Indonesia bans peatlands destruction

A series of presidential and ministerial instructions bars planting of newly burned areas, instead mandating restoration.

In response to the fires that have hospitalized roughly 500,000 people, polluted skies over a large swathe of southeast Asia, and released upwards of 1.7 billion tonnes of carbon, Indonesian president Joko Widodo has banned clearance and conversion of carbon-dense peatlands across the archipelago.

The move, undertaken through a series of presidential and ministerial instructions issued over the last two-and-a-half weeks, was welcomed on Tuesday by Greenpeace, which has been pushing for measures to curtail destruction of Indonesia’s peatlands.

“President Jokowi is right to seek to prevent next year’s fires by banning further expansion into peatlands, and requiring peat drainage canals be blocked. It is also just that the government has declared burned areas must be rehabilitated rather than planted,” said Greenpeace Indonesia campaigner Yuyun Indradi in a statement.

“President Jokowi’s landmark decision to ban peatland development is a first step toward a cleaner, brighter future for Indonesia’s people and environment. It sets the bar for meaningful commitments from world leaders to tackle the root causes of climate change at the Paris climate summit.”

The government’s instructions bar planting of newly burned areas, instead mandating restoration. They also require drainage canals to be blocked in order to raise water tables and calls for criminal investigations into fires. Notably the instructions ban clearance of peatlands even in existing concession areas.

But while the move could put Indonesia on a path toward resolving its fire and haze crisis, there are no guarantees that Jokowi’s orders will be obeyed.

Indonesia actually has a number of regulations in place that are supposed to protect peatlands, but these have been routinely ignored or circumvented by local officials, companies, and small farmers.

Provincial governors, municipal heads, and village chiefs often encourage drainage of peatlands and push for permits to exploit these areas for oil palm and wood fiber plantations, despite the deleterious ecological impacts, including reduction in the availability of clean water, heightened flood and drought cycles, increased vulnerability to fire, and subsidence.

Greenpeace Yuyun noted that concern.

“This will only succeed if all levels of government across Indonesia are willing to play their part,” he said.

NGOs have called for a legally binding presidential decree, or perppu, which Jokowi’s administration said after a cabinet meeting on October 24 was forthcoming. The instructions are supposed to serve as stopgap measures while a decree is prepared.

A previous version of this article said the government’s edicts had come via a presidential decree, when in fact there have only been a series of instructions, which are not legally binding.

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