Forest moratorium extended in Indonesia

The Indonesian government has extended its forest moratorium for two more years.

The moratorium covers new logging and plantation concessions, but licences that were granted when it was first signed in 2011 are exempt.

The government confirmed today (Wednesday) that President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono had signed the extension on Monday.

The move had been fiercely opposed by the powerful palm oil industry and other industrialists.

Greenpeace welcomed the news, but with reservations. “While it’s good news, the president did not strengthen the moratorium to cover all forests and peatland,” said the organisation’s forests campaigner Yuyun Indradi. “That is what’s really needed if we want to save Indonesia’s remaining tigers and orangutans, which are under threat from relentless palm oil and pulp and paper expansion.

“Overall, the moratorium leaves around 50 percent of Indonesia’s forests and peatlands unprotected. It, nevertheless, offers additional protection for more than 13 million hectares of primary forest and peatland, which could have been opened up for conversion if the moratorium had disappeared.”

Indradi said deforestation had pushed Indonesia into the ranks of the world’s largest carbon emitters. “Thanks to this moratorium extension we might just be on our way to addressing this.”

According to Greenpeace, the annual clearing of Indonesia’s carbon-rich peatlands releases some 1.8 billion tonnes of greenhouse gases and some put the figure at 2 billion. Indonesia is now the world’s third largest emitter of greenhouse gases, following behind the U.S. and China.

Indonesia’s peatlands cover less than 0.1 per cent of the Earth’s surface, but their destruction is causing 4 per cent of global emissions every year. No less than ten million of Indonesia’s 22.5 million hectares of peatland have already been deforested and drained.

Greenpeace is urging the Indonesian government to review existing concessions, increase transparency in the way licences are granted, establish a credible database of low carbon land, and undertake clear spatial and land use planning.

“As we’ve shown in recent investigations, the current status quo is not enough to guarantee that all of Indonesia’s forests and carbon-rich peatlands are being protected,” Indradi. “We urge key partners in Indonesia’s forest moratorium, such as the Norwegian Government who are contributing up to US$1 billion to help Indonesia reduce emissions from deforestation, to push for the moratorium to be strengthened and not just extended.”

In May 2010 the Norwegian government signed a bilateral Letter of Intent with Indonesia; it pledged up to US$1 billion over seven to eight years, based on Indonesia’s success in reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

The Norway-Indonesia deal comes under the umbrella of the UN-REDD programme, which is aimed at reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation in developing countries. Under the scheme, major financial incentives can be granted to developing countries that fulfil emission-reducing criteria.

It was a condition of the bilateral deal that Indonesia impose a two-year moratorium on the granting of new permits to clear rainforests and peatlands. One weakness of the moratorium, however, is that concessions already approved in principle when it was signed in May 2011 are exempt.

Also, Norway’s 2010 Letter of Intent used the words “natural forest”, but the moratorium only applies to “primary natural forest”.

In addition, the moratorium is a non-legislative document, which means that there are no legal consequences if its instructions are not implemented. The Centre for International Forestry Research (CIFOR), which has its headquarters in Indonesia, has criticised this, and other weaknesses of the moratorium, stating that “no matter what the moratorium states, there are no legal sanctions if it is breached”.

There are other exclusions that further weaken the moratorium: existing licences for forest exploitation can be extended, and forest land can be cleared for “vital” national development projects. These would include geothermal, oil and natural gas, and electricity projects, and rice and sugarcane plantations.

Greenpeace said it deplored that the exceptions hadn’t been removed. “It’s one of the reasons why we are asking for a review of all existing concessions,” Indradi said.

As recently as the 1960s, 82 percent of Indonesia was covered with tropical rainforests, but the country now has one of the fastest deforestation rates in the world.

Between 1990 and 2005, Indonesia lost more than 28 million hectares of forest, including 21.7 hectares of virgin forest. It is estimated that, from 2000 to 2010, about 1.125 million hectares have been lost.

Forestry ministry officials say that within six months of the moratorium coming into effect forest loss had slowed down to about 450,000 hectares a year.

The cultivation of oil palms is a main cause of deforestation, and Indonesia is the world’s biggest palm oil producer. Between 1995 and 2005, the amount of Indonesian land being used to grow oil palms increased by some 3.5 million hectares; the total plantation area more than doubled.

The country already has 6 million hectares of oil palm plantations, but has plans for another 4 million by 2015 dedicated to biofuel production alone.

Huge swathes of Indonesia are being slashed and burned to make way for palm oil plantations and the moratorium has done nothing to stop the illegal forest clearance in Aceh, Sumatra, which is putting the survival of endangered species such as the orangutan at risk.

Several palm oil companies are operating in the Tripa peat forest, which lies within the Leuser ecosystem and, as such, should be off-limits for conversion. It is home to the highest-density population of Sumatran orangutans in the world, but it is estimated that at least one hundred of them have perished in forest clearing and peat burning.

Environmentalists say a new spatial plan for Aceh, which is expected to be approved within weeks, will lead to the destruction of a further 1.2 million hectares of local rainforest.