Social forestry creates lush landscapes in place of barren land in Indonesia

Communities take on the management of their forests, reversing deforestation and securing livelihoods

Indonesia’s social forestry programme, now supported by FAO-UNEP, has turned once barren and unproductive land into thriving forests dotted with agricultural fields. ©UNEP/Taufany Eriz


Gazing at the lush mosaic of green woodland interspersed with cultivated fields, it is hard for 49-year-old community leader, Pendi, to remember how his community forest land looked back in 2005.

Then, this same land in the district of Ciwidey, 200 kilometers southeast of Indonesia’s capital city, Jakarta, was barren and unproductive with no vegetation to speak of. During that time, with insecure tenure rights and little sense of ownership of the lands, deforestation in Indonesia was rampant. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) estimates that the country lost an average of 580 000 hectares of forest per year from 2000 to 2010. This loss not only threatened the country’s biodiversity but also the livelihoods of communities. Around 40 million Indonesians rely on forests to make their living. 

"Without the forests, we struggle to make ends meet," says Pendi.

Seeing the impact that the loss of forests was having on their traditional way of life, Pendi and his community group were determined to reverse deforestation and reclaim the barren land.

They began by planting trees and various crops to earn a livelihood, but without legal ownership of the land, they were exposed to numerous challenges, such as frequent evictions and crop thefts.

Now these community efforts are being supported by Indonesia’s social forestry programme, an initiative further bolstered by the support of FAO, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and other partners through the United Nations’ Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (UN-REDD) programme.

Like Pendi (left), around 40 million Indonesians rely on forests to make their living. Indonesia’s social forestry programme, supported by the UN-REDD initiative, strengthens land access rights, empowers communities and supports forest conservation practices. ©UNEP/Taufany Eriz

Social forestry

Indonesia's social forestry programme, adopted in 2016, has ushered local communities into a new era of forest management. The programme is designed to strengthen land access rights, empower communities and support forest conservation practices. The government is aiming to reallocate a total of 12.7 million hectares of state forest, equivalent to the size of Indonesia’s main island of Java, to local communities, enabling them to manage their forests for decades at a time. As of today, the programme has granted land titles for 5.6 million hectares of state forest to 1 million households.

In 2018, Pendi and his community were granted tenure rights to about 1 160 hectares of land for 35 years.

Granting long-term land management rights to local communities has produced remarkable benefits; a resurgence of vegetation has taken the place of bald, unproductive terrain.

Harmoniously mixing forestry and agriculture

With secure land rights, Pendi and his community felt confident enough to inter-plant crops, such as coffee, with different tree species.

“The income from coffee improved our livelihood. It also gave us sufficient funds to further invest in planting different crops and in technologies to monitor land use through a cellphone app,” said Pendi.

But when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in 2020, it dealt them a severe blow, with restrictions hampering both production and access to markets.

Against this background, FAO and UNEP launched the UN-REDD initiative in the region to support the farmers. Funded by the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation, the UN-REDD initiative is implemented jointly by FAO and UNEP, in collaboration with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) secretariat, Regional Community Forestry Training Center for Asia and the Pacific (RECOFTC) and other partners.

Building on the greater security of land tenure brought about by the country’s social forestry programme, UN-REDD provided trainings to Pendi and his community to help improve their technical skills in agroforestry. This support has been crucial for revitalising their livelihoods after COVID-19.

Today, tenure rights for 5.6 million hectares of state forest have been granted to 1 million households in Indonesia. ©UNEP/Taufany Eriz

Unlocking the potential of social forestry

In Indonesia and elsewhere, UN-REDD is working to get social forestry “better recognized as mitigation and adaptation actions in reducing greenhouse gas emissions,” says Serena Fortuna, FAO Team Leader for UN-REDD. “It is also important to help break the link between agriculture and deforestation,” she adds.

The initiative is further providing local communities better access to finance and markets, which is “a critical factor in unlocking the full potential of social forestry in Indonesia,” says Alexis Corblin, Senior Technical Advisor on climate and forests in UNEP. “This approach offers a way to promote positive environmental outcomes while creating opportunities for entrepreneurship and livelihood development.”

Pendi’s experience shows that social forestry can be a promising approach for improving the livelihoods of communities while also preserving forests and biodiversity. The once degraded lands have been transformed into thriving ecosystems that offer carbon storage, slope stabilization and better water, air and soil quality.

In addition to Indonesia, the UN-REDD initiative is also rolling out activities in Cambodia and Lao People’s Democratic Republic. Given the right support to communities, social forestry initiatives can unlock the powerful potential of forests for climate mitigation efforts, while offering a more equitable future for all.

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13. Climate action, 15. Life on land, 17. Partnership for the goals