Monday, June 7, 2010

Indonesia's bold attempt to prevent deforestation

The recent announcement by Indonesian president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono in Norway, pledging a two-year moratorium on new concessions for peatland and forest conversion in Indonesia, is not only good news for forests, biodiversity and forest dependent communities, but is expected to create crucial momentum for climate-change mitigation efforts focused on halting deforestation ahead of the climate talks in Cancun in December.

The Indonesian commitment was made at the Oslo Forest and Climate Conference, where more than fifty governments vowed to curb tropical forest loss in efforts to fight climate change, by forming a major new partnership to reduce emissions from deforestation and forest degradation (REDD+), initially pledging over US$4 billion for these activities.

REDD+ offers a unique opportunity to address both the adverse consequences of climate change and the underlying causes of ongoing forest loss and forest degradation around the world. In doing so, it contributes to efforts to avoid dangerous levels of warming. But it needs to be done right.

Recognising that cash-strapped, poverty-ridden, developing countries need the necessary fiscal stimulus to protect their rainforests, which function as global "lungs" to transform carbon dioxide into oxygen, Norway has pledged $1 billion to Indonesia to help preserve its forests, in return for a two-year freeze on new concessions. Furthermore, the deal will see the creation of monitoring systems and pilot projects for preserving carbon-rich peatlands, seen as key to slowing climate change because they retain huge amounts of carbon, and their degradation is a substantial component of Indonesia's emissions.

These developments represent significant progress towards zero deforestation in Indonesia, yet there is a cloud of scepticism hovering over them, especially given that President Yudhoyono's moratorium pledge does not address the millions of hectares that are already in the clutches of logging, palm oil, mining, pulp and paper companies, still covered in forest but authorised to be cleared.
Also, there is a genuine concern that there could be a rush to get permits before the government starts its temporary halt. One company alone, the Sinar Mas Group, has a land bank of approximately one million hectares earmarked for future development. Under this new announcement Sinar Mas will still be free to trash forest and peatland to make way for its palm oil and pulp and paper plantations.
Furthermore, it is vital that any deal to reduce deforestation must be designed to ensure action at the national level and not focus on individual protection projects.

REDD funding should target the protection of intact and other natural forests, including peatland, because preventing their destruction has the greatest potential for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. The funding must not support the development of agricultural or monoculture plantations or subsidise the expansion of industrial logging and agri-business.

Without proper safeguards, including transparent and participatory mechanisms in place, and protection of biodiversity and indigenous people's rights, the impact on deforestation could be negligible or even make it worse by providing a smokescreen of greenwash.

Finally, Indonesia must ensure that the emissions reductions that result are measured against how much deforestation is happening currently, not against future predictions of forest destruction.

Dismissing the fears of environmentalists, the Indonesian government has offered assurance, stating that sufficient non-forest lands exist to accommodate the growth of its vitally important plantation industries, a major source of livelihoods in Indonesia. The government has also said that it will develop new plantations "on degraded lands rather than vulnerable forests and peatlands".

And yet, the president himself has alluded to the "mafia rule" in Indonesia's corruption-ridden forestry sector, which his government has been unable to rein in, and which continues to abuse the existing presidential decree on peatland protection by engaging in illegal logging practices.

All eyes are now on the international monitoring agency set up in Oslo to oversee individual agreements between countries to fight deforestation and to educate forest-dependent peoples - estimated to total more than 1 billion globally - on how livelihoods and intact forests are mutually compatible.

President Yudhoyono himself hopes that the new agency will "decrease a trust deficit" that has stymied progress in wider climate talks, as wealthy countries express concern about how aid money is used in poor nations. He has promised that every dollar made available will be spent wisely in order to avoid any unnecessary duplication.

After all, Norway is clear - 'no reduced deforestation, no money'. This is the acid test that President Yudhoyono will have to go through to satisfy the sceptics and cynics and go beyond the brave words of his declarations, by ensuring implementation in a transparent fashion that includes all stakeholders - affected communities, civil society, provincial governments and international monitors.

But before that, he will have to ensure that his government, especially the ministries of Forestry, Environment and Agriculture, work together and not at cross-purposes dictated by the forest mafia of the palm, paper and mining industries.

President Yudhoyono has shown more guts and gumption than any other world leader to do the right thing to protect our forests - for our climate's sake and for future generations - but the proof of the pudding will lie in the action taken over the next few months.

Mahatma Gandhi once said, "Identify intention and means will follow". We sincerely hope that the honourable president gets all the support he requires to make his bold ambition come true. He already is more deserving of the Nobel Peace Prize than US President Obama, who has done little to tackle the global threat of climate change.

If President Yudhoyono stays on track, we sincerely hope that by the end of 2011 the world will recognise his long-term legacy through the demonstration of the difference his commitments have made for Indonesia's forests, people and the climate.
Shailendra Yashwant campaigns director with Greenpeace Southeast Asia

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