Indonesia to fix temporary ban on new forest clearing for plantations and logging

Swaths of Indonesia’s rainforest—the world’s third largest—have been cleared for extractive industries, primarily oil palm and pulpwood plantations, logging concessions and coal mines, but this is expected to come to a full stop soon.

A provisional moratorium on issuing forest-clearing permits for plantations and logging is expected to be made permanent, Indonesian officials have announced.

The moratorium prohibits the conversion of primary natural forests and peatlands for oil palm, pulpwood and logging concessions, and was introduced in 2011 by then-president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono as part of wider efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from deforestation.

It was initially slated to run for two years, but has been extended three times since then, most recently in July 2017 by Yudhoyono’s successor, President Joko Widodo.

Environment and Forestry Minister Siti Nurbaya Bakar told Mongabay that when it comes up for renewal again this July, the policy will be made permanent.

“[The proposal] is in the final stage now, signed by other ministers,” Siti said.

An official in her ministry added that the proposal was now awaiting the president’s approval. Abetnego Tarigan, an environmental adviser in the office of the president’s chief of staff, confirmed that the ministry had proposed making the moratorium permanent.

The current moratorium, with all of its criticisms, has contributed to reducing deforestation, which means it shows a positive trend. And the fact is that our economy didn’t collapse.

Abetnego Tarigan, environmental adviser, Indonesian government

The move dovetails with the current administration’s development model of reining in agricultural and forestry expansion and boosting productivity from existing concessions.

“Massive expansion isn’t our priority anymore,” Abetnego told reporters in Jakarta. “It’s different from in the 1980s, when industrial [logging and pulpwood] plantations wanted to expand, and in the 1990s and the 2000s, when palm oil plantations wanted to expand as well.”

In addition, the government also wants to shift away from a heavy reliance on exports of raw commodities, to developing downstream industries that process those commodities to add value, he said.

“We know that if we only rely on producing raw materials, there won’t be any significant benefit,” Abetnego said.

Ultimately, having a permanent licensing ban in place will provide better protection for the environment while also maintaining economic growth, he added. Indonesia is home to the third-largest expanse of tropical rainforest left on Earth, after Brazil and the Democratic Republic of Congo. However, huge swaths of those forests have been cleared on the islands of Sumatra and Borneo to make way for industrial-scale extractive industries — primarily oil palm and pulpwood plantations, but also logging concessions and coal mines.

When the ban was introduced, it elicited a backlash from these industries, with the palm oil lobby warning of economic disruptions. That hasn’t been the case, Abetnego said.

“We’ve seen that the current moratorium, with all of its criticisms, has contributed to reducing deforestation, which means it shows a positive trend,” he said. “And the fact is that our economy didn’t collapse. Before, people thought the moratorium would make the economy [decline], but that didn’t happen.”

Improving enforcement

Activists and environmentalists have welcomed the plan to make the moratorium permanent as a key step toward reducing deforestation and helping Indonesia meet its emissions reductions goals. The country has pledged to slash carbon dioxide emissions by at least 29 per cent over the business-as-usual projection by 2030. Indonesia is currently one of the top emitters in the world, but unlike industrialised nations, the bulk of its emissions come from deforestation rather than burning of fossil fuels.

Imposing a permanent forest-clearing moratorium would at the very least cement the protection of the 660,000 square kilometers (255,000 square miles) of primary and peat forests covered at present, according to Arief Wijaya, a senior manager for climate and forests at the World Resources Institute (WRI) Indonesia.

“That means the government can focus on how to strengthen the ongoing moratorium … and peat protection policies,” he told Mongabay.

Enforcement of the moratorium remained lax for the first five years after it came into force. Data on tree cover loss from the Global Land Analysis & Discovery (GLAD) lab at the University of Maryland (UMD) reflect a high rate of deforestation during this period, ranging from 9,280 square kilometers (3,580 square miles) in 2012, to 7,350 square kilometers (2,840 square miles) in 2015 — including within areas ostensibly covered by the moratorium.

Those figures declined significantly from 2016 onward. The catalyst for that change wasn’t stronger enforcement of the moratorium, however, but new government regulations adopted in response to a particularly disastrous season of forest fires in 2015 that destroyed extensive swaths of peatlands.

In 2018, Indonesia lost a relatively small amount of forest cover, at 3,400 square kilometers (1,310 square miles), according to UMD data — the lowest rate since 2003, and a 40 per cent lower than the annual average from 2002 to 2016.

Mikaela Weisse, the Global Forest Watch manager at the WRI, attributed this drop to the peat protection policies implemented after the 2015 fires. While the 2011 moratorium banned new permits for concessions on peatlands, it still allowed companies with existing permits to continue clearing their land. It wasn’t until 2016 that a nationwide ban on clearing carbon-rich deep peatlands was introduced.

“We’ve seen even larger drops [in deforestation] on peatlands and areas covered by Indonesia’s forest moratorium,” Weisse said. “It seems that Indonesia’s forest policies at the aftermath of the fire season a few years ago are having an effect.”

Arief concurred that the licensing moratorium was initially ineffective in protecting primary and peat forests because it wasn’t coupled with strong enforcement. The 2015 fires, he said, had gone some way toward addressing that shortcoming by spurring government action.

“It shows that the government has truly been enforcing its policies since 2015, which then showed the impact of the forest moratorium,” he said. “The policies themselves are good, but the devil is in the implementation.”

Secondary forests

Environmentalists like Arief still see room to improve the moratorium once it becomes permanent. In particular, Arief says he wants to see secondary forests, defined as those that were previously logged, included in the licensing ban.

Secondary forests span 433,000 square kilometers (167,000 square miles) across Indonesia, according to the government. More than half of this area is designated as production forest, which means it can be converted for logging and pulpwood concessions. Nearly a tenth is earmarked for non-forestry conversion that includes oil palm plantations.

Protecting these areas from conversion would go a long way to determining Indonesia’s success in meeting its stated emissions reduction goals. The government’s own scenario puts a cap on its total emissions in 2030 of 2 gigatons of CO2. But the country is on track to emit 2.3 gigatons by then, even with the full implementation of existing policies to cut emissions, according to a 2017 WRI analysis.

If secondary forests and forested areas already licensed out to developers are protected under the moratorium, however, Indonesia could easily fall under 2-gigaton cap in 2030. That makes the moratorium, if expanded more comprehensively than at present, the single policy with the largest climate change mitigation potential in Indonesia’s toolkit, Arief said.

“Therefore, I recommend secondary forests be included in the moratorium,” he said. “Not all secondary forests are heavily degraded. Many of them are still in good condition, with high carbon stock, lots of biodiversity and good environmental service.”

Anggalia Putri, a researcher at the environmental NGO Madani, agreed that the inclusion of secondary forests in the moratorium was the key to Indonesia meeting its emissions target. She said this was the category of forest with the lowest degree of legal protection in Indonesia.

“So these are the forest areas that most urgently need to be saved through this moratorium, because other forest areas are at least covered by protected or conservation status,” she told Mongabay.

Abetnego, the government adviser, said there weren’t any plans to protect secondary forests under the moratorium. He said the government’s priority for these forests was to parcel them out to local and indigenous communities under an ongoing social forestry program.

Secondary forests and other previously degraded lands, he said, “still have potential to be managed by local people in the form of social forestry. So let’s not lock away that potential and possibility for the people to utilize” secondary forests by including them in the moratorium.

Anggalia said the government could still achieve its social forestry goals while extending the moratorium to secondary forests, by prohibiting companies from obtaining licenses for these forests.

“What we need to do is protect secondary forests from large-scale permits and allow local communities to still have access to them,” she said.

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

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