Green groups raise red flags over Jokowi’s widely acclaimed haze law

A new regulation sees Indonesia’s president responding to the devastating 2015 Southeast Asia haze crisis. An environmental victory or an opportunity lost?

widodo damming canal in riau
Indonesian president Joko Widodo, seen here participating in the damming of a canal near a peat forest in Riau, Sumatra in 2014. On December 1, Widodo signed a new law intended to call time on untrammeled commercial development of the archipelago’s vast peat swamp zones. Image: Ardiles Rante/ Greenpeace

A crucial new government regulation on peatland management in Indonesia is spurring debate over whether the country is going far enough to prevent a repeat of last year’s disastrous forest fires.

President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo signed into law on Dec. 1 a new regulation intended to call time on untrammeled commercial development of the archipelago’s vast peat swamp zones, which have been widely drained and dried — rendering them highly flammable — by the palm oil and paper industries. The new Presidential Regulation No. 56 of 2016 amends Presidential Regulation No. 71 of 2014 on the Protection and Management of Peatland Ecosystems.

The move sees Indonesia’s executive following through on a pledge made at the end of 2015 to crack down on permissive and opaque development in Indonesia’s carbon-rich hinterlands. At issue is perhaps more than 22 million hectares of potentially combustible peat spread across three time zones, the source of much of the acrid pollution emitted in the 2015 Southeast Asia haze crisis.

The World Resources Institute says draining one hectare of peat is equivalent to burning 6,000 gallons of gasoline. Emissions from decomposition and combustion of peat contributes almost half of Indonesia’s total emissions, conferring pivotal importance on the country of 250 million in the global fight against climate change.

This is an extremely positive and historic decision, both for Indonesia and for global efforts to tackle climate change.

Erik Solheim, executive director, United Nations Environment Programme

Some observers have praised the signing of the regulation, which enshrines into law a moratorium on new peatland development that was previously only mandated by a presidential guideline. It says the ban will stay in effect until Indonesia finishes mapping its peatlands and zoning them for conservation and for development, a hotly contested process that could take years to complete.

“This is an extremely positive and historic decision, both for Indonesia and for global efforts to tackle climate change,” United Nations Environment Program head Erik Solheim said in a statement. The government of Norway also pointed to a potential public health coup — more than half a million Indonesians were diagnosed with respiratory illnesses following wildfires in 2015.

“It could have tremendous benefits for the Indonesian people and their health, welfare, and environment,” said Norwegian environment minister Vidar Helgesen. “This could also prove to be a breakthrough for the implementation of the Paris Agreement, as one of the biggest commitments of any single country to save the global climate since the climate summit in Paris last year.”

The regulation could indeed hold global significance. Estimates by the World Resources Institute indicate it could save within a range of 5.5-7.8 gigatons of carbon dioxide through 2030 — if the moratorium were adequately enforced. That would be equivalent to approximately the annual emissions of the US.

However, environmental pressure groups told Mongabay that key provisions in the new regulation are at odds with scientific evidence and would continue to trigger fires and wholesale collapse of peat ecosystems.

Law leaves peat domes exposed

The first objection centers on a requirement that the government protect at least 30 per cent of all peat domes — landscapes where the peat is so deep that the center is topographically higher than the edges. Protection starts at the peak of the dome, according to the regulation. Also off limits for development are areas where the peat is deeper than 3 meters and which contain high biodiversity.

The problem, environmentalists say, is that draining one part of a peat dome — a necessary measure if oil palm and pulpwood crops are to thrive — can lower the water table across the entire landscape, resulting in widespread subsidence — sinking — and carbon loss.

“These regulations are still based on the idea that you can protect around 30 per cent of the top of peat domes and then develop the rest as plantations,” said Greenpeace Indonesia forestry campaigner Yuyun Indradi. “Managing peatland with this thinking risks simply further entrenching the current problems in Indonesia’s peatlands — further subsidence, more fires and the inevitable collapse of peat domes over the longer term.”

Marcel Silvius, program head of climate-smart land use at Wetlands International, said the goal of conserving 30 percen t of peat and leaving 70 per cent open to drainage was “like allowing smoking in the left side of a plane and forbidding it on the right side.”

He said there was “no way” to protect the 30 per cent from the impact of draining the 70 per cent.

“Indonesia will have to come to grips with the fact that the current predominant land-use types on peat, which all use drainage, cannot be continued and need to be phased out,” said Silvius.

Indradi said the rule around peat domes appeared to be based on the “eco-hydro” concept pushed by Asia Pacific Resources International Limited (APRIL), Indonesia’s second-largest pulp and paper firm. The company has developed in the Kampar Peninsula, which is probably Sumatra’s largest peat dome, a giant “ring” of acacia plantations it says secures the forest in the center against encroaching villagers.

But the peat beneath the acacia must still be drained, a practice Wetlands International says is sending the entire landscape on a path to oblivion.

Roughly 40 per cent of the peatlands in the Kampar Peninsula have been drained and coverted to acacia estates, and roughly a third of APRIL’s total plantation holdings are located there, making the peat dome issue a key flashpoint in the struggle between companies looking to secure their businesses in the face of additional regulation and environmentalists seeking stricter rules after last year’s devastating fires.

In a separate development, Greenpeace on Thursday suspended its sustainability partnership with APRIL over its alleged construction of drainage canals in the peat swamps of Padang Island, saying the company could not be trusted to deliver on its commitments.

“The government needs to commit to end further drainage-based development and to identify priority peatlands for protection and restoration, including phase-out or retirement of existing plantations in these areas,” said Silvius.

Nirarta Samadhi, Indonesia country director of the World Resources Institute, said that the science “needed to be questioned” and that much of the detailed implementation of the regulations to conserve peat had still to be worked out.

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

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