Recent developments in curbing high levels of forest loss around the world are promising. They are significant because deforestation, including the clearing of trees from peat swamps in South-east Asia, is the biggest source of global warming emissions from human activity, after fossil fuel burning.
Indonesia has the eighth largest forest area on the planet and half the global total of tropical peatland. It is the world’s leading emitter of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases from deforestation.
So Indonesia’s announcement last month that, starting next January, it will place a two-year moratorium on new permits to clear forests and peatlands is a potentially important advance in a programme to help developing countries protect forests. In fact, advocates of the United Nations-backed forest preservation scheme, Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (Redd), argue that it is the fastest and cheapest way to cut greenhouse emissions.
Indonesian officials say they will honour existing forest concessions but use the moratorium to get plantation companies to expand on six million hectares of degraded land that was once covered by trees but is now unproductive.
In return for Indonesia’s suspension of forest-clearing permits and other reforms to improve land management, Norway announced that it would provide US$1 billion (S$1.4 billion) to fund the programme. This will mirror similar schemes in Brazil and other major tropical forest nations in South America, Africa, Asia and the South Pacific. A group of developed nations, including Australia, Britain, Denmark, France, Germany, Japan, Norway, Sweden and the United States, have separately pledged more than US$4 billion to pay for Redd.
All this sounds good on paper. But implementing forest conservation schemes poses many challenges. Indonesia illustrates the scale of the challenge.
For a start, how do you ensure that the money paid to cut emissions actually does so and that the benefits flow down to local communities and small farmers, the intended beneficiaries of the scheme?
Some Indonesian officials would like the deal with Norway to be expanded from payments of a fixed sum per tonne of carbon dioxide emissions verifiably reduced through forest preservation, to rewards for efforts to expand forest cover by tree planting.
In January, Indonesia announced that it planned to plant 21 million hectares with trees. This would help achieve President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s commitment to reduce greenhouse emissions by 26 per cent relative to business-as-usual levels by 2020, or as much as 41 per cent with the help of international partners.
Environmentalists have expressed concern that enlarging forest cover in Indonesia would focus on planting commercial timber and oil palm plantations, which they blame for much of the primary forest burning and peatland drainage that have already taken place.
Peatland is formed as plants rot in water-saturated areas. By some measures, it stores nearly 450 billion tonnes of carbon worldwide, substantially more than the 290 billion tonnes held in forests.
Apart from the power of vested commercial interests, widespread corruption and the increasing decentralisation in Indonesia pose challenges. Just last month, Indonesia’s anti-graft commission announced that it was investigating corruption in the forestry sector that had cost the state more than US$100 billion. A forestry ministry official explained that a ‘big percentage’ of companies given permission to use forest resources had broken laws designed to limit damage to the environment and protect Indonesia’s rich biodiversity.
Still, the rate of deforestation in Indonesia has reportedly slowed in recent years although it is still expected to reach nearly 1.2 million hectares this year. The UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) said in March that Asia had moved from having a net loss of forest cover in the 1990s to having a net gain in the five years to 2005, primarily due to large-scale tree planting in China. However, the FAO found that global deforestation, driven mainly by conversion of forests to agricultural land, continued at ‘an alarmingly high rate’ of about 13 million hectares per year.
Several months earlier, a group of specialists scaled back the commonly used estimate of deforestation’s contribution to global greenhouse gas emissions. They said it was now about 15 per cent, including peat degradation, not 20 per cent. But they cautioned that this was a relative decline due to fossil fuel emissions rising faster than deforestation emissions.
Whether Redd programmes can overcome serious obstacles and bring tree loss under control in the primary forests of Indonesia and other tropical forest-rich nations will be a key test of governance reform.
The writer is a visiting senior research fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies