Indonesia in 2017: A fighting chance for peat protection, but an infrastructure beatdown for indigenous communities

The country was faced with both challenges and milestones last year, with its forest-protection efforts, recognition of indigenous rights and balancing of infrastructure needs with local livelihoods.

2017 saw Indonesia once again fulfilling its economic development potential.

The Southeast Asian nation started out the year with mixed superlatives: home to the third-largest stretch of tropical forest in the world, after the Amazon and the Congo Basin, but also plagued by some of the highest rates of deforestation and carbon emissions of any country on Earth.

On the ground, the country’s indigenous groups made piecemeal progress on government promises for greater autonomy to manage their lands and forests sustainably, while continuing to suffer violence and land grabs. Those problems could intensify in the coming year as parliament looks set to pass new legislation that would heavily favor palm oil companies.

For peat’s sake

In the wake of massive land fires in 2015 that blanketed much of the region in a choking haze for months, President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo rolled out various measures to protect the carbon-rich peat forests that are the most vulnerable to these nearly annual blazes.

In 2016, the president established an agency, called the BRG, to spearhead nationwide efforts to restore degraded peat forests; announced a moratorium on the draining of peat swamps, which leaves them highly combustible; and issued his signature piece of anti-haze regulation, which calls for, among other things, companies to conserve peat areas within their concessions.

The 2016 regulation was followed last year by a string of implementing regulationsissued by the Ministry of Environment and Forestry, containing detailed instructions on how companies should comply.

But at the same time, legislators are pushing for wholesale amendments to legislation on the palm oil industry, something which critics say would constitute a favorable deal for large corporations and a means for vested interests to undermine the peat protection measures put in place by President Jokowi.

Critics point out that an article in the bill states explicitly that plantations may be developed in peat areas, thereby undermining attempts to keep companies from further destroying these important ecosystems.

Legislators have made the bill a priority for passage this year, saying it will help farmers and make Indonesia’s palm oil industry more globally competitive. The bill’s backers in parliament accuse Western stakeholders of carrying out a smear campaign to boost their own soybean and rapeseed oil industries. Indonesia currently produces more than half of the world’s supply of palm oil, which is the dominant vegetable oil commodity in use today, found in products ranging from toothpaste to dairy creamer to biodiesel.

“Indonesia is currently actively campaigning for sustainable palm oil to the outside world,” says Maryo Saputra, campaign division head of the NGO Sawit Watch. “But when this bill is passed, all of those efforts will be for nothing because the bill says that you can plant oil palm trees on peat soil.”

Throughout 2017, environmental protection, especially on peat zones which are essential, has been challenged by systemic efforts to defy the laws and policies by corporates.

Indonesian Forum for the Environment (Walhi)

The pushback against the peat-protection regulations have come not just from parliament, but also industry groups and government officials, who say it will hurt investor confidence in Indonesia. In particular, they oppose the requirement to cease planting in deep peat and conserve those areas, on the grounds that it would hurt the pulp and paper industry, especially in Sumatra Island’s Riau province, home to 14,000 square kilometers (5,400 square miles) of industrial timber plantations — an area the size of the state of Connecticut.

This past June, a labor union in Riau, one of the regions hardest hit by the annual fires, filed a legal challenge against the requirement, which is stipulated under an environment ministry regulation. In October, the country’s highest court deemed the regulation unconstitutional, arguing that it would create legal uncertainty and give rise to further problems if it continued to be enforced.

The government says the ruling will not hamper its efforts to conserve peat areas. The core defenses, including protected-area status for at least 30 percent of peat domes — landscapes where the peat is so deep that the center is topographically higher than the edges — are already enshrined in the 2016 presidential regulation.

Another measure that has been hotly contested is a requirement for companies to revise their work plans, which explain where they intend to operate in the coming years and must be approved by the state. The revised plans will allow the environment ministry to identify parts of existing concessions that it has already mapped out for conservation, and which the companies will be required to rewet to prevent fires.

PT Riau Andalan Pulp and Paper (RAPP), a subsidiary of Indonesia’s second-largest pulp and paper firm, fought back against the ministry’s order to submit new work plans, arguing that doing so would severely affect its production and force it to lay off thousands of workers. The company insisted it should be allowed to operate in the areas the ministry deemed off-limits until the expiration of its existing work plans in 2019. That prompted the ministry to void those work plans.

In November, RAPP filed suit with a court in Jakarta, seeking to repeal the ministry’s order nullifying its work plans. But in December the court ruled against RAPP, and the company subsequently said it would comply with the ministry’s order to submit new work plans.

“Throughout 2017, environmental protection, especially on peat zones which are essential, has been challenged by systemic efforts to defy the laws and policies by corporates,” the Indonesian Forum for the Environment (Walhi), the country’s largest environmental pressure group, said in a press statement.

Where there’s smoke

The government’s efforts to protect peat areas, and hence mitigate the inevitable fires that accompany the annual clearing of land for new oil palm and pulp plantations, met with little success at first.

The fires began in earnest in July, flaring up in provinces with no history of land and forest fires, such as East Nusa Tenggara and Aceh. That month, the number of recorded hotspots was 49 percent higher than in July of 2016, according to data from the Ministry of Environment and Forestry.

The government responded to the issue by declaring a state of emergency in five provinces: Riau, Jambi, South Sumatra, West Kalimantan and South Kalimantan.

By the end of the year, there were fewer than 2,500 hotspots on record — a drop of 89 percent from the figure in 2015, according to data from the Coordinating Ministry for the Economy. The total area affected by fires also declined 95 percent to 1,250 square kilometers (482 square miles) during the same period.

While more rains certainly helped reduce the number of hotspots, ultimately it was the efforts by various stakeholders to mitigate the fires that proved most effective, said Darmin Nasution, the coordinating minister for the economy.

One of those mitigation efforts was the rewetting of dried-out peat swamps, coordinated by the BRG. Throughout 2017, the agency managed to rewet 2,000 square kilometers (770 square miles) in six provinces: Jambi, Riau, South Sumatra, West Kalimantan, Central Kalimantan and South Kalimantan. That was still only half of its target of 4,000 square kilometers.

But the government isn’t stopping there. In December, it announced an ambitious plan to halve the number of hotspots by 49 percent by 2019, compared to business-as-usual levels. The government aims to meet the target by ensuring 121,000 square kilometers (46,720 square miles) of land is kept free of fire.

The rollout of the plan comes as Indonesia’s weather agency, the BMKG, predicts drier-than-usual conditions in parts of the country starting in May this year, as a result of the La Niña weather system.

This story was published with permission from Read the full story.


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