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Indonesia's forests under renewed threat - experts

Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation - Thu, 22 Nov 2012 11:30 GMT
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BANGKOK (AlertNet Climate) - Indonesia’s dwindling forests and an ambitious plan by the country’s president to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the world’s third largest emitter are under threat due to the struggle between national and local governments for authority over precious forest land, environmental activists told AlertNet.

In February, Indonesia’s Constitution Court struck down a controversial clause of the Forestry Law, saying it was unconstitutional for the central government to designate forest zones without proper mapping, after six plaintiffs, including five district heads (known as “bupatis”) from Central Kalimantan, a province in the Indonesian portion of Borneo, asked for a review of the law.

This has left everyone wondering what would happen to millions of hectares of land that have been designated as forest zone but have not been mapped. Currently, only 14.2 million of some 130 million hectares are adequately mapped.

Among the questions being asked are: Are these areas now considered non-forest zones and will local governments be able to issue licenses at will to companies to turn them into mines and palm oil plantations?

Would that lead to further degradation of forests and increased social conflict in a sector not noted for its transparency as the government busies itself trying to map millions of hectares of land?

Is this another nail in the coffin for Indonesia’s tropical rainforests, the world’s third-largest, which President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono has vowed to save in order to cut greenhouse gas emissions, which drive climate change?

“There are concerns that (the decision) inherently weakens controls on deforestation across the country by further liberalising permit allocation in the provinces and districts,” said Jago Wadley, a senior forest campaigner for the London-based Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA).

Indonesia’s forestry and plantations sectors “are riddled with systemic corruption at all levels” and law enforcement is also weak, he said. That presents fundamental barriers to the goals of reducing deforestation and associated emissions, he said.

A number of the provinces are planning to or have already made requests to the Ministry of Forestry to re-adjust their forest lands although it’s unclear how this would affect forest cover, said Philip Wells, director at Indonesia-based Daemeter Consulting and co-author of a policy brief on the court decision.

GOVERNANCE AND DEFORESTATION

The bupatis had argued that large portions of their administrative districts, in which hundreds of thousands of people lived, had been designated as forest lands, leaving them dependent upon the Ministry of Forestry for permission to develop their districts, including giving out lucrative licenses for palm oil plantations or mining.

Prior to the court decision, they could go to jail for licensing plantations in what the national government considers a forest zone. Environmentalists say many bupatis, who became powerful after Indonesia’s decentralisation, allow widespread illegal deforestation in Southeast Asia's biggest economy.

According to a report by the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR), “At the local level, district timber permits became an important form of patronage for bupatis, who often used them to secure political loyalties among key constituencies and to finance election campaigns and other initiatives.”

Abu Meridian, from the Indonesian environmental organisation Telapak, confirmed the problem.

“The regulation comes from the central government but the decision to give the permit is done in provincial or district levels. Even though the government asks a certain areas not to be released for palm oil, the bupatis still do it,” he said.

“The statement from the President (about cutting emissions) is good but the problem is the reality in the field,” where communities are rarely consulted about projects that would significantly affect the forests and lands they depend on for their livelihoods, he said. 

The government says deforestation on a national basis has fallen to around 500,000 hectares annually, and in May 2011, Yudhoyono announced a two-year moratorium on forest concessions. Environmental activists, however, believe the annual deforestation figure is higher than reported.

ENORMOUS TASK AHEAD

Indonesia’s government has tried to address the concerns over the court’s decision but there is much disquiet over an amendment issued in July that offers companies working without permits on land still classified as forests the chance to apply for permits retroactively.

“(The amendment) is an exercise in legalising crime in the oil palm plantations and mining sectors in exchange for maintaining a veneer of central government control over land allocation,” said EIA’s Wadley. 

“The government has traded the rule of law for political expediency, likely at the expense of forests, local communities and indigenous peoples,” setting a dangerous precedent, he added. 

The government has announced it intends to finish mapping forest areas by the end of 2014.

Although it says 80 percent of the job has already been done, “it is still an enormous task,” Daemeter’s Wells said. “The number of kilometres that have to be mapped is still huge.”

“If you try and do it too fast, mistakes could be made and indigenous land rights not recognised, leading to problems later down the line,” he warned.

CHANCE TO DO THINGS RIGHT?

Still, Wells believes the court decision provides an opportunity to do things right.

“The provinces, the central government and the Ministry of Forestry - they all potentially have quite a lot to lose,” especially if they get entangled in more court cases, he said. “The best solution for all parties is… to reach a compromise.”  

In what he calls the “best-case” scenario, the Constitutional Court’s decision would “create a new opportunity for a rational, consensus-based approach to spatial planning that maximises positive outcomes for forests, peatlands, economic development, and community rights,” said the consultancy.

The “worst-case” scenario would be a protracted disagreement between the Ministry and regional authorities over land allocation, leading to continued delays in setting borders and creating sensible land use plans and leading to worsening deforestation and climate-changing emissions.

“In my opinion, the real key to success would be for the spatial plans to be reviewed in light of targets for low carbon emissions. But that really isn't going to work unless the provinces and the Ministry could work together,” said Wells.

Activists and researcher warn that time for getting forest mapping right may be running out.

Yudhoyono, who has said he wants to leave a green legacy of his time in power, leaves office in 2014, and many of the new presidential hopefuls are not known for their interest in environmental protection.

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