Sep 20, 2018 Last Updated 3:08 AM, Sep 19, 2018

Negotiating adat

Seren Taun has become quite well-known due to wide media coverage - Dean Yulindra Affandi
Published: Feb 22, 2016

Dean Yulindra Affandi

Throughout much of the second half of the twentieth century, the Indonesian government laid claim to exclusive authority over a vast forest estate comprising nearly three-quarters of the nation’s terrestrial area. It also claimed control over the ways people could interact with the natural environment. The classification known as kawasan hutan negara (state forest area) was conceived by the colonial government, but was expanded dramatically during the Suharto era. It shifted the locus of authority over forest territories and resources firmly to the central government. Consequently, the state ignored masyarakat adat (customary communities), and the access and management rights that are mediated by their customary laws and traditions.

Adat is the term used in Indonesia to describe this myriad of customary systems. It refers to, among other things, rules, perceptions, moral concepts, forms of agreement, conventions, principles, modes of behaviour, ceremony, the practice of magic, sorcery, and ritual.

Kasepuhan have been clearing and cultivating patches of forest for centuries - Dean Yulindra Affandi
Kasepuhan have been clearing and cultivating patches of forest for centuries - Dean Yulindra Affandi

The reformasi period brought a groundswell of support for masyarakat adat, enabling them to organise themselves to advocate for recognition of their customary rights and regulatory practices – particularly for the restoration of their hak ulayat (sovereignty over specific areas of land and resources).

On 16 May 2013, Indonesia’s Constitutional Court handed down its decision in case number 35/PUU-X/2012 (hereafter referred to as MK 35). It decreed that forest lands occupied by masyarakat adat should not be classified as state forest. The judgment invalidated the government’s ownership claim to all the country’s forests and their resources, a claim based on the 1999 Forestry Law. The decision potentially opens the way for a major reallocation of forests back to the communities who have long occupied and looked after them.

Kasepuhan community

The Kasepuhan are an adat community living in the forest at Halimun-Salak, in the Lebak District, Banten Province. At present there are 57 Kasepuhan groups scattered throughout the forest area, totalling around 50,000 people. They live in the largest tract of relatively pristine rainforest remaining in Java. The forest cover in the Halimun-Salak area is estimated to be about 60,000 hectares. Since the Dutch colonial period, the area has been designated as a protected forest based on its rich biodiversity and hydrological importance.

It takes only six hours to drive from Jakarta to reach the Kasepuhan settlements, indicating how close this large and biologically diverse forest is to the teeming national capital. Even during the heyday of Dutch botanical exploration, relatively few attempts were made to explore and exploit this area. According to many Kasepuhan people, the primary reason for this was the belief that this whole section of south western Java is inhabited by spirits, reflected in the oft-cited aphorism, ‘nyumput buni di nu caang’ (Sundanese: hiding in plain sight).

Kasepuhan claim that they have been clearing and cultivating the patches of forest in this area since long before the Dutch arrived, and perceive themselves as the original owners and guardians of the region and its forests. According to the oral history passed down through the generations, the Kasepuhan people originated from the last Hindu Kingdom in Java, the Pajajaran Kingdom, which was vanquished in 1570.

The Kasepuhan community is one of two masyarakat adat that joined together with AMAN (Alliance of Indigenous People of the Archipelago) to petition the Constitutional Court for judicial review in order to gain recognition of their customary rights. The court decision has brought a new opportunity for the Kasepuhan to strengthen their claim on their adat forest.

Forest management

In 2003, the Ministry of Forestry expanded the area of Gunung Halimun National Park by incorporating several regions into the area of Gunung Salak, forming a new park now known as Gunung Halimun Salak National Park. It stretches over an area of 113,357 hectares. The expansion placed much of the Kasepuhan’s adat territory within the boundaries of the park, thus limiting their access to the forestlands on which their livelihoods depend.

