Big news from Indonesia – President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo recently announced a comprehensive ban on new mining and palm oil plantations in the country. Though, alone, it’s not enough, the move is the clearest sign that Indonesia’s globally crucial tropical forests can be protected from future deforestation and accompanying fires.
“Indonesia’s rapidly vanishing forests are in dire need of urgent protection, a fact the President has recognized with his very welcome moratorium announcement,” said Longgena Ginting, Greenpeace Indonesia country director.
The key test of whether this ban makes a difference will come when the next dry season arrives and whether or not there is a reduction of tropical forest fires connected to deforestation. This matters because Indonesia’s tropical forests and peatlands form one of the world three major “lungs,” along with the Amazon and Congo river basins, that are responsible for sucking up carbon and producing oxygen.
Indonesia also contains incredible biodiversity. According to the Rainforest Action Network, 10 percent of the world’s known plant species, 12 percent of mammal species and 17 percent of all known bird species can be found on the archipelago’s forests – which are being cut down faster than anywhere else in the world.
Destroying rainforests is a major contributor to climate change, with land use accounting for about a quarter of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, according to the IPCC. Thus, stopping deforestation is key to achieving global climate goals.
Presently, Indonesia is one of the biggest emitters of GHG in the world.
What the Ban Does and Does Not Mean
The ban is the latest in a series of efforts that shows Indonesia is taking deforestation and fire prevention seriously. Late last year, the government – for the first time – moved to hold companies on whose land fires were burning responsible. Then, earlier this year, President Jokowi announced the creation of a Peat Restoration Agency, and appointed the highly-respected former director of Wetlands International, Nazir Doead, to lead it. The agency is tasked with restoring two million hectares of peatlands by 2019.
This ban would prevent the granting of any more licenses for palm oil plantation or mining concessions, and could also restrict the expansion of palm oil plantations into land also granted, but not yet deforested.
Unfortunately, the ban is in the form of a Inpres (think a U.S. presidential executive order), which does not make it legally binding, just easier for the President to push through. Violations would only be subject to administrative sanctions, not criminal penalties, which may make the ban weak in reality.
Moreover, the ban does not impact existing palm plantations, which cover an estimated nine million hectares, or mining concessions. In fact, President Jokowi wants to intensify production on existing plantations in order to meet goals for increased use of biofuels within the country – evidence that the Inpres is not a sign the country is shifting away from the oily fruit.
For mines, the move actually does little, as, due to low prices for the dirty fuel globally, many mines are actually shutting down anyway. Moreover, the ban doesn’t address the dirty reality of how mining was conducted over the past several years, particularly on the Indonesian side of Borneo, where the landscape is scarred and there are high levels of water pollution.
“For too long mining permits have been obtained easily without considering the permanent environmental damage caused,” said Hindun Mulaika, Climate and Energy Campaigner for Greenpeace Indonesia, in a statement. “Mine reclamation will never be able to restore lost biodiversity.” Greenpeace is also concerned about the government’s insistence on moving forward with plans to construct 117 new coal-fired power plants throughout the country, on top of the existing 42, which they believe would be devastating for the environment.
There are others who worry that this is all high talk and no action, and with good reason. Just five years ago, Indonesia’s previous President, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, announced to much global fanfare a similar moratorium on forests concessions. But on the ground, little changed – most land had been permitted before the moratorium anyway, and there was no comprehensive effort to stop illegal deforestation. Nearly 35 percent of Teso Nillo National Park in Sumatra has been cut down over the past several years.
In fact, a study from the USDA found that the moratorium had no impact at all in stopping the growth of palm oil plantation. How can we be sure this ban won’t be just as ineffectual?
Governance Is Key
Indonesia’s deforestation is not an issue of lack of legal protections, or even corporate complicity. It is, chiefly, a problem of governance. The lack thereof resulted in the 2011 moratorium failing.
Natural resources make up a huge portion of government revenues, particularly on the regional level, and Indonesia’s system of decentralization limits what role the central Government can play in regulating each region’s resource sector. Complicating the issue is the fact that officials don’t seem to know where concessions are, what plantations are illegal and on whose land the fires took place last year.
“Improving transparency on forest data including mining, palm oil and pulpwood concessions is a crucial prerequisite for implementing and monitoring the president’s plan,” said Ginting. “Greenpeace looks forward to the publication of this data, which has been kept from the public for too long.”
The key to better governance will be reducing corruption. Not surprisingly, corruption is a major problem in the natural resources sector, and one reason that many believe that Indonesia is still refusing to shift away from coal – despite low prices and the country’s obvious potential for renewable energy development. Many politicians have extensive holdings in coal.
“It is common knowledge in Indonesia that politicians in all levels have ties in the extractive industries, from palm oil to coal mining,” said Fiyanto. “ Corruption is a chronic problem in the natural resources sector.”
Earlier this year, the country’s most trusted institution, Corruption Eradication Commission recommended that 3,900 mining permits be revoked due to ethical issues. Advocates are pushing for a thorough investigation of the entire natural resources sector, including palm oil.
Unfortunately, decades of bad governance, environmental degradation and ineffective global supply chain management, cannot be fixed in just a few months. But ostensible efforts are underway. The Indonesian president has only just finished his first year and half in office and has made clean governance a centerpiece of his administration.
Responsibility for preventing further fires will ultimately rest on civil society, scientists, foreign governments, companies and even journalists, to ensure that we do everything we can to monitor, track and raise awareness of the need to end the rampant destruction of Indonesia’s natural heritage.