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How social forestry and private investments can save Indonesia’s forests 

Blog | Wed, 10 Apr, 2024 · 11 min read

Two decades ago, the Wawowae community in Flores, a picturesque island of mountains, forests and lakes in Indonesia, made a solemn vow.   

"We gathered on top of a hill, and made a promise not to harm the forests that sustain us," recalls Nikolaus Moka, a village elder.   

The ritual, known as “Ri’i”, forbids villagers from cutting down trees and is one of many customary practices in Indonesia that treat natural spaces as sacred. Anyone breaking the rules in Wawowae faces sanctions, and, it is believed, a curse.   

For Moka, it was necessary to perform Ri’i given that most of Wawowae’s 1,680 inhabitants are farmers who depend on healthy land to cultivate their Arabica coffee.   

“In this village, the relationship between people and nature is very close,” he explains. “Humans and nature must be in harmony and in this village, we have all agreed to protect nature.”  

Throughout Indonesia, traditional customs like Ri’i that belong to the country’s myriad ethnic groups and local communities are deeply intertwined in ongoing efforts to protect the environment and its vital ecosystems, especially in the face of deforestation.  

Following rampant deforestation, which led to the loss of 3 million hectares of forests between 2009 and 2015, numbers started to decline in 2016. This shift can attributed, at least in part, to government policies such as a moratorium on clearing primary forests and peatlands. From 2021 to 2022, the Indonesian government reported 104,032 hectares of forest loss. 

However, deforestation remains a threat, mostly driven by global demand for palm oil and other commodities, as well as the need to create jobs and earn foreign exchange.  

Empowering community forestry programmes  

In 2016, the Indonesian government pledged to transfer 12.7 million hectares of state land to local communities within five years, in recognition of the vital role local communities play in environmental protection. By 2022, local communities had been granted land titles to 4.7 million hectares of forests under the initiative, which aims to cut carbon emissions and nurture biodiversity by slowing deforestation.  

"Local communities are the best guardians of their forests. They have a deep understanding of the ecosystems they call home and a vested interest in managing them sustainably,” says Musdhalifah Machmud, Deputy Minister for Food and Agriculture at the Coordinating Ministry for Economic Affairs in Indonesia. “When local communities have secure access to forest land and resources, they are most likely to protect them for future generations."   

The village of Gunung Salihan in Sumatra shows what community-led forest management can achieve. Threatened by the expansion of palm plantations, the community rallied together to apply for ‘hutan desa’ or village forest status, thereby securing legal rights to protect and manage their forest. Village forest is one of five social forestry schemes in Indonesia.   

Villagers now patrol their forest weekly to prevent illegal activities such as logging and encroachment. “If there are threats, we can now ask for assistance from the government,” says Darmus, head of the village forest management committee for Gunung Salihan.   

Private investments are key  

Besides social forestry schemes like the village forest model, private investments form part of Indonesia’s Forest and Other Land Use (FOLU) Net Sink 2030 strategy, an ambitious plan to turn forests into a net carbon sink by 2030.  

"Private investment is important because if you ask local people to look after the forest, they need resources to develop alternative livelihoods," says Bambang Arifatmi, National Coordinator of the UN-REDD Programme in Indonesia, a flagship partnership by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the UN and the UN Development Programme (UNDP), to support efforts to cut emissions from deforestation and forest degradation.  

In Sumatra, a community-based enterprise Alam Siak Lestari, is investing in new ways for people on the island to make a sustainable living.   

By re-flooding canals previously dug to drain peatlands, the enterprise created snakehead fish farms. The fish are not just harvested for food, but also to make albumin and other proteins that can be used in medicine. The by-products are used in animal feed and fertilizer.  

“Alam Siak Lestari’s investment opened up employment opportunities for our community,” says Said Asnawi, fish farmer from Bunsur Village.   


Intact wild forests on peatlands stand next to a palm oil plantation in Sumatra, Indonesia.

Photo: UNEP / Florian Fussstetter

Towards a future of shared benefits  

In Indonesia, the UN-REDD Programme has been providing technical assistance to the government to help them access results-based finance and ensure that forest protection and management efforts deliver social and economic dividends. UN-REDD’s regional initiative, Climate Mitigation through Social Forestry Actions in ASEAN countries launched in 2022, focuses on building capacities of local communities on forest management issues, and exploring opportunities for generating incomes and more resilient livelihoods.  

"We are already seeing the benefits from Indonesia’s strengthened policies and practices to manage deforestation as outlined in our FOLU Net Sink 2030 strategy,” says Lakshmi Dhewanthi, Director General of Climate Change at the Ministry of Environment and Forests in Indonesia. “Deforestation rates are decreasing, and we have been attracting financing both domestically and internationally."   

But for Indonesia, winning the fight against deforestation means ensuring incentives for countries to protect their forests. "Five dollars a tonne is not enough to incentivize countries to keep forests standing," Dhewanthi says. “We need to set the right price for carbon.”  

Indonesia has been making significant progress in curbing peatland fires through restoring peatlands and reducing deforestation over the past four years. Its experience shows the important role social forestry and private investments can play in fighting deforestation and keeping forests intact to combat climate change. This progressive model, which experts say could be replicated in other parts of Asia and beyond, reflects a broader commitment to collaborative and sustainable forest management.  

The Sectoral Solution to the climate crisis  

UNEP is at the forefront of supporting the Paris Agreement goal of keeping global temperature rise well below 2°C, and aiming for 1.5°C, compared to pre-industrial levels. To do this, UNEP has developed the Sectoral Solution, a roadmap to reducing emissions across sectors in line with the Paris Agreement commitments and in pursuit of climate stability. The six sectors identified are: energy; industry; agriculture and food; forests and land use; transport; and buildings and cities.