Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Indonesia’s Farce in the Forest

A presidential decree on the moratorium on new concession permits for primary forests and peatlands in Indonesia has just been issued. It is designed in particular to help meet the country’s commitments to curb emissions from deforestation and degradation of woodlands. While it is welcomed to some degree, given the five-month delay from the initial promise on its implementation, doubts remain over the exemptions that may limit the moratorium’s potential.

First, the decree only focuses on “primary forests” instead of “natural forests” as initially promised in the Letter of Intent signed with Norway last year. The use of the different terms indeed has huge implications.

The Forestry Ministry claims that Indonesia has about 60 million hectares of primary forests, meaning that the instruction would provide significant help in REDD efforts. Many analysts, however, doubt the figure, instead saying primary and undisturbed forest tracts continue to shrink. The ministry in 2008, for instance, released data that primary forest made up no more than 50 million hectares.

Other analysts further argue that even if such forest tracts remain intact, the conservation them has been mandated by a number of previous decrees, suggesting the irrelevance of the new ruling. The bottom line here is that the government is appearing to inflate the impact the decree will actually have.

The exclusion of secondary forests from the scope of moratorium is even more worrying. This means conversions of forests are made possible. Secondary forests are important for carbon storage and conversions could potentially release that stored carbon into the atmosphere. Therefore, improving the management of these areas is what Indonesia needs to do in order to show a genuine commitment to REDD.

There are options for enhancing the capacity of forests in offsetting carbon. For secondary forests that are still in a good condition, promoting more conservation and protection is important. In degraded secondary forests, on the other hand, restoration is needed to speed up the capture of atmospheric carbon.

The government instead appears to favor conversions, with the decree providing room for vital national development projects. As a developing country, the use of natural resources for economic development is indeed justifiable. But the shocking reality is that the government has allocated a staggering figure — more than 30 million hectares of secondary forests — for economic activities, including mining and plantations, which have been regarded as the main drivers of deforestation and degradation.

Careful assessment and detailed planning are important when allocating forests for economic activities so as to minimize the impact on REDD efforts. But this has been absent. One can look at the indicative map included in the decree that is laughably scaled at 1:19 million. At such a scale, violations can by no means be easily detected.

Another problem relates to the two-year duration of the moratorium. There are concerns that the government will continue its poor business as usual in forest licensing outside the period. The decree itself has clearly exempted logging concessions covered by “in principle” permits issued by the forestry minister.

The decree’s delay was also seen to accommodate new forest concessions. Around the beginning of this year, it was reported that the minister issued more than 40 new plantation concessions on approximately three million hectares of forestland, both primary and secondary. In that view, there is no guarantee the government will not attempt similar tactics when the moratorium elapses.

To ensure that the moratorium produces results as initially intended, its implementation period should be used to review licensing procedures and to improve the administration of forests as a whole. Unfortunately, reviews of existing licenses are outside the scope of the moratorium. This will legitimize poor practices in forest areas, undermining REDD efforts as a consequence.

To conclude, the forest moratorium as outlined in the presidential decree has poured cold water on the initial optimism that the policy would provide a solid stepping stone for REDD. The government should have shown more serious efforts to meet its promises of a 26 percent reduction in greenhouse emissions. The moratorium could have proved a huge step if not weighed down by exemptions.

By Ahmad Maryudi lecturer on forestry at Gajah Mada University in Yogyakarta and executive director of the Institute for Forest Policy and Environmental Studies.

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