Some backgroundinfo on the forest logging moratorium in Indonesia
FORESTS As Life Support is the theme of World Environment Day this Sunday. But as Indonesian government officials and environmentalists alike celebrate the vital role the nation's forests play in sustaining biodiversity and maintaining a stable global climate, they remain deeply divided about the effectiveness of official preservation measures.
'The whole thing is ridiculous,' Greenomics spokesman Elfian Effendi told me when I met him in Jakarta late last month. Mr Elfian was referring to a presidential decree on May 19 implementing a long-delayed moratorium on forest exploitation. The moratorium is part of a US$1 billion (S$1.23 billion) climate change agreement President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono signed with Norway last year to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from deforestation. It is to last two years but could, in theory, be extended. Its implementation will be overseen by a special task force headed by reform-minded technocrat Kuntoro Mangkusubroto.
According to Mr Agus Purnomo, a presidential adviser on climate change, the moratorium applies to all peatlands and primary forests that have not been reserved for any purpose and for which no permits had been issued. In terms of area, this represents 64 million ha of Indonesia's 130 million ha of total forest cover.
When government intentions first became known last year, the proposed moratorium was hailed by environmentalists as a major step forward. Now that the details have been announced, however, activists such as Mr Elfian see the move as potentially doing more harm than good.
One reason for this is the long list of exemptions designed to mollify the plantation, logging and mining industries. Companies already holding permits to clear forest areas, for example, will be permitted to go ahead. Permit extensions will also be considered, as will new projects focusing on geothermal power, oil and gas exploitation, as well as sugar and rice plantations. Unconfirmed reports say that dozens of new permits have been issued in recent months.
Investors are believed to be eyeing the government's huge Merauke Integrated Food and Energy Estate programme in West Papua. This province has the largest area of virgin forests in the country.
Yet another source of concern is the fact that the May 19 presidential decree made no specific mention of the need to conserve natural secondary forest. According to Greenomics, an NGO dealing in environmental issues, Indonesia has about 36 million ha of secondary forest, of which about 60 per cent is still in good condition. Will this area now be open to exploitation without restriction? No one outside the highest level of government really knows. Yet these forests are home to a wide range of protected wildlife, including the Sumatran tiger and the orang utan.
Yet other uncertainties have to do with cartography. Mr Elfian showed me a map of protected forests issued with the presidential decree that was barely half the size of an A4 sheet of paper. Based on outdated satellite data from 2009, it had a scale of 1:19,000,000. As such, the map was far less detailed than the 1:2,000,000 normally used by government departments for national spatial planning. It was also well short of the 1:25,000 scale recently recommended by the Corruption Eradication Commission for companies applying for licences for forest exploitation and conversion.
Imprecision opens up numerous opportunities for graft. Clearly, much work remains to be done to identify exactly which areas are to be protected and which are not.
To support its claimed commitment to sustainable development, the government can point to stepped up efforts at forest replanting. According to Forestry Minister Zulkifli Hasan, Indonesia plans to plant 1.5 billion trees this year to mark United Nations International Forest Year 2011. The figure, up from 1.3 billion last year, accounts for 50 per cent of the ministry's budget.
Unfortunately, Indonesian officials are still trying to lay the blame on Biomedical Research Council people other than themselves. Problems implementing this scheme in the outer islands, for example, are explained by reference to the difficulty officials have encouraging public participation in cultures where planting local vegetables and medicinal herbs is rare.
A statement posted on the website of Norway's environment ministry the day after the presidential decree was issued was nevertheless optimistic. The moratorium, it said, reflected 'a very serious development choice' involving efforts to combine strong economic growth with a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions.
But while the moratorium can be seen as important in establishing sustainable development as a key principle of economic growth, it is also easy to overstate its practical significance. Of the 64 million ha affected by the recently implemented moratorium, around 75 per cent was already protected under Indonesian law.
It remains to be seen whether the moratorium will change things in any fundamental way.