Where Does Jokowi Go on Indonesia's Deforestation?

With his administration taking unsettling actions on issues ranging from allowing the emasculation of the Corruption Eradication Commission to executing foreign drug mules and knuckling under to party leader Megawati Sukarnoputri, President Joko Widodo is also being watched closely by concerned environmentalists over his plans on deforestation.

Earlier this year, Jokowi dissolved the National Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation Agency (BP REDD+), which was 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. In late April, rather than attend the UN-sponsored Forest Landscape Summit on green investment in Jakarta, he sent Vice President Jusuf Kalla, who delivered a blistering speech largely blaming foreigners alone for the degradation of the Indonesian environment.

UN officials and western diplomats were stunned by the speech, which seemed to indicate that Joko doesn't much care about the issue.

Plantation legacy

This is all worrying in a country that has been ravaged by logging and palm oil plantations but is still considered one of the world’s most crucial green-lung countries, its vast forests removing huge amounts of greenhouse gases from the air. But in the past year, 1.6 million hectares of forest were lost, most of it burned for oil palm plantations.

Indonesia, along with Russia, Canada, Brazil and the US, was in the top five countries for average annual tree-cover loss from 2011-2013. The total world tree-cover loss was 18 million hectares in 2013. At that, however, recent data from the World Resources Institute (WRI) showed that from 2011 to 2013, the country’s average tree-cover loss slowed, with primary forest loss also slowing in the period to an average of less than a million hectares per year, the lowest in a decade.

The WRI has said that the decline in losses was probably due to a continuing moratorium on issuing new licenses for forest conversions, a significant decline in agricultural commodity prices including, corporate zero-deforestation commitments and the sad fact that most accessible forests have already been cleared.

Nonetheless, Joko did agree to continue the UN-sponsored REDD+ program after a bilateral meeting with Norwegian Prime Minister Erna Solberg in Jakarta on April 15, delivering a certain amount of hope for the optimists. Indonesia and Norway agreed to continue much highlighted cooperation on reducing forest-based gas emissions despite Jakarta’s earlier decision to disband the forest protection unit. Its tasks are supposed to be handled by the forestry ministry.

“Much has been achieved by Indonesia. President Jokowi has made it clear that his administration will maintain Indonesia’s level of ambitions on reducing deforestation, and forest and peat degradation,” Solberg was quoted saying by local media.

REDD+ is a so-called central policy instrument to slow land-use related carbon emissions, according to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. Under the scheme, chosen countries receive financial incentives for protecting their forests.

After being chosen as one of the UN-REDD+ pilot countries, along with several others that have been ravaged by development including Bolivia, Congo, Panama, Papua New Guinea, Paraguay, Tanzania, Vietnam and Zambia, Indonesia established a series of collaborative efforts between the Forestry Ministry, the UN Development Program (UNDP), the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the UN Environment Program (UNEP) to halt the issuance of forest-clearing permits for primary forests and peatland.

SBY's promise

In 2010 former President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono made headlines when he pledged to significantly reduce carbon emissions. He signed a letter of intent with Norway to reduce forest-based gas emissions in return for financial support of up to US$1 billion, with a commitment to cutting greenhouse gases by as much as 41 percent by 2020. However, the program has faced huge challenges, especially under corrupt regional governments that have long granted forest concessions to individuals and private companies in exchange for bribes.

“Since the beginning, we were skeptical that REDD+ would be the answer to climate change and global warming, because it imposes a reduction in carbon emissions to developing countries while industrial countries, which are the largest emissions producers, are not willing to reduce their emissions,” Zenzi Suhadi, from Friends of the Earth (WALHI) Indonesia, told Asia Sentinel.

“For example, a REDD+ Pilot Project in Central Kalimantan called KFCP, in cooperation with the Singapore Government, has failed to reduce deforestation and land degradation,” he said, adding that currently eight private concessions cover ​​377,428 hectares in the area.

Yudhoyono issued a moratorium on deforestation in 2011 with the intention of synchronizing economic, social and cultural development with environmental development. But the decree has largely failed.

"During the Yudhoyono presidency, despite an international image as a country committed to reducing emissions, there was still massive deforestation. This is a herculean challenge for the current government to come up with good policies in tackling environmental issues in Indonesia,” said WALHI’s Zenzi.

What will Jokowi do?

With the moratorium expiring this year -- although officials at the forestry conference said it would be continued -- Jokowi is being urged come up with plans and policies to save the critically ill environment. During the forestry summit, there was a call for public-private-people partnerships (PPP) to leverage a sustainable business model as part of Indonesia’s green economy initiatives.

The government has said it will need up to US$400 billion in the next five years for infrastructure investment, which needs to be aligned with policies that are environmentally friendly. Interestingly, private industry is plunging ahead – to a certain extent – where government is slow to go. Oil palm and timber companies worry they will be unable to export their merchandise to an increasingly vigilant Europe without environmental certification. Asia Pulp & Paper, a unit of the Sinar Mas empire of the Widjaya family, has agreed with Greenpeace and other organizations to harvest only sustainable timber. APP had been one of the worst despoilers in Indonesia. Palm oil codes of conduct are being sought in Indonesia after decades of neglecting the issue.

But there are many smaller companies that are more than willing to flout environmental laws for profit. A more aggressive stance from a president whose green credentials are in doubt would be welcomed.