Indonesia Bans Deforestation – Sort Of

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You know that something’s not quite right when one of the world’s largest pulp and paper companies celebrates a ban on deforestation.

On Friday, Indonesia’s biggest paper producer, Asia Pulp & Paper (APP), welcomed a two-year logging ban in Indonesia’s forests and peatlands. It’s not because the company — which in the past has been accused of rampant forest destruction — has decided to go green, but because the moratorium allows it to essentially continue logging as usual.

The trumpeted deforestation ban is part of a US$1 billion climate deal with Norway under the REDD+ scheme, which aims to monetise carbon stocks locked in forests, preventing their release into the atmosphere and thereby mitigating climate change. As New Matilda reported last month, the ban was delayed for five months as the corporate lobby pushed for concessions.

However, details of the long awaited decree are disappointing. Exempted from the ban are secondary forests — those forests that have been disturbed either naturally or unnaturally — leaving around a third of Indonesia’s natural forests unprotected. In Indonesia’s case, secondary forests have often been selectively logged or partly burned for clearing, but many still hold substantial carbon stocks that are released when trees are logged.

A government zoning map shows that the moratorium protects 64.2 million hectares of primary virgin forest and 31.9 million hectares of peatland, which is land with carbon-rich soil made of mostly decomposed vegetation. The country’s 36.6 million hectares of secondary forest are still up for grabs.

"We are very disappointed. We’re concerned because it only covers primary forests and peatlands," Greenpeace Indonesia forest campaigner Bustar Maitar said.

However, Aida Greenbury, managing director for APP, told New Matilda that the distinction between primary and secondary forests was irrelevant.

"We should stop this discussion about what is primary and what is secondary. Every group has its own definition and the debate is never-ending. What we should be focusing on is which forests have the highest-conservation value," she said.

"Peatlands are not always necessarily of high-conservation value. What we should do is look at the science on this. The World Bank and some NGOs are not using reliable science for their figures."

But Louis Verchot, a senior scientist at the Center for International Forestry Research, refutes Greenbury’s claims, saying that while some peatlands may have low-conservation value in terms of biodiversity, they almost always have a high value in terms of carbon.

"If you want to seriously cut your carbon emissions, protecting peatland is a low-hanging fruit. It is high in carbon density and it has around five to eight times the amount of carbon in its soil as it does in its trees," Verchot said.

Indonesia is home to around 10 per cent of the world’s tropical forests and peatland, which have disappeared rapidly to make way for plantations to produce pulp and paper, and palm oil plantations, as well as for mining. The World Bank pegs Indonesia as the globe’s third-biggest carbon emitter, and deforestation and forest degradation accounts for more than 75 per cent of the country’s greenhouse gas emissions, according to a number of environmental groups.

The five-month debate over the moratorium reflects the ambitious and fine balance Indonesia is trying to strike between economic development and environmental conservation — President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono has announced targets of 7 per cent for economic growth by 2014 and carbon emissions cuts of at least 26 per cent by 2020.

Another ambitious target is to double the country’s palm oil production in the next 10 years. Indonesia is the world’s biggest producer of palm oil, which is used in grocery items around the word, from cooking oil to soap and shampoo. Palm oil production is one of the main drivers of peat destruction in Indonesia because the fertile soil produces higher yields.

The Indonesian Palm Oil Association (Gapki) was also pleased that its industry could expand despite the moratorium. "We think this moratorium was the best one that the president could have signed. It does not accommodate all our wishes, but it is a balance of everyone’s interest," said Fadhil Hasan, Gapki’s executive director.

Meanwhile Greenpeace argues the moratorium is a step in the right direction politically, but says that Indonesia should uphold its end of the deal and protect all natural forest as it agreed to with Norway last year. The environmental group maintains that there is more than enough degraded land for commercial use and that permits on peatland should be revoked.

"There are millions of hectares of peatland under threat in existing concessions held by companies like APP," said Bustar Maitar. "Most of this forest is already protected. Peatland more than three metres deep, for example, should already be protected by [the existing]law, but there is no enforcement."

Environmentalists can only hope that existing forestry laws that are often ignored by law enforcers and various levels of government will be strengthened by the presidential instruction.

Green groups have also criticised major exemptions in the ban, such as allowing deforestation for projects of national interest and allowing existing permit-holders on high-conservation peatland to continue logging and extend permits under current leases.

According to Louis Verchot, the moratorium will not necessarily stop or even slow the rate of deforestation in the short-term because permit-holders are free to develop the swathes of land that have been issued in recent years.

"A lot of permit-holders have land that is just sitting there undeveloped. Over the next two years they are likely to continue clearing that land," he said.

The Norwegian Government has praised the moratorium as "an important part of a broader land use reform agenda in Indonesia, though it will not in itself ensure success". Norway is also pushing for a new Indonesian agency for slowing deforestation, and monitoring and verifying greenhouse gas emissions. "The moratorium is one important part of the puzzle," it said.

 

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