When the indigenous community in Sungai Utik turned down an offer to buy its forests in 1973, it didn’t expect to be fighting for its land rights nearly 50 years later.

Like many Dayak Iban elders on the island of Borneo, Apai Janggut can’t determine his precise age. He knows he has to be over 80, because he was born when the Dutch still colonized Indonesia. But you’d never guess he’s that old if you saw the lithe, barefoot ease with which he navigates the dense rainforest his community protects as a sacred gift from its ancestors.

In February, just before Indonesia locked down for COVID-19, I tried (and sometimes failed) to keep up with Apai on a hike through what he calls “the supermarket”—the pristine hardwood forest that has provided almost all of his community’s nutritional and medical needs for the past 130 years. He shared why his community, based in the tiny Indonesian hamlet of Sungai Utik, has fought so hard to protect its forests from encroachment and extraction.

With his lean arms and shoulders adorned in Dayak Iban tattoos inspired by forest flora, Apai pointed to dozens of species of great value to Sungai Utik’s 300 residents—from a potent antimalarial called engkerebai to a towering Dipterocarpus tree that provides a substrate for bees to “make the best honey you’ve ever tasted.” “Our peoples see the forest as our mother, the river as our father,” Apai explained. “They provide us with our food, medicine, clean water, resins for waterproofing canoes, wood for homes—and we have ancient rules for protecting them. We have everything we need in these sacred groves.”

My visits to Sungai Utik have given me a ground-level understanding of what hard science has now proven at the global level: Indigenous peoples are the best stewards of their land and the massive quantities of carbon within them—especially when they gain legal acknowledgment of their land rights. When indigenous peoples secure this formal recognition, they have the authority to fend off extraction, logging, and other commercial operations that result in forest destruction. In fact, the World Resources Institute reports that deforestation is up to seven times lower inside legally recognized indigenous territories than outside them.

Indigenous and other local communities have legitimate claims to nearly half of the world’s land. And yet they have been granted legal rights to less than 20 percent. If indigenous communities and their allies narrow that gap, it will have important implications for all citizens of this warming planet. If we don’t, the math suggests there’s no way, short of an unprecedented technological breakthrough, that governments can meet the Paris climate targets and keep global warming to under 1.5 degrees Celsius.

Granting indigenous peoples the rights to their land isn’t just critical for our planet; it’s more cost- effective than attracting billion-dollar investments from green investors like Bill Gates and multilateral institutions. Competing approaches to climate-change mitigation, such as carbon-capture at coal plants, cost up to 42 times more. Therefore, investing in land rights is not just the right thing to do for indigenous peoples; it’s also a smart, sustainable solution for addressing the greatest environmental threat we all face.

Caterpillars and Chainsaws

Sungai Utik’s struggle to protect its forest, which stores some 1.3 million tons of carbon, began in 1973. That’s when a Malaysian logging company showed up with a large box once full of instant noodles but packed with rolls of cash. Many other loggers, pulp-and-paper companies, and palm-plantation owners soon came bearing gifts.

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To assess these offers, Apai helped lead a slow, careful Dayak Iban deliberation process, enabling all adult members of the community to weigh in on the potential costs and benefits. The community determined that the money would run out quickly, but the damage to the forest would last for generations. “We knew if we lost our forest, we’d lose our culture,” Apai said.

Other areas of Indonesian Borneo, especially those without the close ties and strong leadership of Sungai Utik, signed deals and lost their land. As a result, the rainforest of Borneo, one of the most biodiverse ecosystems in the world, has been decimated. In 1973, more than 75 percent of Borneo was covered in dense forest. Today, only 38 percent of Borneo’s forests remain intact. When flying over Borneo, I see ever-bigger bald spots and more hair plugs—the perfectly spaced rows of monoculture palm trees characteristic of industrial plantations.

Mina Setra, a diminutive 42-year-old woman who has become a giant in the world of indigenous advocacy, grew up in one of the communities that lost its land. “A state-owned company turned the whole community, all 12 villages, into a palm-oil plantation,” she said. “Even the branch of the river where I used to canoe is literally gone. All that remains is a plantation producing oil for American and European lipstick, Nutella, and chocolate.”

Setra has dedicated her life to helping communities like Sungai Utik avoid this fate. In 1999, just before she graduated from college, one of her professors recommended she join a new advocacy organization, now known as the Indigenous People’s Alliance of the Archipelago (AMAN), which has helped 19 million indigenous Indonesians use their voices to speak truth to all levels of power.

