011)

 Chrystanto, S.Y., and Agus Justianto. Indonesia. Ministry of Forestry. National Forest Policy Review. Jakarta, 2010.

 Galik, Michal, dir. Green Desert. 2012. Film.

 Moeliono, Moira, Eva Wollenberg, and Godwin Limberg. The Decentralization of Forest Governance: Politics, Economics, and the Fight for Control of Forests in Indonesian Borneo. London: Earthscan, 2009. 

 Nawir, Ani Adiwinata, Murniati, and Lukas Rumboko. Forest Rehabilitation in Indonesia: Where to after more than three decades? Jakarta: SMK Grafika Desa Putera, 2007

 Peluso, Nancy Lee, and Peter Vandergeest. “The Journal of Asian Studies.” Journal of Asian Studies. 60.3 (2001): 761-812.