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Indonesia: Hearing Women’s Voices in Managing Natural Resources

December 5, 2018

By Margaretha Wahyuningsih, Dorta Pardede, and Fadila Ayu Hapsari

The flash flood that hit her village in 2006 unexpectedly propelled Dewi Sartika, 38, from low income into abject poverty. The district government relocated some 170 affected households, including hers, to nearby land owned by the state plantation company, but granted them only four hectares each, roughly 400 square meters, from which to scratch out a livelihood. They hold no title to these parcels, and their eviction is imminent.

Mining cutting into an area of forest and farmland. Photo/ Wawan Muhaddadiyah.

The Voices Unheard

Because of their customary roles and responsibilities, women in traditional communities are often the first to bear the brunt of destructive resource exploitation. At the same time, they are often the greatest repositories of the history, boundaries, and ownership of lands in their communities and the knowledge of how to manage those lands sustainably. Yet, patriarchal culture pervades land and forest management in Indonesia, where even CSOs often forget to include women’s voices.

A woman stands by an abandoned open-pit mine at the edge of her farm. Photo/ Armin Hari

In 2015, Indonesia launched its national Social Forestry program (Perhutanan Sosial) to improve the well-being of people with traditional forest-based livelihoods and to protect forests through sustainable management. But the program works through heads of households, designated by Indonesian law as husbands, which deprives households of benefits if the wife is a divorcee or the husband has migrated for work. Research on gender justice in land and forest management conducted by the Center for International Forestry Research in 2018 found that even though inclusive policies have increased women’s participation in forestry institutions, male perspectives and prerogatives continue to dominate land and forest governance.

A Gender-Responsive Approach

The Asia Foundation’s environmental justice program in Indonesia, SETAPAK, supported by the UK’s Department for International Development, promotes regulatory and law enforcement reforms to protect communities whose livelihoods depend on traditional forest resources. The program has 65 partners, ranging from westernmost to easternmost Indonesia. While SETAPAK from the start encouraged its partners to emphasize gender issues, the second phase of the project, SETAPAK 2, begun in late 2015, has implemented a more aggressive gender-responsive approach to ensure that women’s voices are a central part of our partners’ advocacy agenda.

In March 2018, SETAPAK 2 facilitated a dialogue with the Ministry of Environment and Forestry (MoEF) that resulted in three commitments by the minister: first, to include gender in environmental impact assessments; second, to allow women to be recognized as heads of household under the Social Forestry program; and third, to strengthen women’s role in traditional forest management. On this occasion, SETAPAK 2 gained some experience connecting local gender-justice champions with the mainstream media and with national women activists who have influence with the MoEF in Jakarta.

Celebrating the Local Champions

SETAPAK’s investment in women and environmental governance soon began to produce results. Our partner on eastern Borneo Island, JATAM, which promotes accountable management of abandoned mining sites, had inspired several women leaders to bring lawsuits demanding reclamation of open pits in Samarinda and to report the cases to the Samarinda mayor. When the local government took no action to repair the environmental damage, women’s groups and JATAM reported the case to the MoEF, which resulted in monitoring by the ministry’s law enforcement unit. They also reported the situation to the National Commission on Child Protection, which forwarded information to the president.

Minister Siti Nurbaya Baka of the Ministry of Environment and Forestry with SETAPAK’s local champions.

The president took notice, resulting in closer site monitoring and a commitment to the reclamation of Samarinda’s open pits by the Ministry of Energy and Mineral Resources, the installation of 459 danger signs at open-pit mines, and a joint monitoring agreement with the East Kalimantan Police Department.

These women’s efforts were not without setbacks. At first their husbands objected, but they now support their wives. Several women received threats, but they have continued their advocacy and encouraged more women to joint their study groups in the village.

Another story of women making change took place in Aceh, the westernmost province of Indonesia, where SETAPAK 2 has been working with the local NGO MaTA to strengthen community rights in land disputes with the state plantation company PTPN 1. In 2016, MaTA met a kindergarten teacher in the Aceh village of Batu Bedulang. In the course of several MaTA trainings and meetings, she became active in the land dispute, using a formal Public Information Disclosure to gather evidence and launching a community mapping project to document claims against PTPN 1.

SETAPAK 2 is also working to promote Indonesia’s national, community-based forest management scheme. Elia Fitri, a woman from the forest village of Nagari, attended several trainings and village meetings conducted by SETAPAK partner Qbar (the People’s Coalition for Justice, Democracy, and Human Rights), which works to expand community-based forest management in West Sumatera. The matrilineal Minang people are a significant presence in West Sumatra, but even among the Minang, men still control natural resource decisions. Though she at first found it difficult to work predominantly with men, Elia eventually became a member of the village forest-management team in Padang Tarok Village, where she helped prepare a village forestry proposal for the MoEF. In 2017, the village received a permit to manage their traditional forest lands.

Stories like these remain rare in Indonesia, where women are still too often excluded from local land-management decisions. The SETAPAK 2 program is dedicated to building women’s confidence and capacity to make their voices heard, both locally and nationally, on issues of land and forest governance. Their presence is essential to meaningful reform.

Margaretha Wahyuningsih and Fadila Ayu Hapsari are program officers and Dorta Pardede is an assistant program officer for The Asia Foundation’s SETAPAK 2 program in Indonesia. They can be reached at [email protected], [email protected], and [email protected], respectively. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the authors, not those of The Asia Foundation.


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