In its early days, AMAN, a Ford grantee, had only crumbs for funding, but Setra had found her path. Working for $15 a month, Setra made AMAN’s office her home and slept there on newspapers on the floor, even landing in the hospital twice for malnutrition. “I’ve always loved this work,” she said. “It has given me purpose in life.”

Malnutrition was not the only risk. When Setra was in a rural community supporting peaceful protests against a palm-oil company in 2003, she got her first death threat. A friend burst into the house where she was staying and screamed, “Men are coming to kill you! You have to leave right away!” Setra went into hiding for two weeks, staying in a different home each night. “But then I got on my motorbike, rode over to the company’s office, and stormed in,” she recalled. “I demanded to see the man in charge. I said, ‘I am Mina Setra. He knows me.’ The head of the operation agreed to meet her. “He was so shocked I confronted him.” That company never threatened her again, but others have.

Several of Setra’s close friends and colleagues have paid for their activism with their lives. Yanes Balubun, head of AMAN’s Maluku Province branch, was murdered for protesting a military logging operation. Jopi Peranginangin, who worked for AMAN, was protesting an oil-palm expansion when he was stabbed from behind. “I was with Jopi right after the stabbing,” Setra said. “I’m still haunted by seeing the blood flowing from his body.”

This Land Is Their Land

Apai traces his community’s struggle for legal rights back to 1998, when Indonesia’s military dictator Suharto was forced to step down and a democratic era began. Marginalized communities started to make their voices heard, and Sungai Utik began mapping his community’s territory.

Sungai Utik’s leaders got no help from local, provincial, or national officials in navigating through the bureaucratic maze involving more than 21 government agencies and at least a dozen steps. In fact, they got the opposite: moving targets and roadblocks based on the racist notion that indigenous communities can’t manage their own affairs.

It was not until 2013 that Apai and the community gained a fighting chance to secure their right to their land. That’s when Setra, then AMAN’s director of advocacy, and a team of its lawyers won a landmark victory in Indonesia’s highest court, ruling that customary forests belong to indigenous peoples rather than the state. “I was at a friend’s wedding when I heard the news,” Setra recalled. “I interrupted the party by jumping up and down like I was crazy.”

Despite the win, the community still needed to negotiate land borders with neighboring communities and press its claim with the district government. Unfortunately, the district leader—the bupati—stonewalled Sungai Utik for years. This came as no surprise to community leaders, who knew that district governments have much stronger incentive to grant land concessions to companies—a source of official revenue and off-the-books graft—than to cede forests to their rightful owners. It took six years of advocacy, led by Sungai Utik native son and one-time district legislator Herkulanus Sutomo Manna, to get district leaders to merely lay out the details of what they required in the way of maps and evidence.

A key turning point came in June of 2019 when Sungai Utik won the UN’s Equator Prize, a prestigious award for innovative climate solutions. The international recognition created much-needed external pressure on the bupati to approve a decree that would allow the Ministry of Forestry to visit the community and verify its claim.

Thanks to that pressure, the delegation finally made the visit to Sungai Utik in February of 2020. They stayed in the longhouse, showed admiration for Sungai Utik’s forest stewardship, and asked good questions. “I was optimistic following their visit,” Manna said. “But this process has been so long and so difficult, I didn’t want to assume anything.”

On May 20, 2020, the Ministry of Forestry made it official, signing a hutan adat certificate that gave Sungai Utik permanent ownership of its ancestral land—a victory 22 years in the making. The hutan adat covers all 9,480 hectares of the community’s forestland and another 607 hectares of croplands. It’s the largest parcel of land ever granted to an indigenous community in Indonesia.

When Manna received the news from his good friend Kasmita Widodo, who heads BRWA, a Ford-funded nonprofit that helped Sungai Utik map its land and press its claim, tears welled in his eyes. As soon as he was able to travel to Sungai Utik, he brought together the community in Sungai Utik’s longhouse to share the news. “Everybody became swept away by emotions when they first heard, especially Apai,” he said. “He couldn’t hold back the tears.”

Millions to Go Before We Sleep

AMAN and its partners are working to replicate this victory across the Indonesian archipelago. The country’s president Joko Widodo, known as Jokowi, has committed to transferring rights to 6.5 million hectares to indigenous and other local communities by 2024. That would be a significant down payment toward the 40 million hectares of thriving forest that rightfully belong to Indonesia’s local communities. But given the 22-year, byzantine process Sungai Utik faced—and the fact that the Ministry of Forestry has granted rights to only 45,000 hectares so far—advocates are deeply skeptical that Indonesia can meet Jokowi’s goal.

