Indonesia's SBY Pledges to Save the Forests

Although Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono told a conference in Jakarta Tuesday that he is committed to ensuring sustainable development of the country’s tropical forests, the third largest in the world, there are plenty of reasons to believe he won’t be able to keep that promise.

For instance, Yudhoyono made the statement in the middle of one of the worst years on recent record for smoke and haze extending across a wide swath of Southeast Asia. Haze from illegal burning has become a permanent feature in Jakarta, the country’s capital. The smoke, from illegal clearing of forest in Sumatra and Kalimantan, was so dense earlier this month that Singapore offered to send firefighting planes to try to douse the blazes out of a fear that decreased visibility could endanger the 300-kilometer per hour plus Formula 1 cars racing on the city’s road circuit in trials and the Grand Prix from Sept. 23 to Sept. 25.

The president has made repeated statements calling attention to the need to preserve the country’s forests. Indonesia, with almost no smokestack industries, nonetheless ranks third in the world behind China and the United States in the production of greenhouse gases, which are universally assumed to be the main cause of global warming, other than by cranks in the US Congress. While globally deforestation accounts for up to 20 percent of greenhouse gas emissions, in Indonesia, that figure is 85 percent, the president said.

“I will continue my work and dedicate the last three years of my term as president to deliver enduring results that will sustain and enhance the environment and forests of Indonesia,” Yudhoyono told the conference, which was hosted by the Center for International Forestry Research, adding that he didn’t want to tell his grandchildren someday that the country had failed to preserve its forests.

Privately, however, say sources in Jakarta, Yudhoyono regularly complains that orders his ministers simply ignore his orders. A recent poll has shown the administration’s once-high approval rating has fallen from 52 percent in January 2010 to just 38 percent today. Although there are myriad other reasons for his descending ratings, including a massive corruption scandal over construction of a sports facility, Yudhoyono said prior to the poll that only half of his orders are carried out.

The Forestry Ministry, headed by Zulkifli Hasan, a former businessman and secretary general of the National Mandate Party, would be a good place to start searching for orders to be carried out. The ministry earns US$15 billion in fees from land permits. It is currently being pursued by the

Corruption Eradication Commission, known by its Indonesian-language initials KPK, which is investigating the ministry for the granting of illegal permits.

According to the NGO Greenomics Indonesia, the forestry ministry’s lack of commitment to protecting its forests was demonstrated by an announcement in mid September that 7.4 million hectares of oil palm concessions in Kalimantan would be legalized and categorized as forest areas, and would be treated as additional forest cover for the purpose of mitigation of climate change. Under a Ministry of Forestry Regulation dated Aug. 25, the ministry is now using climate change mitigation as a legal justification to legalize plantations with legally defective licenses.

Thus, not only are the areas being cleared not being recorded as such, they will instead be treated as additional forest cover. But not only are oil palm plantations not considered to be mitigating climate change, the underlying peatland destroyed to allow for the clearing of plantations are -- or were – valuable carbon sinks.

Indonesia Corruption Watch, a private watchdog, was quoted by Reuters in an investigation of the country’s timber industry as saying illegal logging and violations in issuing forest use permits produce as much as US$2.3 billion in bribes annually. The Reuters story warned that corruption in the ministry was making a mockery of western attempts to set up a program for buying and selling carbon credits

The country’s 17,000 islands boast total forest cover today of 88.5 million hectares. Given growing population pressures as well as destroying forest and peatlands for oil palm plantations, primary forest is disappearing at a rate of about 2 percent per year. Some 28.07 million hectares of primary forest have disappeared since 1990, or 24.1 percent of forest cover, according to the website Mongabay, which monitors environmental degradation worldwide..

“Logging for tropical timbers and pulpwood is the best-known cause of forest loss and degradation in the country,” the NGO wrote in a report on Indonesia. “Indonesia is the world's largest exporter of tropical timber, generating upwards of US$5 billion annually, and more than 48 million hectares (55 percent of the country's remaining forests) are concessioned for logging. Logging in Indonesia has opened some of the most remote, forbidding places on earth to development. After decimating much of the forests in less remote locations, timber firms have stepped up practices on the island of Borneo and the state of Irian Jaya on New Guinea, where great swaths of forests have been cleared in recent years and logging firms have to move deeper and deeper into the interior to find suitable trees.”

One of the best examples of the forestry ministry’s corruption revolved around Wandojo Siswanto, Indonesia’s lead negotiator at the 2009 United Nations Conference on Climate Change in Copenhagen, Denmark, and described as a “key architect” of Indonesia’s role in the UN’s Collaborative Program on Reducing Emissiions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation in Developng Countries, known as REDD.

In December 2010, Wandojo was arrested and given three years in prison for taking a US$10,000. At the time, Wandojo was responsible for tendering a global positioning system procurement project for the ministry. At the time of the arrest, Wandojo insisted he had carried out the deal on orders from his superiors.

“A long journey still awaits us. We know we must do more to address the primary sources of our greenhouse emissions, such as illegal logging, forest encroachment, forest and land fires and peat land drainage,” Yudhoyono said in his speech. “And indeed we are working hard and comprehensively to overcome these challenges.”