This article was originally published in The Jakarta Post on December 27, 2018.

About 120.6 million hectares or 63 percent of land in Indonesia are designated as state forest areas — 26 percent of which are degraded, according to the Environment and Forestry Ministry.

While efforts to maintain forest cover are mainly targeted in these state forest areas, areas of other use are also home to forest ecosystems. Some of these forested lands are owned privately by individuals or smallholders.

The existence of forest ecosystems on private land is partially a result from the government’s rehabilitation program dating back to the 1950s. This tree planting program in a community’s “backyard” has led to forest-like land cover. Some are then recognized as hutan rakyat.

In 2014, the ministry estimated hutan rakyat spanned across 34.8 million ha or almost equal to the size of Germany.

A 2016 ministerial regulation on social forestry includes hutan rakyat as one of the social forestry schemes. The program, a signature initiative of President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo, aims at resolving tenurial conflict while improving community welfare and keeping forests intact.

Despite its private status, hutan rakyat could still significantly contribute to social forestry’s overarching goals. Studies on hutan rakyat indicate its sheer extent and economic potential. A group called Volunteers Alliance for Saving Nature (ARuPA) estimated hutan rakyat contributed up to 90 percent of total timber production in Central Java.

However, several obstacles to effective management of hutan rakyat remain.

Unlike other social forestry schemes supported by indicative maps, data indicating areas of hutan rakyat are lacking. Thus, its implementation relies heavily on community willingness or grassroots initiatives to register their land as a private forest, with limited strategic direction and commitment from the central government.

Moreover, land ownership status and traditional management of hutan rakyat make the scheme less attractive than other social forestry schemes. In some cases, the complex registration of private land to obtain private forest status often deprives an owner of property rights. In the latter case, the owners are further obliged by the regulation to maintain forest function and render a letter stating willingness to relinquish their land as a private forest.

Although having private forest status will allow smallholders to enjoy benefits such as exclusion of contribution payments, easier access to credit and market facilitation, not all farmers are aware of such benefits.

Another problem is that traditional forestry practice associated with hutan rakyat is unsustainable. For instance, smallholders in Terong village, Yogyakarta, only harvest their trees when they have pressing economic needs, such as for children’s tuition.

Such practice is widely known as tebang butuh (harvest according to needs). When the economy becomes unstable, hutan rakyat could potentially lose tremendous cover.

Another challenge for smallholders is accessing the right market to obtain fair prices, particularly for timber commodities. The supply chain for timber from hutan rakyat is still dominated by middlemen, who control timber prices for smallholders. A ministry study on hutan rakyat in Bulukumba, South Sulawesi, revealed that an overreliance on middlemen in timber sales could reduce the potential income of smallholders by 70-80 percent.

To improve current practices of hutan rakyat, three strategies should be pursued.

First, data on both the forests’ existing and potential areas should be made available. Such data could enable all stakeholders to promote hutan rakyat. Most importantly, such data would help the government form strategic direction on hutan rakyat and monitor deforestation as well as illegal logging.

Second, ensure farmers receive technical assistance. This essential assistance can be provided by augmenting business planning to manage forest sustainably. However, establishing forest farmers’ groups or similar cooperatives is an important first step. These farmer groups are eligible to receive technical assistance from the provincial social forestry working group. Such assistance might cover topics that include business planning and timber certification.

Last, incentive mechanisms should be developed and implemented. One popular incentive is harvest postponement credit (KTT), which allows smallholders to obtain low-interest credit and give their trees as collateral in exchange.

KTT should not only be designed to address immediate household needs but also for productive purposes, such as financing timber certification. Since awareness of purchasing legal timber has been on the rise, having such certification can help smallholders access premium buyers.

Low-interest credit from the ministry’s general affairs bureau, for instance, could be an alternative to finance hutan rakyat management.

As an important part of the landscape, therefore, such hutan rakyat should get the same level of attention as other social forestry schemes and other conservation policy in general. Producing data, designing technical assistance and providing incentive mechanisms for hutan rakyat are among the few first steps the government and all stakeholders need to take to achieve such a goal.

Dimas Fauzi is a social forestry and energy research analyst. Kenny Cetera is a forest legality analyst. Both work at the World Resources Institute Indonesia.