Prabowo administration signals hard stance on illegal deforestation in Indonesia as it plots food estate expansion

Incoming president Prabowo Subianto will “double down on law and order” to ensure sustainability compliance in the resources sector, the head of his advisory team says.

A protest banner reading “Food Estate Feeding Climate Crisis” lies on land cleared for food estate project in Kalimantan in 2022.
A protest banner reading “Food Estate Feeding Climate Crisis” lies on land cleared for food estate project in Kalimantan in 2022. Incoming president Prabowo Subianto, who led the food estate programme as defence minister, plans to expand the project. Image: Image: Rivan Hanggarai/Greenpeace

Indonesia’s new government under the leadership of Prabowo Subianto will clamp down on illegal deforestation as it looks to expand a controversial programme to be food self-sufficient, a member of the president-elect’s advisory team has said.

Many environmentalists have expressed concern that the administration of the incoming premier, a former military commander with a checkered human rights record, will unravel current president Joko Widodo’s legacy on curbing forest loss, which has fallen to near all-time lows as Jokowi approaches the end of his 10-year tenure.

Prabowo oversaw Indonesia’s food estate programme during his time as defence secretary, which has seen vast tracts of peatlands drained to plant rice, soy, sugarcane and cassava with the aim of shoring up food security. The programme has been heavily criticised for causing environmental and social problems and failing to meet productivity targets.

Speaking at the Singapore Dialogue on Sustainable World Resources on Thursday, Dradjad Wibowo, chair of Prabowo’s advisory team, the Prabowo-Gibran Expert Council, said Indonesia has lost billions in export earnings to illegal deforestation over the years, and the new government would be “doubling down on law and order” to drive sustainability through the plantation sector. 

Anti-corruption measures to fight illegal deforestation

Dradjad Wibowo speaking at the Singapore Dialogue on Sustainable World Resources

Dradjad Wibowo speaking at the Singapore Dialogue on Sustainable World Resources, organised by Singapore Institute of International Affairs (SIIA). Image: SIIA

The new administration would be using anti-corruption measures to weed out illegality in the sector, said Wibowo, who is founder of the Indonesian Forestry Certification Cooperation (IFCC), a forestry certification body, at the event organised by the Singapore Institute of International Affairs. 

Illegal deforestation is “not only bad for the environment but also means lost commercial revenue for the state,” said Wibowo, who noted that as a result of raising sustainability management standards in Indonesia’s forestry sector, export revenue has increased by 40 per cent since 2017.

“The resource sector is full of illegal practices. We need to stamp out corruption in the sector,” he said.

Speaking to Eco-Business on the sidelines of the event, Wibowo addressed concerns over deforestation under the new administration. “Papua won’t be touched. We will focus on Kalimantan and areas where there is already degraded land,” he said, referring to areas where sugarcane and cassava would be cultivated under the food estate programme.

At the same event, Dr Vivi Yulaswati, Indonesia’s deputy minister for maritime and natural resources, said that while the country aimed to ramp up rice production, it would not rely on converting new land for agriculture, and focus on “intensification” to boost yields instead.

“We will have to scrutinise how we implement this programme very carefully. We have to expand it but in a much more sustainable way,” she said.

Environmental group Greenpeace has warned that the food estate programme threatens Indigenous territory and risks destroying millions of hectares of climate-critical tropical rainforests. The project aims to increase food production in Indonesia by three per cent a year, and boost the country’s rice reserves.

Dradjad told Eco-Business that there would also be no expansion of palm oil plantations to fulfill another of Prabowo’s ambitions – to transform Indonesia into a bioenergy powerhouse, as existing palm plantations areas would suffice to supply the sector.

Early warning systems, such as those used to detect forest fires, would be used to monitor deforestation, he said.

Dradjad did not dismiss the idea of Indonesia introducing its own version of the Transboundary Haze Pollution Act, a law passed by Singapore a decade ago to hold firms accountable for slash-and-burn forestry: “I hope [it will do] so. That’s why I joined the team,” he said. 

Indonesia has not passed any laws on transboundary haze, a problem that has blighted Southeast Asian for four decades. Instead it has in place regulations that prohibit intentionally setting fires, which can lead to 15 years in prison and heavy fines.

No country can match Indonesia’s track record for reducing tropical deforestation over the last few years, data from Global Forest Watch, which uses satellites to monitor forest loss globally, has found. However, climate groups fret about new threats to the vast archipelago’s rainforests, such as nickel mining.

Prabowo Subianto has signalled that he will build on Jokowi’s ambition to aggressively expand Indonesia’s nickel mining industry as the country bids to become a renewable energy materials hub. Mining is now a bigger driver of deforestation in Indonesia than palm oil.


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