Debating agroforestry's role in Indonesia

Agroforestry has been practiced for centuries in Indonesia, but you wouldn’t know it to look at the country’s 20-year national development plan. In the entire plan, which fills three books, the word ‘agroforestry’ appears only once.

Agroforestry’s place in Indonesia – its role among indigenous peoples, its links to land tenure, and its future in the country’s development strategies – was the subject of a panel discussion held during the World Agroforestry Centre’s annual Science Week conference in Bogor, Indonesia in September. The panel brought together representatives of government and civil society, as well as experts from ICRAF.

Agroforestry is fundamental to indigenous people’s way of life in Indonesia, said Abdon Nababan, the Secretary General of the Indigenous Peoples’ Alliance of the Archipelago (Aliansi Masyarakat Adat Nusantara/AMAN), one of the world’s largest organizations of indigenous peoples.

But Nababan said that those “very old agroforestry systems” have been threatened by Indonesia’s National Forestry Law, which has been in place since 1967. The law brought back the Dutch colonial approach to land tenure, he said, an approach that aims to prioritize timber production, not sustainable land use.  

“This doctrine says that if people cannot provide legal evidence that the land or territory is theirs, then it automatically becomes state land,” Nababan said. “But you know indigenous people don’t have papers, they don’t have maps. They only have stories. So with this national law, almost all indigenous territory became state forest.”

“I put this as a challenge to your researchers,” he said, turning to the audience of ICRAF staff. “What can you do with that situation? If this doctrine is still in our legal systems, there is no place for agroforestry in Indonesia.”

Dr. Medrilzam Medrilzam from Indonesia’s National Development Planning Agency (Bappenas) acknowledged that agroforestry has been put on the sidelines.

“What we have seen so far is that agroforestry is treated as a kind of project intervention; this needs to change,” he said. “Agroforestry researchers need to work together to enhance the understanding of policymakers at all levels with respect to agroforestry,” he added, noting that he thinks that there is still time for agroforestry to be “mainstreamed into the development plan.” 

“Agroforestry is not only about trees,” Medrilzam added. “This is actually about sustainable production systems at the site level. If you’re talking about systems, we need to consider not only trees and agriculture, but also social and cultural aspects. There are many parameters we need to consider if we want to succeed with agroforestry. If we want to have success in implementing agroforestry activities, we need to think about the whole package of the landscape.”

He added that Indonesia’s new approach to land management, which puts a strong emphasis on the use of Forest Management Units – could provide an opportunity to revitalize agroforestry across Indonesia.

The discussion also considered agroforestry's links to the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which were due to be announced in New York the following week. Ms. Arimbi Heroepoetri, who works on environment and human rights issues at Indonesia's DebtWatch, noted that agroforestry is closely to to SDG 1 – ending poverty in all its forms. Dr. Margaret Kroma, ICRAF's Assistant Director General for Partnerships and Impact, agreed. 

“Agroforestry as a science certainly does have a role to play in realizing the SDG ambition, especially with regard to food and nutritional security and sustainable resource management,” Kroma said.

But there is still the challenge of messaging, as Ravi Prabhu, ICRAF’s Deputy Director General for Research, pointed out. 

“Agroforestry is seen as a minor intervention, but it’s also your cup of coffee, your cup of tea in the morning, or your bar of chocolate at night,” he said. “There’s a real perception challenge that I’m seeing, and that’s something we need to debate.”