A history of state forestry in Java, Indonesia

See part III of this series on state forestry in France here.

This phenomenon of the environmental and social misunderstandings of the peasantry and their forests can be further observed in Indonesia, and specifically upon the island of Java. This is because Indonesian state forestry practices began in Java with the State Forestry Corporation of Java in the 1870s, initiated by the Dutch colonial government, and emanated outward from the island into Indonesia more broadly.

The natural forests of Java have historically been a mix of a variety of tree species, including Altingia excelsa, Elaeocarpus macrocerus, Pinus merkusii, Tectona grandis, and Toona sureni. These forests have been the home of many millions of villagers, with their livelihoods being critically dependant upon the longevity and thus careful management of the forests and surrounding areas. Activities undertaken were rather similar to those undertaken in Uttarakhand, and in relation to construction teak (Tectona grandis) was the most favoured tree. Owned – pre-colonially – by Javanese kings and other elite individuals, villagers were permitted to use these forests under their decree, and often would there be a fair but entirely manageable (financial and free-labour) levy imposed on the villagers to maintain the functioning of the Javanese domains. However, because of the nature of forest communities, which were generally-speaking somewhat isolated from the king or other sovereign, villagers had a certain amount of freedom to ignore particular rules and regulations associated with their contract with the forest owner, though this of course varied with the extent of isolation – not that there were many limitations on how villagers could utilise the forest anyway, with only sparing and well-guarded royal forests and sacred groves being protected.

As far back at 1596, the Dutch, who would go on to rule Java from 1796, placed as important value on Javanese timber – notably teak. Javanese villagers, initially employed by the king or regional sultan under contract from the Dutch, though after 1743 generally directly employed by the Dutch, would harvest this timber, and sell it for purposes including ship building. Similar trade relations were also established with the Chinese. Subsequently, an informal ‘state’ forestry practice had actually begun centuries prior to the creation of the true state forestry department in 1865 (and the associated forest laws written between 1860-1934). However, the pre-colonial rule of Java was, as has been detailed, a relatively passive one, with villagers having a good degree of autonomy over their lives and forests. It was only when state forestry came into being, primarily for the cultivation of teak, that this began to drastically change, as the Dutch government sought to control and limit the relationship villagers had with their forests for the purposes of financial profit.

Notably, the tactics employed by the Dutch went about to usurp the villager and their relationship with the forest. In this sense, villagers had very little influence into the creation of teak plantations and felling operations, despite such operations having a sometimes quite drastic impact upon their livelihoods. One notable impact upon villagers, beyond the loss of forest cover, was their rapidly declining population of buffalo, for the buffalo were drafted by the Dutch to transport felled timber from the site of felling to the river or coast. Some of the largest teak trees, for example, required 80 buffalo to transport, and en route it was not uncommon for 10 of these buffalo to die. Because buffalo were used by villagers for cultivating land for agriculture, their population reduction had very real consequences for local food production.

An image, of unknown date, depicting two Indonesian workers felling a tree for its timber. Source: FAO.

By the same token, the environmental destruction associated with cleared forest areas, or even sparsely-forested areas after select trees were felled, had adverse impacts upon the lives of the villagers, and this occurred both before and after the onset of state forestry. The forest laws passed, notably those from 1860-1875, also saw large portions of land come under state ownership, which directly opposed cultural norms associated with villagers, in essence, owning the land surrounding their villages. These now state-owned areas were also policed, with quite harsh punishments for seemingly meagre ‘crimes’, which only became crimes – having once been customary villager rights – after the state itself detailed them as so under forest law. For instance, 45,000 people were arrested in 1905 for forest crimes, with most being for stealing wood – wood that was some decades earlier free to take.

Such changing of land ownership also limited the ability for villagers to farm in the surrounding landscape (by 1940, 3,057,200 hectares of land were state-owned), as did it hinder their ability to migrate to flee oppression and other undesirable circumstances, including excessive population growth and poor financial standing. However, with regards to farming, recently felled areas could be temporarily farmed (known as tumpang sari) by villagers with the permission of the state, for a period of between 1-3 years on average – the palette of crops was however limited to ones that would not have adverse impacts upon the trees regenerating within the area (usually teak or pine), either naturally or far more routinely artificially (from planted seed). Of course, this did mean that some villagers had to constantly follow the path of the forestry operations, in order to sustain their way of life; as did it sometimes require villagers to adhere to the demand of corrupt forest officials, who oversaw the allocation of tumpang sari land. Ultimately, the increasing levels of bureaucracy were alien to villagers, who were unaccustomed to such a myriad of regulations surrounding the use of forests.

A photo of a forester in central Java, taken between 1900-1940. Source: Wikimedia.

Such a situation was unfortunately only further exacerbated in World War II, when the Japanese took control of Java in 1942-1945 (Peluso, 1992). In this period state forestry operations, spearheaded by the Japanese Forest Service of Java, doubled in timber output compared to under the Dutch, and a ‘scorched earth’ policy by Dutch foresters and ransacking by Javanese villagers led to the forests deteriorating in quality quite massively in only three years – the effects are still observable today, in the landscape. Then, following Indonesian independence in 1949 (after four years of sometimes violent revolution), the new state only served to continue with state forestry operations (under the banner of the State Forestry Corporation), all whilst using the old Dutch laws (mostly almost verbatim – notably forest boundaries) and some of their foresters, albeit with recalibrated intentions that ‘better’ (a potentially malleable term, in this situation) served the nation’s populace.

