This article was originally published on Sixdegrees.

Since the 1990s, Food Estate has been one of the Indonesian government’s key programs to strengthen food security in Indonesia. This program is described as a large-scale integrated food, plantation, and livestock production area. The commodities maintenance and processing system is linked to the state-owned agriculture industry. This whole scheme is expected to boost the nation’s food production.Under the Government National Strategic Agenda, the most recent Food Estate’s development took hundreds to million hectares (ha) of land to build. To date, the program has been implemented in Central Kalimantan (770,000 ha), Papua (2 million ha), and North Sumatra (32,000 ha).

Overlapping land use issues emerged as some of the lands for food estate were initially intended for different purposes such as Protected Forests and Indigenous Forests.

The latter brought adverse consequences to indigenous people as they are often forced to leave the lands that have become part of their lives and culture for multi-generations. This poses a threat to marginalized indigenous people in their homeland.

The Case of Pandumaan-Sipituhuta Indigenous Forests

According to The UN Report on World’s Indigenous People, only few countries involve indigenous peoples in the policy-making process related to lands and forest policies. Indonesia has ratified the International Labour Organisation (ILO) No. 169 Convention that protects the rights of indigenous and tribal people, the practice is still far from the ideal. The upcoming Food Estate in North Sumatra can be an example where the program sparked large protests due to human rights violations and negligence to the rights over the lands and natural resources of the indigenous Sumatrans in Pandumaan-Sipituhuta villages.

For centuries, the tribe have been relying on extracting resin from frankincense trees as their primary source of livelihood. Conserving the frankincense forests is also part of their culture and customary law inherited from their ancestors. However, in 1992, the government granted a concession permit that largely grabbed the customary forest area to a company called Toba Pulp Lestari Ltd. (TPL). This put the indigenous people in constant threats and violations to give up their lands.

After decades-long advocacy, in 2015 the local and national government issued a decree that acknowledged that 5,172 hectares of Indigenous Forest status and removed the company concession in that area.

When the community thought they could finally live in peace, another surprising news came up a year later. The Ministry of Environment issued a new decree that decided the Pandumaan-Sipituhuta Indigenous Forests shrunk to only ​​2,393 hectares. The rest of the forest area would be allocated as part of the Food Estate program in North Sumatra. Despite the huge protests and backlash, the government insisted that the decisions were legally made in accordance with the existing regulations.

The current Indonesian forestry law does not specifically regulate the status of Indigenous Forest.

According to Law No.41/1999, forest status is divided into two categories: Private Forest and State Forest. Indigenous Forest is defined as the part of the latter category, to which it authorizes the government to utilize the forest for the sake of the state interest.

A call for a fairer approach

It is deplorable that the government did not take an inclusive approach such as Free and Prior Informed Consent (FPIC) principles to work with the indigenous people. According to the UN-REDD, FPIC is a process that allows indigenous peoples or local communities to exercise their fundamental rights in agreeing or disagreeing with an activity, project or policy that will be implemented in the community’s living space and has the potential to impact the land, territories, resources, and community livelihoods. FPIC includes respecting, protecting, fulfilling and enforcing the rights of indigenous peoples to their natural resources.

While the government enforces the controversial Food Estate program to strengthen food security, they seem to forget that the indigenous community itself is an important actor to achieve the intended goal.

With more than 2,000 indigenous communities living In Indonesia, it is a discouraging fact that the government has not yet embedded FPIC principles into the national regulations and development agenda.

The case of Pandumaan-Sipatuhuta is yet another reminder that intensifies the urge to call for a fairer approach in working with the indigenous people.

Studies found that traditional food system are among the key drivers that maintain the global food system. Indigenous knowledge that is derived from centuries of accumulated wisdom can contribute to the conservation of genetic resources of nutritious and pest-resistant crop varieties (cultivars or landraces), and in providing practical and effective strategies for sustaining crops, fish, wildlife, forest ecosystems, agroecosystems and other essential habitats. Therefore it is crucial to involve them in the government effort pertaining to food security such as the Food Estate.

Participatory development, including by using FPIC, is a form of good governance. Community involvement in decision-making, especially in the management of natural resources, will encourage the birth of policy products that are concerned with economic growth and preserve the environment and the fundamental rights of the community. By doing so, the Food Estate establishment can be expected to not only achieve its purposes to boost production, but also to respect the customary hold which the indigenous community depends on for their livelihood.

Feny Nuroktaviani is a student at the University of Al Azhar, Indonesia and is currently part of an internship programme at the Tay Juhana Foundation.