Indonesia: Challenges of Forest Governance in Aceh

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1. Introduction

The forests of Aceh, and the communities that live in them, are at an important crossroads. Sitting in the northwestern corner of the giant Indonesian archipelago, the province of Aceh comprises approximately 5.6 million hectares (ha), of which about 3.3 million ha are designated as forest. While the total number of hectares of forest remaining in Aceh is in itself impressive, systems of management are weak, and so these forests face increasing threats. Now in a period of reconstruction, rehabilitation and development after thirty years of civil war and the devastating December 2004 tsunami, Aceh is facing sweeping changes in land use. In this context, deforestation levels have skyrocketed, rising from an average of around 20,000 ha per year pre-tsunami to over 130,000 ha per year in 2005-2006.

Both loggers and many policymakers largely explain this accelerating damage by citing high levels of poverty in Aceh's forest regions. However, it is not at all clear that existing patterns of forest use - and misuse - are benefiting Aceh's poorest. It is wholly possible that forests can provide sustainable livelihoods. But without good forest governance in place - the right leadership, institutions, policy decisions and practical systems - the exploitation of Aceh's forests will result only in unsustainable practices that not only will destroy ecosystems and push endangered species to the brink of extinction, but also will result in environmental damage that will bring risks to local populations for decades to come all to little effect for Aceh's poor.

To its credit, the provincial government has taken several bold steps in an attempt to move toward better forest governance in Aceh. For example, in recognition of the environmental disasters =ACflooding and landslides -in particular that have resulted from increased deforestation rates, in June 2007 the recently appointed Governor of the province, Irwandi Yusuf, declared a moratorium on logging. A committed conservationist, Irwandi Yusuf is simultaneously struggling to help offer viable livelihoods to the estimated 23.5 percent of Aceh's population currently living in poverty, many of whom live in or close to forested areas. In this context, good forest governance (GFG) is, according to Irwandi Yusuf, a crucial part of Aceh's poverty reduction strategies.

This initiative and others do, however, face serious challenges. After almost thirty years of conflict in Aceh, the peace delivered some semblance of normality for local people, but it also provided space for opportunism, including the politisation of vested interests, especially those relating to the exploitation of Aceh's forests and other natural resources. Illegal logging and the corruption that underpins it undermine the possibility of the forests contributing to sustainable development in Aceh. Provincial and district level networks of power and interest have coalesced around forest use, creating serious obstacles to effective forest management and bio-diversity conservation. Such vested interests seek to turn forests into cash through logging or to unlock their land for farming or exploitation of mineral wealth. Meanwhile, existing mechanisms to manage the forests are severely limited. Reform of forest management in the province is therefore a matter of some urgency.

However, Aceh faces many governance-related constraints in its efforts to improve environmental policy, regulations, and their application. These include a fragmented institutional structure; limited coordination among provincial level dinas (departments) and national line ministries in Jakarta; and bureaucratic procedural constraints and inefficiencies. Recent moves to decentralise policymaking, and the resulting confusion over areas of responsibility between provincial- and national-level agencies, have created additional challenges for environment and natural resource management. In addition, local communities and some local government stakeholders remain largely uninformed about many governance issues, as well as about the need to maintain and enhance the environmental health of forests.

For Aceh's forests to deliver maximum benefit to local communities over the long term while maintaining their environmental values, sustainable forest management practices must be in place, with practical tools, tactics and approaches identified, implemented, and monitored. These, however, will be difficult to achieve in an environment of corruption which lacks transparency and accountability. Thus, the final solution to Aceh's forest sector lies with governance reform more broadly.


Research for this report was conducted by the Eye on Aceh local research team. Due to the centralised nature of policy discussion on forest management, much of the research was conducted at the provincial level. Some field trips were however undertaken to several key forest areas in Aceh, where local interviews and surveys were conducted.

The report draws not only on interviews and surveys, but also on ongoing discussions between Eye on Aceh and the provincial Department of Forestry and Plantations, as well as with several multi-stakeholder forums in Aceh.

The research employed as its framework a checklist model of analysis that encompasses some of the basic prerequisites for good forest governance and sustainable forest management (see Appendix 1). Many of these issues, as will be made clear in this report, remain a challenge in Aceh today.