In light of this, protest was certainly common from the late 1800s onward, and specifically from 1942-1966. The form a given protest took would however vary, with particular protests being non-violent (migration and ignoring the forest laws) and others certainly more violent (acts of crime, arson, and – more broadly – rebellion). Within the umbrella of protest, there are certain movements that deserve notable attention, however. One pertinent example is what was known as the Samin Movement, which was a social movement borne in 1890 but gained most notable momentum by 1907 when over 3,000 village families had adopted the ethos of the movement. This form of protest, founded by the peasant Surontiko Samin, was non-violent in approach and involved protesters purposely ignoring the instruction of state forest officials, for the purpose of safeguarding traditional customs of the Javanese villagers. However, because of the state’s pursuance of dissenting villagers, certain villager leaders did not support the movement, for fear of retribution if they did indeed show support. Therefore, some Saminists were exiled from their villagers, or excluded from communal practices.

A large teak (Tectona grandis) that the Samin Movement encouraged native Javans to utilise for their own needs, in place of supporting the Dutch forestry efforts. Source: Wikimedia.

Some decades later, during the second half of the 1940s (after the demise of the Japanese colonial government and at the inception of revolution, which itself ended in 1949), protests began to significantly rise in frequency and became far more organised, due to the adoption of a stance on forest politics by many political organisations. For example, in 1948, the Indonesian Communist Party and People’s Democratic Front attacked buildings and structures owned by the Forest Service, after it failed to amend forest policy in a manner that would more extensively benefit local people. These attacks caused rather extensive damage, and some main routes to transport timber were rendered impassable after bridges were destroyed. Two years prior, approximately 220,000 hectares of state-owned forest in Java was damaged (or destroyed) by protesting groups and individuals, and a further 110,000 hectares occupied by villagers and taken over or stripped for timber and firewood.

Alongside such protests, the Indonesian Forest Workers’ Union and Indonesian Peasants’ Front would support the villagers, in hope of returning Java’s forests to the people. In the few years following 1962, the Indonesian Forest Workers’ Union was most effective is achieving this aim of returning the state-owned forests to villagers; perhaps because nearly 25% (or 5,654,974 individuals) of the adult Indonesian peasantry were members. Granted, organisations did exist that were distinctly anti-communist, such as the Islamic Workers’ Union, who in fact battled with the Indonesian Communist Party over issues relating to state forestry. In the years immediately after 1964, the Islamic Workers’ Union was known to lead communist supporters into the forests of Java, shoot them, and then bury them in mass graves within the forest.

Following on from law changes in 1967, such protests generally begun to adopt a more clandestine approach. Because of the increasing militarisation of the forest service, notably with regards to its four different police forces, villagers were more fearful of reprisal if caught disobeying forest law. Stands comprised largely – or exclusively – of teak were most ferociously guarded. Granted, villagers did sometimes attack the armed police forces, and notably when the police forces were caught undertaking clandestine operations themselves, and also burned the state-owned forests of teak and pine (principally Pinus merkusii). At this time, the forest service also became more centralised, which further alienated a forest service from the villagers that, despite its now Indonesian-run state, reflected distinctly its Dutch ancestral roots, and diametrically opposed the traditional Javanese agrarian lifestyle. As a consequence of villager exclusion, the quality of the Javanese forests progressively declined over the decades because villagers had to resort to ‘theft’ to obtain what they could once gain on a subsistence basis (or to support black market demands for teak, in order to supplement the limited wages they would gain by working for the State Forestry Corporation on an ad hoc basis), which has contributed to sometimes quite severe environmental degradation. Such issues are still pertinent today.

Principal source

Peluso, N. (1992) Rich Forests, Poor People: Resource Control and Resistance in Java. USA: University of California Press.

Additional sources

Benda, H. & Castles, L. (1969) The Samin Movement. Bijdragen tot de Taal-, Land-en Volkenkunde. 125 (2). p207-240.

Boomgaard, P. (1992) Forest management and exploitation in colonial Java, 1677-1897. Forest & Conservation History. 36 (1). p4-14.

Colchester, M. (2006) Justice in the forest: rural livelihoods and forest law enforcement. Indonesia: CIFOR.

Galudra, G. & Sirait, M. (2009) A discourse on Dutch colonial forest policy and science in Indonesia at the beginning of the 20th century. International Forestry Review. 11 (4). p524-533.

Honna, J. (2010) The legacy of the New Order military in local politics: West, Central and East Java. In Aspinall, E. & Fealy, G. (eds.) Soeharto’s New Order and its Legacy. Australia: The Australian National University.

Korver, A. (1976) The Samin movement and millenarism. Bijdragen tot de Taal-, Land-en Volkenkunde. 132 (2-3). p249-266.

Lindayati, R. (2002) Ideas and institutions in social forestry policy. In COlfer, C. & Resosudarmo, I. (eds.) Which Way Forward?: People, Forests, and Policymaking in Indonesia. USA: Resources for the Future.

Lounela, A. (2012) Contesting State Forests in Post-Suharto Indonesia: Authority Formation, State Forest Land Dispute, and Power in Upland Central Java, Indonesia. Austrian Journal of South-East Asian Studies. 5 (2). p208-228.

Maring, P., (2015) Culture of control versus the culture of resistance in the case of control of forest. Makara Hubs-Asia. 19 (1). p27-38.

Peluso, N. (1991) The history of state forest management in colonial Java. Forest & Conservation History. 35 (2). p65-75.

Peluso, N. (1993) ‘Traditions’ of forest control in Java: Implications for social forestry and sustainability. Global Ecology and Biogeography Letters. 3 (4-6). p138-157.

Smiet, A. (1990) Forest ecology on Java: conversion and usage in a historical perspective. Journal of Tropical Forest Science. 2 (4). p286-302.

Vandergeest, P. & Peluso, N. (2006) Empires of forestry: Professional forestry and state power in Southeast Asia, Part 1. Environment and History. 12 (1). p31-64.

A history of state forestry in Java, Indonesia

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