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Environmentalists help mediate land disputes in Indonesia

Environmentalists in Indonesia have begun training their own mediators -- in response to a worsening conflict between small-hold farmers and larger plantation companies in areas plagued by forest fires. The number of conflicts has increased in recent years in communities in Sumatra and Kalimantan.

JAKARTA: Where there is smoke, there is conflict -- across large expanses of oil and paper plantations in Indonesia, the burning issue of land disputes is a worsening source of tension.

In Riau province, clearing land is a lucrative business, but local farmers are angry. Environmental groups said that anger means that not all parties are working together to prevent the hazardous haze that cripples communities near and far on an increasingly regular basis.

Ahmad Dhiaulhaq, a conflict management researcher at The Centre for People and Forests, said: "In some conflict situations, fire sometimes is used to express the dissatisfaction of the local communities. It becomes less of an incentive for the stakeholders involved in the conflict to participate in managing and controlling the fire."

In 2013 alone, there were 62 documented cases of conflict, a number of deliberately lit fires, and five people killed.

Now, independent groups are stepping in -- in the absence of official mediation support, such independent groups are providing their own resources to try and build trust between the conflicting parties.

Mr Dhiaulhaq added: "There is a lot of conflict now but the number of mediators and their capacity are still low. So how can we rely on the limited number of mediators, considering there is a lot of conflict happening?

"What we are doing is building the capacity of the mediators -- not just from NGOs but also from private companies and the government -- and (train them so that) they can better deal with the conflicts."

However, there are hurdles to this dialogue process. Mr Dhiaulhaq admits mediation requires local government support and is still not legally binding.

On a national level, the Indonesian government appears to be prioritising environmental protection after decades of near impunity for companies exploiting the country's vast natural resources.

Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono wants stronger legislation for better protection of peatland and forests, and has highlighted the need for creating prosperity while minimising harm to the delicate ecosystems.

Dr Yudhoyono said: "Forest management is a cross-cutting issue, and not only about keeping the trees. It is about striking a balance between the need for conserving the environment, and guaranteeing the rights of local communities over their customary forests."

It is a difficult balancing act but one which is essential to ensuring Indonesia's natural treasures do not go up in smoke.

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