Development without deforestation: A different path for Indonesian farmers?

Agroforestry garden in Southeast Sulawesi, Indonesia

Although Indonesia has become synonymous with tropical deforestation in recent decades, an alternative model of rural development is possible that both protects biodiversity while improving the welfare of rural Indonesians. Diversified agroforestry systems, which have traditionally dominated Indonesian farming for hundreds, if not thousands of years, could form the basis for conserving biodiversity while restoring degraded landscapes. Farmers and indigenous communities, however, need incentives to maintain and expand the cultivation of these diversified farming systems such as market access and better price for their commodities. Inobu aims to make the case for Fakfak nutmeg farming communities so that they can access premium markets to incentivise their current farming systems.

Swidden fields as part of an agroforestry system in Southeast Sulawesi, Indonesia

Indonesian farmers, throughout history, have relied on diverse farming systems for the livelihoods and lives. The forest gardens or kebun have typically encompassed complex and biologically diverse systems of forests, swidden fallows, and mixtures of subsistence crops and cash crops, such as spices and rubber. These smallholders, especially indigenous farmers, and their farming systems, protect biodiversity, sequester carbon and provide other ecosystem services such as regulating water.

In recent decades, however, the Indonesian archipelago, stretching across multiple bio-geographic regions, has experienced massive transformations. Driven by industrial-scale land uses, supported by government policies, biologically diverse landscapes have been degraded and transformed into expanses of monocultures of forest and plantation commodities.

Rural communities have been presented with few alternative pathways for farming. In many instances, farmers have lost their lands through land grabbing or forced acquisitions through government schemes. Other farmers have chosen to participate formally in plantation schemes. Those that have chosen to remain independent have either continued traditional farming systems, or converted part or all of their lands to monocultures, such as oil palm.

The ecological and economic limits of this transition are beginning to emerge. In parts of Indonesia, plantations have caused catastrophic floods. Degradation has driven further degradation, as exposed peatland and degraded forests have burned during prolonged droughts and dry spells. In response, strict bans on burning in other places has meant that farmers have had to convert to monocultures, continue to farm illegally or face hardship.

The drop in demand and prices for palm oil has meant that many smallholders have lost income, affecting the welfare of their families.

Is another path possible for Indonesian farmers?

Historically, the Indonesian policy and regulatory framework has focused on supporting farmers through schemes with companies. The institutional infrastructure for supporting independent smallholders in Indonesia to farm productively and sustainably is largely missing. Independent farmers have limited or no formal access to land and resources, limited access to training, technical knowledge, inputs and technology either through government or private sector.

A new model of development is needed that enables these farmers to maintain their diverse forest garden systems and formalise their rights to land and resources while improving the profitability of farming for rural communities.

A nutmeg agroforest in Fakfak, Papua Barat

In Papua Barat, Inobu, working with the local indigenous organisation AKAPe and the local government, has been exploring a model of developing the production of Papuan nutmeg that benefits local communities while protecting the vast forests of Fakfak district. The challenges facing Papuan nutmeg farmers are the same challenges facing farmers across Indonesia, however, there are opportunities. New policy and regulatory instruments for recognising the rights of customary communities, financial instruments and increased demand for sustainably produced products means that a viable model is within reach. There is demand for sustainably and inclusively produced products both within Indonesia as well as global markets. Farmers and local communities, however, need assistance to improve the quality and volume of their produce to meet these demands, as well as support for processing raw products into higher value products that can be sold to consumers.

As part of the agroforestry system in Fakfak, subsistence crops are grown in areas adjacent to nutmeg forests and forest ecosystems

Our ongoing challenge in Papua Barat, and more broadly in Indonesia, is making these instruments work on the ground for the benefit of nature and society. From the lessons learned from these pilot initiatives, we can help to inform the government on how to improve the policy and regulatory environment to support independent smallholders and indigenous communities to farm sustainably and productively.

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