May 28, 2024 Last Updated 8:34 AM, May 27, 2024

An ongoing environmental challenge

toumbouru  credit-arminhari resize

Tessa Toumbourou

On 11 December 2014, Forest Watch Indonesia released maps of the remaining forest cover in Indonesia’s most heavily forested provinces. The maps paint a dismal picture. Patches of green indicating forests are subject to overlapping mining and plantation permits. In Kalimantan, for example, 78 per cent of the land is now owned by concession (or permit) holders, largely mining and palm oil companies. Real improvements to governance and action from important players, including large land-concession owners, are needed if Indonesia is to slow its current world record rate of forest loss, an indicator of the seventh Millennium Development Goal (MDG 7).

Ambitious targets

Global initiatives to address climate change in Indonesia have focused on forests, including a US$1 billion commitment from Norway to support a moratorium on new concessions in primary forests. Former President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (SBY) set ambitious targets of reducing emissions from deforestation by 26 per cent by 2020—or 42 per cent with international support—to tackle Indonesia’s land use and forestry (LULUCF) emissions. This is no easy feat for Indonesia, the world’s third highest emitter of greenhouse gases, 80 per cent of which comes from the LULUCF sector. Yet despite these commitments, recent studies have found that Indonesia’s rates of deforestation are the world’s highest. Poor governance domestically, coupled with an international market hungry for palm oil, thermal coal, pulp and paper, make slowing Indonesia’s globally high rates of deforestation, and therefore meeting the goals of the seventh MDG, a multi-faceted challenge.

MDG 7 has four targets, two of which are directly environmental: (a) integrate the principles of sustainable development into country policies and programmes and reverse the loss of environmental resources; (b) reduce biodiversity loss, achieving, by 2010 a significant reduction in the rate of loss. The other two targets, which are outside the scope of this article, relate to social aspects of sustainability: (c) increasing access to clean drinking water; and (d) improving the lives of slum dwellers.

The indicator of the first target of MDG 7 is a measure of the proportion of land area covered by forest. According to a study in the journal of Nature Climate Change published in mid-2014, Indonesia is tracking very poorly against this indicator. The article found Indonesia had been greatly under-reporting how much primary forest it was clearing, and that the country has the world’s highest rates of forest loss - an average of 840,000 hectares per year. These high rates of deforestation reveal the ineffectiveness of the SBY permit moratorium, as much forest loss came from the felling of primary forests and in protected areas. Field observations by Forest Watch Indonesia found similarly that forest clearing—including on areas of carbon-rich peat lands—to make way for palm oil plantations, timber plantations and mining had continued despite SBY’s moratorium on land concessions. Another study found that almost 40 per cent of the total primary forest loss within Indonesia’s forests occurred within areas that restrict clearing.

The authority to issue permits for forest and land use is decentralised in Indonesia, which contributes to difficulties implementing and enforcing the moratorium. Until late 2014, district governments had authority to grant permits for mining and plantation concessions. Confusion around laws and a lack of transparency and accountability mechanisms meant that many district heads used their licensing authority as a revenue source to fund election campaigns, issuing permits that didn’t adhere to environmental and forestry laws. In October 2014, a new law on regional governance restored the authority for granting new permits for concessions to provincial and central governments. While these changes are yet to be implemented, environment non-governmental organisations (NGOs) are hopeful the legal change improves the permit-issuing process.

Working with the private sector and local communities on MDG 7

New president Joko Widodo (Jokowi) has acknowledged the threat massive expansion of plantations poses to Indonesia’s remaining forest cover. In November 2014, he stated: ‘It must be stopped. We mustn’t allow our tropical rainforest to disappear because of monoculture plantations like palm oil.’ Partly to improve regulation of the poorly governed permitting process for issuing new concessions, the Jokowi administration combined the environment ministry with the powerful and notoriously corrupt forestry ministry. This move will bring all services related to the issuance of permits for concessions together under one department. In a major commitment to forest issues, the new Environment and Forestry Minister, Siti Nurbaya Bakar, announced on 7 November 2014 that the administration would extend the former government’s moratorium on issuing new concession permits to all forest areas in the country.

While extending the moratorium is laudable, the Jokowi administration will have to do more. The failure of the former government to enforce the moratorium resulted in a proliferation of permits allocated for forested land. Conserving forests within these concessions will be integral to meeting MDG 7 and will involve engagement with the private sector. Some private sector players have indicated interest in working towards sustainability. In February 2013, Asia Pulp & Paper—Indonesia’s top pulp producer—agreed to halt clearance of plantation and degraded land. Wilmar, a company that controls 45 per cent of the world’s palm oil, followed suit with a similar agreement, promising that 100 per cent of the palm oil used in its supply chain would be fully traceable by the end of 2014. Ensuring that these commitments are met and exceeded, and that other lagging companies do the same, will be important to slowing Indonesia’s alarming rates of forest loss.

Another strategy the Jokowi administration could use to meet MDG 7 is ensuring that permits for palm oil and timber plantations are issued for degraded land, rather than primary forests. A US government report has said that there is enough agricultural land to support plantation expansion for another ten years, without having to clear forests. Initiatives such as land swaps, where plantations allocated for high conservation and carbon valuable forests are swapped for already deforested or degraded land, have been introduced. But these land swaps have been slow due to competing and overlapping bureaucracies, unclear land title and confusing regulations.

Certification schemes, such as the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), and Indonesia’s Timber Legality Verification System (SVLK), are potential tools to monitor private sector operations to ensure commitments are implemented. The RSPO requires that for palm oil to be certified, it must not have been planted on former forest land and should use previously cleared and/or degraded land. The market for sustainable palm oil has risen more than 500 per cent over the past five years, yet RSPO certified palm oil is only 18 per cent of the world’s total palm oil sales, reliant on demand from a small portion of the international market. SVLK came into effect in September 2010, and requires all timber producers and processors to be audited against a standard to ensure legality. Gaps in early revisions of the SVLK law and a poor understanding of the scheme meant that it hasn’t been fully implemented, so that illegal logging in palm oil plantations continues unabated.

Finally, protecting Indonesia’s remaining areas of forests and maintaining biological diversity will require supporting community involvement in natural resources management and biodiversity conservation programs. When local communities have security of tenure over the forests on which they depend, biodiversity resources are conserved, and livelihoods are secured. A study published in 2011 found that ‘a forest put away behind a fence and designated ‘protected’ doesn’t necessarily guarantee that canopy cover will be maintained over the long term compared to forests managed by local communities – in fact they lose much more.’ A 2014 study by Rights and Resources indicates the same: deforestation rates in community forests with strong legal recognition are dramatically lower than in forests outside those areas.

Can the new administration succeed where SBY failed?

The participation of all forest actors is needed to protect Indonesia’s remaining forested areas and to improve Indonesia’s environmental performance. Involving the private sector, including pressuring companies that have not yet made sustainability commitments and supporting those that have, will be integral. It will be equally important for local forest-dwelling communities to participate in forest management decisions and secure tenure of these forests.

In order to integrate the principles of sustainable development into Indonesia’s policies and programmes, the Jokowi administration will need to ensure that strategies for lifting annual gross domestic product (GDP) growth above seven per cent within three years are not achieved to the detriment of Indonesia’s ecological resources. Increasing growth while ensuring environmental sustainability is possible and indeed necessary, but will require long-term investments in renewable energy technology over coal and other fossil fuels, and land use planning that prioritises local community livelihoods and protects valuable forests and peatlands.

Tessa Toumbourou ( is an environmental governance researcher based in Jakarta.

Inside Indonesia 119: Jan-Mar 2015{jcomments on}

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