Yudhoyono needs to walk the green talk

President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono is known for his impassioned speeches in support of the environment at international forums. Indonesia’s President has also made some heady promises, including a pledge last year to cut his country’s carbon emissions by up to 40 per cent by 2020. His record at home, however, has been patchy, with conservationists questioning the extent to which he regards environmental issues as a priority.

Last month, Dr Yudhoyono sought to put all this behind him. On May 26, he signed an agreement in Oslo with the Norwegian government that required Indonesia to stop converting primary forests and peatlands into oil palm plantations for two years. In return, Norway undertook to provide the country with US$1 billion (S$1.4 billion) in compensation.

Deforestation and peatland conversion is widely acknowledged to be a major cause of greenhouse gas emissions. But not everyone is impressed with the agreement, which is being implemented as a result of a deal reached at the Copenhagen climate talks in December last year.

The Indonesian Environmental Forum, for example, wants the pact to include logging.

Critics are also wary of loopholes. A presidential decree in March allowing mining, power plant, transport and renewable energy projects (especially geothermal ones) in protected forests has already sparked controversy. Mining activities in Kalimantan were in the spotlight earlier this year, following reports that almost 200 mining concessionaires were operating in conservation areas and causing massive environmental destruction.

Meanwhile, an ambitious plan to turn 1.6 million hectares of fertile land in the eastern-most region of Papua into an enormous food estate has raised concerns about forest destruction and the marginalisation of small farmers. Coordinating Minister for the Economy Hatta Radjasa insists the project will not damage the environment. Only scrubland, he says, will be converted. Environmentalists, however, remain unconvinced.

The battle between environmental concerns and the demands of developers is obvious. About 36 local and foreign companies have expressed interest in the US$6 billion project, which is expected to produce 1 million tonnes of rice and 800,000 to 1.2 million tonnes of sugar annually.

But it is not simply the limited scope of the moratorium that has been challenged. The economics of the idea has also come under fire. Greenomics, a local environmentalist study group, says the proposed two-year moratorium could prevent the conversion of some 1.97 million hectares of natural forest and peatland but it warned that the compensation offered by Norway was too small. Greenomics executive director Elfian Effendi says studies by his organisation suggest that Indonesia would need at least US$7.5 billion in financial compensation to stop the conversion of just 1.48 million hectares of natural forest and peatland.

The government, he charges, failed to make accurate economic calculations before agreeing to the two-year moratorium.

Mr Effendi may well be right. ‘I don’t know exactly when the idea of the moratorium began and why it should be in two years. I have never heard discussions in Jakarta before (the Oslo meeting),’ Mr Haryadi Himawan, a senior official at the Forestry Ministry, told the media last week.

The lack of planning is also evidenced in reports that the agreement has forced officials to delay a much-awaited regulation on peatland protection. The current draft, created to implement the 2009 environmental law, reportedly allows companies to utilise peatland areas that are under 3m deep. The Oslo pact is likely to result in a presidential decree tightening these conditions.

Many plantations operate on peatland, and it is likely that they are now engaged in intensive lobbying regarding the implications of the policy change. ‘The palm oil industry should be well protected by the government due to its significant contribution to the country’s non-oil and gas exports,’ secretary-general of the Indonesian Palm Oil Association Joko Supriyono told the Jakarta Post earlier this month.

The extent that Dr Yudhoyono bows to such pressure will be closely watched. He has already pledged to personally monitor the way the moratorium is implemented by local administrations.

The agreement with Oslo calls for Jakarta to establish a powerful agency similar to the highly successful Aceh Rehabilitation and Reconstruction Agency (BRR) to oversee the billion-dollar fund. Selecting former BRR chairman Kuntoro Mangkusubroto, who now runs the President’s Delivery Unit for Development Monitoring and Oversight, would send a strong signal that Dr Yudhoyono is serious.

Even so, environmentalist groups are well aware that progress will be an uphill battle. The 2009 environment law required strong support from conservationist groups to ensure its passage through Parliament.

A similar battle with vested interests can be expected when it comes to this latest attempt to deal with Indonesia’s environmental problems.

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