According to the Forestry Law, the Kasepuhan communities living inside the national park have no ownership rights. However, in practice they had already come to exercise some degree of management rights. For example, in the timber forests managed by Perhutani (the State Forest Corporation), local community members were employed to plant trees in small plots and in return were allowed to grow crops on them while the trees were still small. This adat intercropping system was called taungya or tumpang sari.

Other de facto management rights were negotiated with national park staff, who realised that in practice it was not realistic to strictly implement the law. They accepted that the Kasepuhan had a right to utilise forestland and resources in certain designated areas and to live within park boundaries. The national park management also designated a special use zone to acknowledge the fact that people live and farm inside the park boundaries. 

These arrangements are informal in nature, but provide the Kasepuhan some sense of land tenure security. Kang Yoyo, a 45-year-old member of the Kasepuhan Cisitu explained to me that, ‘We are sometimes warned off, but when the forest rangers come they feel bad for us. They know the people were already there before the national park. That is why they allow us to use non-timber forest resources for consumption’.

Negotiating forest access

MK 35 has brought new hope to the Kasepuhan. Along with several NGOs, they have been active in articulating and asserting their rights to state authorities. In 2014, with support from a number of NGOs, the Kasepuhan intensively lobbied the regional parliament to issue a new regional regulation officially recognising the Kasepuhan community and their adat territory. This is one of the key goals to be achieved before the Kasepuhan can receive state recognition of their hak ulayat.

The Kasepuhan have re-organised quickly to adapt new institutional bases of access to resources. A Kasepuhan adat association called SABAKI was revived with the help of some NGOs to facilitate negotiations with government on matters including forest access and ownership. The chairman of the organisation holds a government role as head of a sub-district. His appointment has strategic importance in helping the organisation to be acknowledged and recognised by district government.

The regional regulation on Kasepuhan is being discussed by the local parliament Epistema Institute
The regional regulation on Kasepuhan is being discussed by the local parliament Epistema Institute


Some individual Kasepuhan members are actively involved in local political institutions: both the speaker of the regional parliament and the deputy district head are from Kasepuhan groups. Other Kasepuhan individuals serve as members of the regional parliament. Kasepuhan realise the crucial importance of gaining support from the current political regime in order to increase their chances of restoring their hak ulayat. The Kasepuhan cultivate these relationships when they need to negotiate forest access.

Presently, the Kasepuhan are attempting to promote their adat beliefs and customs in an attempt to gain recognition of their claims. For example, they use local media to publicise different aspects of their lives. The harvest festival of Seren Taun has recently become quite well-known due to media coverage. This has had the positive impact of increasing public awareness of the Kasepuhan way of life and increasing public support for its cause.

Another tactic that the Kasepuhan community use to assert their territorial claims has been to present authorities with examples of their customary forest management system. This includes reforestation in various locations where forest had been destroyed or degraded, regardless of who holds the rights to manage it. This reforestation effort serves other purposes besides rehabilitating the forest. It is also a way of staking claim to it. With help from a number of NGOs, the Kasepuhan have begun to identify and visualise their knowledge about the boundaries of their customary territory with the help of modern technology such as GPS (global positioning system) and GIS (geographic information system).

The regional regulation on Kasepuhan is currently being discussed in the local parliament, and is expected to pass within a year. If this happens, the Kasepuhan community would be among the first adat groups in Indonesia to take advantage of the MK 35 decision and restore their hak ulayat.

Kasepuhan adherence to adat values and practice form a pervasive and resilient framework for their day-to-day lives and relationships. One of the adat leaders said to me ‘The Kasepuhan aren’t entering the twenty-first century as defeated people. We won’t degrade ourselves.  We haven’t lost a sense of who we are’. Adat represents both a potent motivating force and an effective resource that they tactically mobilise in order to secure greater autonomy and control over ancestral lands. Adat is both a reason, and a means, to achieve legal recognition of their territory.

Dean Yulindra Affandi (dean.affandi@monash.edu.au) is a research fellow at the Habibie Center and a PhD Candidate at Monash University, Melbourne.

Inside Indonesia 123: Jan-Mar 2016

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