Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono began his first term as president of Indonesia in 2004 with a pledge to plant a million trees a year, in an effort to make up for the massive deforestation the country had experienced over decades.
Five years later, following his re-election, he upped the ante to a billion trees a year. The idea was that this flourishing of foliage would help absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and thus go some way toward mitigating climate change.
By the end of his presidency, in 2014, Yudhoyono claimed the government had planted more than 4 billion trees in the last four years alone, and called on the new president, Joko Widodo, to continue the program.
And in a way, Widodo has done so—but not before taking a swipe at what he saw as the previous administration’s scattergun approach to reforesting degraded land.
“If [we plant] 238,000 trees and all of them survive because they’re managed [well], that’s what we want,” he said in 2016. “What’s the use of planting millions or billions [of trees], but only two of them survive?”
Now, however, Widodo has been left fuming as his own ostensibly more systematic approach to reforestation has fallen far short of its target—even after officials scaled back the target significantly.
Year after year we exhaust our budget [to plant trees], but where are the trees? Can anyone show them to me?”
Joko Widodo, president, Indonesia
Focus on critical land
Reforestation is one of the government’s key tools for achieving its self-imposed carbon emissions reduction target of 29 per cent by 2030 (or 41 per cent with assistance from other countries).
If Yudhoyono’s approach to reforestation was pure arithmetic, Widodo’s has been more of a considered calculus. Where his predecessor prioritised the number of new trees planted, Widodo has focused on land area.
The government classifies the condition of land throughout Indonesia on a three-point scale: prime, degraded, and critical. It’s this latter category that’s been prioritised for reforestation, and it includes areas damaged by the rapid expansion of mines and plantations, as well as illegal logging and encroachment.
In 2013, the Yudhoyono administration had calculated the extent of critical land across the country at 243,000 square kilometers (94,000 square miles)—an area the size of the United Kingdom—and that was the number to hit by 2030 for the Widodo administration when it took over in 2014.
The reforestation achieved since then, however, has been negligible. Less than 1,000 square kilometers (390 square miles) of critical land was rehabilitated by the government between 2015 and 2018, according to figures from the Ministry of Environment and Forestry—less than half of a percentage point of the target.
If land rehabilitated through other means, such as mangrove planting and reforestation by private-sector concession holders, is taken into account, then the figure goes up to nearly 7,900 square kilometers (3,050 square miles).
“If we look only at the size of critical lands that have been rehabilitated, then each year the government has only managed to restore 200 square kilometers [77 square miles] on average,” says Bejo Untung, a program manager at the Center for Regional Information and Studies (PATTIRO), an NGO that keeps track of state and local spending.
Even Widodo seemed baffled by the glacial pace of reforestation, and chided his subordinates over it at the end of 2017.
“Year after year we exhaust our budget [to plant trees], but where are the trees? Can anyone show them to me?” he said during a tree-planting ceremony in central Java.
Triple the funding
Even as the Widodo administration slashed the total area of land it sought to rehabilitate, it more than tripled the funding allocated for the program, raising yet another red flag for observers.
Funding for the program went from 1.08 trillion rupiah ($76 million) in 2018 to 3.51 trillion rupiah ($248 million) in 2019. The environment ministry’s official in charge of climate policy, Ruanda Agung Suhardiman, says it was a lack of funds that hindered the government’s land rehabilitation program.
“To date, our reforestation budget has been very small,” he tells Mongabay. “And from that budget, the amount that goes to reforestation is very small as it is also used for other activities. But now, the  budget will mainly go for planting trees, almost 80 per cent of it.”
Ida Bagus adds that the increase is aimed at quelling any doubt about the government’s commitment to reforesting critical lands.
“Because the size of the land [that has to be rehabilitated] is massive, if we only plant a small number of trees little by little, then it’ll seem like we’re doing nothing,” he says. “So [the size of lands being rehabilitated] has to be big so that there’s an impact.”
But given what he calls a “drastic” increase in funding, combined with the persistent lack of transparency about which areas are eligible for rehabilitation, Roy from the Indonesia Budget Center says there’s a high risk the money won’t be put to good use.
“With no accurate data on critical lands, how will you utilize the budget?” he says. “Asking for 3 trillion rupiah in funding without a strong database in place could lead to budget misuse and affect the quality of the program itself. In the end, such a high budget could end up as another failure.”
Low new target
Then there’s the issue of the newly updated goal that the environment ministry has set itself for reforestation.
From 2019 onward, it aims to restore 2,060 square kilometers (800 square miles) of critical land annually—ten times what it averaged over the past four years.
“We will work hard,” says Siti Nurbaya Bakar, the environment minister. “The president has decided to increase our efforts tenfold through [increased funding from] the state budget.”
Yet as ambitious as this figure is, it still falls far short of the 11,000 square kilometers (4,200 square miles) a year of land rehabilitation called for under the government’s own mid-term development plan—a classic case of bureaucratic disconnect between government policies, says Roy.
“Since the beginning, the target set out in the mid-term development plan wasn’t included in the [environment] ministry’s work plan,” he says. “Why does the government set such a low land rehabilitation target when at the same time it says the size of critical lands is so huge?”
Siti has acknowledged the disparity, saying the pace of reforestation needs to be much greater to hit Indonesia’s carbon emissions reduction target by 2030.
“If we want to be safe in terms of climate change, then we have to plant at least 8,000 square kilometers [3,100 square miles] per year,” she says.
Even in areas where land rehabilitation has taken place, reforestation efforts haven’t always been a success. The government says it targets 90 per cent of the trees it plants surviving to maturity; the real number has been much lower.
The environment ministry’s solution to this is to monitor reforested areas for a period of three years, to ensure the newly planted trees grow properly, says Ruanda, the ministry’s climate policy chief.
“We’ve been asked by the president to really make sure that the trees are there [and not dying],” he says.
Various studies on the rehabilitation program have also found minimal public participation in reforesting, with local communities typically only invited to ceremonial tree-planting events.
Muayat, the social forestry official, says it’s important that these communities are also consulted on the kinds of trees to be planted, and given a bigger role in monitoring their growth. Without such participation, he says, they have little sense of ownership in the program.
“The process is closed to the public,” Muayat says. “Ideally, the decision on what kinds of tree seeds should be planted should be discussed with the locals first.”
Ida Bagus says the ministry will now involve locals from the start of the process to ensure the success of the land rehabilitation program from 2019 onward.
“People who live around the forests are such a huge part of our nation. So they very much decide the success of any program,” he says. “If they’re left out, it’ll mark the beginning of a failure.”
In addition to local communities, the government will also be leaning on the private sector to live up to its obligations to rehabilitate critical land. This includes mining companies, which are required to restore their concessions upon the end of operations. If they and the government hit their targets, the total area of rehabilitated critical land this year will amount to nearly 6,900 square kilometres (2,700 square miles).
That’s a big ask, given that currently less than 10 per cent of disused mines in Indonesia have been rehabilitated, according to Ida Bagus.
“Companies tend to bide their time and wait until their permits are about to expire before they fulfill their obligations,” he says.
This story was published with permission from Mongabay.com. Read the full story.
Thanks for reading to the end of this story!
We would be grateful if you would consider joining as a member of The EB Circle. This helps to keep our stories and resources free for all, and it also supports independent journalism dedicated to sustainable development. For a small donation of S$60 a year, your help would make such a big difference.