This is why AMAN, Wahana Lingkungan Hidup Indonesia (Friends of the Earth Indonesia), and other organizations Ford funds are pushing for national legislation that would supersede the current federal laws and cut the district’s red tape, the biggest impediment for Sungai Utik. AMAN is mobilizing its 19 million members to put pressure on national representatives. It has also invested in helping its members win political office to bring more indigenous voices into the rooms where change happens.

As AMAN and its partners push for legislation, they’re struggling to cope with an investment-oriented administration of President Jokowi as well as the strong opposition of corporate interests at a time when civic space is shrinking. Some organizations have been forced to take extra precautions; one organization bought a safehouse for staff so they have a place to go in the case of a police raid.

But these advocates are not backing down. And if they’re successful in passing AMAN’s recommended legislation, it would be a breakthrough even bigger than AMAN’s court victory in 2013. Rukka Sombolinggi, AMAN’s secretary general, projects that it would allow indigenous communities to gain rights to at least another 10.5 million hectares over the next three years.

A Global March

Even if we are only able to make incremental progress here in Indonesia, the momentum at the global level is undeniable. The movement for indigenous land rights is on the march in at least 40 countries across five continents. In less than two decades, hundreds of local communities around the world have won rights to 150 million hectares—an area three times the size of Spain. If five countries implement legislation they’ve already passed, this figure would double overnight. There are approximately 513 million hectares of land in community and indigenous forests globally, so another 150 million hectares would represent a huge win.

Last year, these efforts got a boost from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the world’s most important scientific forum on climate policy. The IPCC embraced the central role of indigenous communities in climate mitigation: “Much of the world’s carbon is stored in the biomass and soil on the territories of customary landowners, including indigenous peoples, making securing of these land tenure regimes vital in land and climate protection.”

But the approach is still severely undercapitalized. Several global organizations are trying to rectify that, including the International Land and Forest Tenure Facility and the Global Alliance of Territorial Communities.

The tenure facility represents the first major funding vehicle designed solely to raise and invest money to help local communities secure their land rights. Its board has strong indigenous representation (including the former secretary general of AMAN), and the facility has landed major investments from the Norwegian government, Swedish government, European Commission, and major private funders like Ford. Since its launch in 2014, it has helped local communities secure more than 6 million hectares of land. Its leaders believe that it can help Indigenous peoples protect up to 91 million hectares over the next 10 years.

The alliance is building the connective tissue between, and power among, major grassroots forest guardians, including AMAN, the Mesoamerican Alliance of Peoples and Forests, Articulation of Indigenous Peoples of Brazil, and Coordinator of Indigenous Organizations of the Amazon Basin. The alliance has helped these organizations link their causes to larger social movements and generate pressure for change with international bodies such as the UN and World Bank.

Earth in the Balance

This year’s International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples comes at a pivotal time for the planet. As COVID-19 spreads into remote corners of the world, the pandemic is exacerbating the inequalities already affecting indigeneous communities, putting their lives and their land at greater risk. For Sungai Utik and indigenous communities across the globe, the biodiversity of their land is a vital resource for their health, food security, and economic welfare, allowing them to remain resilient in the face of this crisis. Not only are their lives on the line, but the pandemic could undermine progress just as indigenous peoples and their allies are forging a globally significant and recognized path to carbon savings.

However, we can harness several countervailing forces. The recession has dramatically changed the economic calculus for industries such as fossil fuels, shelving projects that would have driven higher carbon emissions and deforestation. The pandemic is also demonstrating Mother Nature’s awesome power to disrupt human societies—a point climate activists have been making for decades. In fact, polls show that a record number of people is asking how we can build back in a more environmentally sustainable way. Indigenous leaders, environmental activists, and scientists are advancing another key point about the link between forests and pandemics: If we keep turning forests into plantations, that means more opportunity for pathogens to jump from animals to human beings.

Most importantly, the global uprising against systemic racism has brought new attention to the rights of indigenous peoples. These communities now have the platform—and an engaged audience—to make their case that they are far better stewards of the forests than any government.

Across the archipelago, communities are working together to redistribute food from their forests to those who don't have enough. In doing so, they are also planting seeds that will become new sources of food in the years ahead.

In Sungai Utik, everyone sees the effects of climate change: higher temperatures, more precipitation, greater variation in the growing season. Apai Janggut, who displays Pope Francis’s climate encyclical on his wall, told me that he is hoping indigenous peoples can be a meaningful part of the solution: “We did not create this problem, but we want to help fix it. Just give us the rights we deserve, and we can.”