When Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono announced last May that his country would halt deforestation for two years starting 1 January 2011, he was poised to become the green superhero of the developing world.
But fierce corporate lobbying, some of it from an offshoot of the right-wing Tea Party in the US, has been Yudhoyono’s kryptonite, delaying the moratorium by more than three months — and counting.
Under an international scheme called Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD+), Norway pledged US$1 billion to Indonesia to stop issuing new permits to log its forests, in which billions of tons of carbon are stored. The scheme aims to monetise carbon stocks locked in forests, preventing their release into the atmosphere and thereby mitigating climate change.
Yudhoyono now sits powerless at his desk, waiting for a draft decree — which is being written without public input — to sign. Without it, the moratorium has no legal basis.
But there may be some cause for optimism. Kuntoro Mangkusubroto, one of the few genuine reformers among the country’s political elite and the head of the REDD+ Task Force drafting the decree, told New Matilda that major corporate players were now showing support for the decree and that he hoped the law would be ready within two weeks.
He named Indonesian paper and palm oil giant Sinar Mas as the lobbyists’ "leader of the pack", but said the company had now had a change of heart.
"There has been very encouraging progress lately with big companies like Sinar Mas, which said a month ago that it would comply with the REDD+ agreement," Kuntoro said.
"That’s a real encouraging step… When the big ones comply and say they want to follow, usually the others will also follow."
But what those terms and conditions are have not been made public. Contrary to Kuntoro’s statement, Sinar Mas claims that it was never against the moratorium and declined to comment further on the issue.
After years of intense campaigning by Greenpeace against Sinar Mas, the brand won points with environmentalists when its $2.3 billion palm oil arm, Golden Agri Resources, agreed in February to stop destroying carbon-rich forests, pledging to only log forestland with 35 tons or less of carbon per hectare — in other words, degraded land.
While Sinar Mas’ commitment was welcomed by its critics, a recent report in the New York Times raised suspicions that the company could still be lobbying against the moratorium through clandestine avenues, including the use of a lobby group disguised as an arm of the US Tea Party movement that opposes government regulations and most environmental efforts, including even the existence of global climate change.
The report, Institute for Liberty: Tea Party Group With Business Agenda, detailed efforts by a Tea Party affiliate, the Institute for Liberty, to oppose tariffs on Indonesian products from Asia Pulp & Paper, a Sinar Mas subsidiary. It equated the tariffs with violations of American freedom. The article linked the group and Asia Pulp & Paper to the lobbying efforts of former Australian diplomat Alan Oxley’s World Growth International, which advocates lowering restrictions on Sinar Mas and other palm oil and paper interests in Indonesia and elsewhere.
World Growth, which fancies itself a grassroots NGO working on behalf of the poor worldwide to promote economic growth, denied that companies under the Sinar Mas brand had funded the organisation. Under US law, however, as a non-profit organisation it is not obliged to disclose its financial backers.
Elfian Effendi, Director of Greenomics Indonesia, said that World Growth’s work was dubious, in particular a report released on 31 March claiming the REDD would cost Indonesia jobs and "harm biodiversity".
"The figures conveyed by World Growth are unrealistic. They say that the moratorium or REDD+ implementation will cost Indonesia 3.5 million jobs annually. That figure is baseless. What we can do here in Indonesia is avoid the government trusting their figures," Elfian said.
But Nur Masripatin, director of the Center for Standardisation and Environment at the Forestry Ministry, said this week that the government was taking World Growth’s report seriously.
"We think it’s good to get all perspectives on this," Nur said.
The ministry’s use of the World Growth report has activists worried, prompting calls for greater transparency of the entire process of drafting the decree. Past drafts have only been made public through leaked documents.
What everyone, from conservationists to investors, want to know is how the government will define the term "forest". The Letter of Intent between Norway and Indonesia states that all peatland and natural forests should be protected in the ban. But debate continues over whether secondary forests will be included.
By scientific definition, secondary forests are those that have been cleared of much of their original vegetation and have trees regenerating.
Secondary forests generally have lower carbon stocks than primary forests of the same type, while peatland has a very high carbon density. Commercial permits are usually given on secondary forests and are therefore of interest to businesses.
The vast majority of primary forest and peatlands are already protected by Indonesian law, although enforcement is notoriously weak. If secondary forests are not included in the moratorium, Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth say, the ban will be virtually ineffective.
In January, Kuntoro told local media that all standing forests would be protected. He told New Matilda, however, that the definition was still being discussed and that the demarcation of forests was not a simple matter. The task force, he said, is now working on mapping.
"We cannot assume that something that is defined as primary is primary at the moment," he said.
"Sometimes you will find other types of forest in the so-called primary forest area, you’ll find degraded land in the secondary forest area. That makes things complicated. The most important thing is to come up with one reference map that illustrates the reality on the ground."
The Palm Oil Producers Association (Gapki), which has done much of the corporate lobbying to the government, now says that it would be happy with any agreement that allowed them to expand production. Indonesia also has ambitious targets to double palm oil production by 2020 to meet soaring demand.
"The Ministry of Forestry says there are 35 million hectares of degraded land that can be used. That’s more than enough. Our rate of expansion is only 400,000 hectares a year," said Fadhil Hasan, Gapki executive director.
"We are happy as long as the government provides us with a mechanism to use that degraded land and inform us of what the procedure is," he said.
With major corporate players showing some flexibility on the moratorium and consensus that there is enough idle land for commercial use, activists say that there is no reason to stall the decree any longer.
"The delay has been too long," Elfian of Greenomics said. "The decree should have been issued before 1 January, but even now, it’s still unclear. There is no need for Kuntoro’s office to say that this is because of business lobbying, because he is the one in power."
Kuntoro said the draft had been passed to the office of Vice President Boediono, which will deal with all final concerns before referring the law to the president for approval.
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This article also appeared on the Asia Sentinel.
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