Indonesia faces a deforestation crisis: an estimated 55 percent of forests located in concession areas were lost over a period of 15 years (2000-2015), with an estimated total loss of more than 6.7 million hectares within and outside of concession areas. The country has been losing its forests at a rapid rate for decades, and in turn, adat and local communities’ livelihoods are under threat, and the wildlife and plant diversity in their traditional territories is being lost.

Riau Province is home to over 24 percent of Indonesia’s palm oil plantations—as well as the critically endangered Sumatran tiger and local communities who depend on these lands. With support from RRI’s Strategic Response Mechanism, local organization Yayasan Hutanriau (Riau Forest Foundation), in collaboration with Scale – Up Riau, helped communities in the Bukit Betabuh Forest Reserve respond to the illegal expansion of palm oil plantations on their customary lands, which threatened their livelihoods and vital biodiversity alike.

Bukit Betabuh is in an important wildlife corridor, connecting Rimbang Baling Wildlife Reserve and Bukit Tigapuluh National Park, a crucial area for tiger conservation. Bukit Betabuh was classified as a “protected area” by Riau Province in 1994, and categorized as a “limited production forest,” legally stipulating no private development or plantations of any kind but lacking any clear consideration of existing tenure systems and natural resource management regimes.

During the devastating fires in 2015, 200,000 hectares of forest in Bukit Betabuh caught fire. Local community members from the Air Buluh village fought to stop the fire from spreading. After the flames were stifled, they found an excavator and several other artifacts illuminating a private company’s covert attempt to encroach on the protected forest with illegal oil palm plantations. The machines were confiscated by the communities, but illegal oil palm plantations and destructive illegal deforestation inside Bukit Betabuh Forest Reserve continued to threaten every part of the local landscape. According to local media and RRI Collaborators, the provincial and local governments ignored these large-scale violations while simultaneously accusing local communities of encroaching on the forest when they extracted their traditionally important and highly valued non-timber forest products (NTFPs).

Jernang—commonly referred to as dragon’s blood—is a particularly valuable NTFP in the region—not only on the market but also for local adat communities. This red resin is secreted from the rattan fruit, and extracted through a long and tedious process. Dragon’s blood has a long history of traditional usages, including in furniture varnishes and as a dye. it has also been used as medicine for diarrhea, and is sold to pharmaceutical companies to be used as an antiseptic, as medicine for asthma and rheumatism, and as a sedative.

In response to the threats posed to local communities by both government and illegal concessions, the communities initiated plans to convert their village forestland into “social forestry,” which would allow them to retain rights over their forestlands while also benefiting financially from forest products. Through the Strategic Response Mechanism, RRI supported these communities’ efforts and responded to the current administration’s keen interest in implementing the Social Forestry Policy. Effectively implementing this policy would contribute to resolving many outstanding cases of criminalization, which has been a major obstacle to the administration’s efforts to fully implement the National Forestry Policy.

The SRM supported the mapping of the management area within Bukit Betabuh in order to complete the application for a Social Forestry permit, as well as development of sustainable crop commodity plans for the jernang that will create an initial border around the community forest area. The SRM also helped catalyze broader attention to the impact of supporting community forest management and conducting trainings on the titling processes involved in Social Forestry permits. These SRM activities not only created income-generating opportunities for the Air Buluh community, but will also help secure their forestland rights and preserve the pristine tiger ecosystem.

The project began in October 2017 and has already succeeded in supporting local communities to protect their forestlands. So far, about 30 hectares of protected forest have been planted with traditional plants, and the community organized a “forest patrol” to go on rounds 3-4 days a week, which has already resulted in a decrease in illegal logging. The project also provided a model for effective forest protection and community forest enterprise development, and had been replicated by a second group of forest farmers, who consequently set-up in the village to protect the forest while optimizing NTFPs for the prosperity of community members.

Local elections for a new kepala desa (village head) on November 22 were vital to the success of planting traditionally important tree and rattan species, and to the advocacy and training work that were conducted throughout the SRM. A member of the forest-farmer community being supported by the SRM won the local election, and became the new kepala desa. The community and the forest-farmer group went on to afforest their protected areas with traditional trees and plants and influence other communities in the area to do the same.

As the jernang community based forest enterprise grows in Bukit Betabuh, biodiversity in the area is also thriving. In December, the local communities conducted an adat ritual, a celebration that invited the local honey bees back into the newly reforested landscape—honey was once a primary part of local livelihoods in this area—and simultaneously showed gratitude for the election results.

This SRM activity will continue until March 2018, hopefully with the good spirit of the adat ritual, and whilst celebrating the election of the new kepala adat.