Indonesia Extends Forest Clearing Ban; 'Not Enough,' say Critics

Although Indonesian President Joko Widodo extended Indonesia's partial forest-clearing moratorium on the day of its expiration, environmentalists and civil society groups are unsatisfied, saying the policy should have been strengthened and extended.

Activists have mounted a national campaign under the banner "Strengthen the Forest Moratorium" (Perkuat Moratorium Hutan!) but their calls, street-corner rock concerts and tee-shirted presence have had little resonance with a presidential office beset by political intrigue and mounting economic problems.

As Asia Sentinel reported on May 8, in the past year, 1.6 million hectares of Indonesian forest were lost, most of it burned for oil palm plantations, although primary forest – virgin timber – loss declined to an average of less than a million hectares per year between 2011 and 2013. The World Resources Institute said the decline was probably due to the continuing moratorium on issuing new licenses for forest conversions, a significant decline in agricultural commodity prices, corporate zero-deforestation commitments and the sad fact that most accessible forests have already been cleared.

There is deep concern about the direction Jokowi is going to take. The rest of the world is watching Indonesia because of its role as one of the world’s greatest “green lungs” along with Brazil and sub-Saharan Africa, sequestering carbon dioxide in its forests

At present, the partial moratorium bans new industrial concessions in primary forest and on peatland, exempts secondary forest and existing concessions and makes exeptions for "national development" projects – geothermal, oil and gas, electricity, rice, sugarcane – as well as any concession Environment and Forestry Minister Siti Nurbaya’s ministry chooses to allow.

Not far enough

Greenpeace and its allies had wanted the president to do away with those exceptions and bring all forest and peatland under the moratorium's protection.

"Of course we are disappointed with the president for simply extending the previous policy with no significant change," Greenpeace campaigner Teguh Surya told Mongabay-Indonesia, a major environmental NGO. Teguh said he is dubious about the ministry's promise to follow up, given the problems of coordination among the various arms of government. It wouldn't make much difference, Teguh said, "unless the president himself leads discussions to change the strength" of the moratorium.

There are serious concerns about Jokowi’s commitment to stopping forest degradation. Earlier this year, he dissolved the National Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation Agency (BP REDD+), a cabinet-level body with the primary role of slowing deforestation, and merged it with the Environment and Forestry Ministry, which is regarded as deeply corrupt.

Citra Hartati, a researcher from the Indonesian Center for Environmental Law, said the government needs to do more than "copy-paste" the old policy. "The question is whether it's the same as before," she said. "Don't let the moratorium be compromised."

Give it some teeth

The moratorium was introduced in 2011 by President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyno under an agreement with Norway and extended in 2013 for another two years. As the latest expiration date drew nearer, calls to strengthen the flagship conservation policy became a rallying cry to improve Indonesia's forest governance regime in a variety of ways.

Beside an upgrade of the moratorium to a presidential decree from a presidential instruction, which is not necessarily legally binding, activists wanted the extension to be accompanied by measures to boost enforcement, address the country's chaotic forest tenure regime, strengthen problematic regulations and review existing licenses.

"The extension of the moratorium cannot be separated from those four points," said Andiko Sutan Mancayo, head of the National Forestry Council (DKN). "If it is, than the policy is just for show." The government, Andiko said, has moved to address these points, but not in a consolidated manner.

"We need one province where we can see all these measures in effect at once," he said. "Like Riau or Jambi, for example. There should be a moratorium on all permits, followed by a full permit review and a large-scale remastering of the composition [of the landscape of industrial concessions] with the people and environment in mind."

The government has undertaken various area- or concession-specific permit reviews, and the One Map initiative, an attempt to fix Indonesia's chaotic land tenure regime, which bears much of the responsibility for thousands of active land conflicts.

To strengthen the moratorium as well as environmental protection more broadly, Arief Yuwono, the Environment and Forestry Ministry's deputy for degradation and climate change, said the government would use a variety of instruments, including the Forestry Law, the Plantation Law, the Disaster Management Law, the Spatial Planning Law and the Law on Protection and Management of Peat Ecosystems.

"We will not erase previous government initiatives that have been good," he said. "We will strengthen them."

With reporting by Philip Jacobson of Mongabay Indonesia