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Indonesia mining rules threaten forest protection efforts - experts

Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation - Tue, 21 Jun 2011 12:28 GMT
Author: Veby Mega Indah
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JAKARTA (AlertNet) - On the eve of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s approval of a landmark, two-year moratorium on forest and peatland clearing under a $1 billion climate deal with Norway last month, the Indonesian leader issued another ruling that sparked criticism he cares more about protecting industry than saving what is left of Indonesia’s forests.

The decision - to allow underground mining in protected forest areas - seemed to contradict the order he signed the very next day in support of a $1 billion anti-logging project with Norway, under a U.N.-backed program called Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD).

Under the deal, Norway has given Indonesia $37 million in reward for preparatory work and promised to deliver the rest of its $1 billion commitment to forest protection by the end of next year, once it is satisfied Indonesia is in fact protecting its forest and peatlands.

At first glance, the two laws seem contradictory, with one literally undermining the other.

“Both of these regulations allow business as usual practices,” complained Avi Mahaningtvas, who heads the economic and environmental section of a non-profit group called the Partnership for Governance Reform and who acts as civil society representative on climate issues and REDD in Indonesia.

“We need to look deeper at the new products of government regulations that affect the fate of our forests: the presidential regulation on underground mining in protected forests and the moratorium,” she added in email interview.

TOO MANY EXCEPTIONS?

Even the moratorium on logging permits presents problems for forest preservation in Indonesia, experts say. While it imposes a general ban on the issuance of logging permits, it also allows for “exceptions” for projects considered vital for development such as those related to geothermal power - an area where Indonesia holds great potential – as well as rice and sugarcane agriculture, electricity development, and ecosystem restoration.

Companies with pre-existing authorization for logging – known in government parlance as “permits in principle” also will be offered the exemptions - a move that flies in the face of the moratorium and is expected to allow logging to continue.

No less threatening is the new presidential regulation that allows companies to do underground mining in a conservation area if they give land in restitution - a move known as a “land swap”. For territories with less than 30 percent forest cover, the company hands over twice as much land as the forested area it destroys. But if the territory being logged has greater than 30 percent forest cover, the company must forfeit land equivalent to the entire area being logged, even that without trees on it.

The new presidential regulation at first glance appears an even-handed attempt to conserve protected forests while allowing for economic growth, particularly since it only allows for underground mining and not more destructive open pit mining.

But environmental experts say that while tunneling underground for hard rock minerals may not look as damaging as mining done from the surface, that does not mean it does no damage at all.

Greenpeace International says underground mining can have several negative consequences, apart from producing greenhouse gas emissions, including the potential for mine collapses and land sinks, and problems around disposal of mined rocks and soil.

The new Indonesian ruling builds on an earlier law the government passed in 2010 that allowed underground mining inside protected forest lands. That law said the issue would be managed in more detail in this subsequent presidential regulation.

OLIVE BRANCH TO INDUSTRY

Elfian Effendi, executive director of Greenomics, a non-governmental organization that analyses environmental issues and economic growth, said the president’s decision amounted to an olive branch to the mining industry and was designed to lessen the pain of the logging moratorium.

“The Indonesian government is more focused on minimizing the negative impact on the economy than on maximizing protection of the forest,” he said in an interview.

The mining industry has reason to be happy about the new law, which opens the door to starting many projects that have been on hold for years, subject to government approval. The forestry ministry says it placed holds on 577 mining permits between 2005 and 2010, including 187 that are awaiting exploration permits and another 390 directed at mining in protected forest areas and so are subject to the moratorium.

For just one of the activities potentially subject to exceptions from the logging moratorium – geothermal power – 70 percent of the exploration is set to take place in protected forests.

The mining industry welcomed both the moratorium and the new presidential regulation.

“The presidential regulation which supports conditional underground mining in the protected forest areas is a huge improvement” for Indonesia’s mining industry, said Kenneth Farrell, chief executive officer of Bumi Resouces Mineral Tbk (BUMI), one of the country’s biggest mining companies, in a press release issued three days after President Yudhoyono approved the moratorium.

BUMI plans to take advantage of the law to start zinc mining in a conservation area in Dairi, North Sumatra- a project that had been on hold because of the uncertainty around the new logging moratorium.

Farrell said BUMI was optimistic it would start production by 2013.

Jatam, a non-government group that advocates for local rights in mining areas, said in a press release that two-thirds of the mining would take in place a 37-hectare area of conservation forest.

GRAY AREAS

Fitrian Ardiansyah, a former program coordinator for World Wildlife Fund Indonesia and now working at the Australian National University in Canberra, said there is a grey area in the presidential regulation that could allow any company to mine in protected forests, without decent waste management or ecosystem rehabilitation.

That could be a step backwards from the days of President Megawati, whose administration in 2004 allowed only 13 mining companies to work in protected forest lands.

“That is why we must have a very technical law about this so we can manage the impacts, instead of having a general law that is open to many interpretations,” Fitrian said in an interview.

While the new presidential regulation only allows underground mining by companies that hold environmental permits, Fitrian said the permit approval process was open to manipulation.

He said both the permit from the Environment Ministry, called an AMDAL permit, and the permit from the Forestry Ministry that allows for logging in protected areas, were based on scientific data that could be slanted through selective use of data and the way it is interpreted.

“Let’s be honest,” he said. “Looking back over our nation’s history, how many AMDAL environmental permits or forestry ministry permits in principle really successfully manage the negative impacts of development on the environment?”

“None, unfortunately,” he said.

Veby Mega Indah is a Jakarta-based freelance journalist who specializes in environmental and climate change issues.

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