Making ‘no-deforestation’ a political win-win for Indonesia

Greater attention needs to be paid to the interests of rural farmers to tackle tropical deforestation in Indonesia, says Rob Bailes, associate director at Robertsbridge.

Forest fires from the burning of Indonesia's peatlands have caused an excessive rise in CO2 emissions, along with dangerously high levels of haze affecting its Southeast Asian neighbours like Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia. Image: kenary820 /

For those with an interest in supply chains and deforestation, this March is a busy month. The Tropical Forest Alliance 2020 is holding a General Assembly – its first – in Jakarta, Indonesia. The High Carbon Stock Approach Steering Group – the body established by producers, NGOs and consumer goods companies to oversee the governance of the High Carbon Stock Approach – is holding a major consultation in Singapore.

Both are a sign of how far the issue of tropical deforestation has risen up the corporate, NGO and political agenda in the last five years. They are testament to the willingness of disparate groups and once ill-suited bedfellows to work collaboratively in pursuit of solutions, even if they do not always agree on the method by which those solutions are to be achieved.

The decision by the Tropical Forest Alliance to hold its inaugural assembly in Jakarta shows that Indonesia is still seen as both the prize and a challenge when it comes to combating forest destruction. Commodity-driven deforestation continues unabated and the fight to protect new frontiers in Papua is only just beginning.

This is also a country that just experienced its worst – man-made – wildfires in a decade.

The fires cost the economy an estimated US$15.72 billion, destroyed 2.6 million hectares of peatland, forests and plantation and reportedly emitted more CO2 over three weeks than the entire annual CO2 emissions of Germany. Not an easy backdrop for the Indonesian Government going, as it was, into last December’s Paris global climate negotiations.

Ironically, the devastating fires have shone the spotlight on one of Indonesia’s biggest structural environmental problems – peatland. Peat stores vast amounts of below-ground carbon, and over the last two decades, much of it has been drained and developed to make way for industrial palm oil and pulp and paper concessions. It’s a magnet for fire.

The imposition of a moratorium on peatland development by the Indonesian Government has therefore been welcomed by many, as has the establishment of a Peatland Restoration Agency (BRG) charged with restoring the 2.6 million hectares of peatland damaged by the fires.

The BRG faces an uphill battle, but as a home-grown solution, it is vitally important that civil society, communities and the industry provide it with the support and cooperation it needs to succeed.  

Further signs of light were evident last month when Astra Agro Lestari, Indonesia’s second-biggest palm oil producer, announced a no-deforestation policy following a Greenpeace campaign against its parent company, Jardine Matheson.

Astra joins the likes of Wilmar, Cargill and Golden Agri-Resources with a seat at IPOP (Indonesia Palm Oil Pledge) – a commitment by the world’s major palm oil growers to stop deforestation within their supply chains.

The move is said to be significant not just because of Astra’s size, but because its director, Joko Supriono, chairs the Indonesian Palm Oil Producers Association (GAPKI); a body which has in the past resisted efforts for higher standards in the industry.

The result may be to help reverse IPOP’s image as a western-imposed body whose desire for higher standards works against the best interests of Indonesia’s millions of smallholder farmers.

The latter is key because the no-deforestation agenda has been suffering a serious reputational problem in the last 12 months.

The problem, put simply, is that ‘no-deforestation’ is perceived as the antithesis to economic development. Or, put another way, the way in which no-deforestation is being marketed to Indonesia Ltd is as a trade-off – development or no deforestation. It is geared for failure.

 Interventions that are seen – and proven – to empower rural farmers will also enable the Government to deliver its own purported objectives.

This perception is, of course, almost certainly being driven by vested interests and by those who know no better. But it is an easy bandwagon to jump on, particularly when there is a populist national government elected to power on its (worthy) promises to empower millions of smallholder farmers. These farmers are also responsible for 40 per cent of Indonesia’s total palm oil production.

This development is causing western NGOs, producers, buyers and end users to make a strategic rethink in their approach to no-deforestation. The end goal – no deforestation – is the same, but the framing and tactics must be smarter and more cognizant of Indonesia’s political and social realities.

Greater attention needs to be paid to the interests of smallholder farmers and the enormous opportunity they present. Cracking the smallholder challenge, at scale, offers multiple benefits.

End users benefit from higher yields enabling them to meet growing consumer palm oil demand. This reduces pressure to develop more land. At the same time, interventions that are seen – and proven – to empower rural farmers will also enable the Government to deliver its own purported objectives. A win-win for all concerned.  

To their credit, some NGOs and responsible consumer goods companies have woken up to these realities. Money is starting to be channelled into smallholder initiatives and the emergence of the so-called ‘landscape approach’ to delivering these programmes holds promise (even if it is still largely conceptual).

But the scale required to deliver meaningful change on the ground is still missing and more priority needs to be placed on the smallholder opportunity within the no-deforestation agenda. 

Above all, the ‘no-deforestation’ agenda needs to appeal to its audience. Just as any successful campaign or movement needs to offer a better alternative, so too must ‘no-deforestation’ demonstrate its value to Indonesia. 

Rob Bailes is an associate director at Robertsbridge. This article was written exclusively for Eco-Business.

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