Last week the Indonesian president signed a ban that forbids further forest clearances across 66 million hectares of designated rainforest. But despite this positive move, companies that have flouted previous bans go unpunished, and clearing continues. By Jeremy Torr.
Indonesia, August 2019. In early 2019, some 11 Indonesian companies were named as being hit by multi-million dollar fines for illegal destruction of forest lands. And this month, Joko Widodo, Indonesian president, issued a permanent moratorium (renewed from a 2011 decree) on new forest clearance for palm plantations or logging, across some 66 million hectares of untouched primary forest and peatland.
"The president signed an instruction on stopping new permits and improving primary forest and peatland governance," said Siti Nurbaya Bakar, Indonesian Forestry and Environment Minister, in a statement. But while both these developments are welcome for those who would like to see a better level of protection for Indonesian rainforests, there are a few worrying issues behind the headlines.
The total fine amount levied in 2018 was estimated to be some IDR19trillion (US$1.3 billion), for damage done over the previous three years. But so far, according to reports from Greenpeace, none of the fines have yet been paid.
“By not forcing those companies to pay, the (Indonesian) government is giving a dangerous signal that company’s benefits are more important than the law, clean air, health and forest protection,” said Arie Rompas, from Greenpeace Indonesia.
This follows the last massive spate of uncontrolled fires across Indonesia in 2015, which saw more than 2.5 million hectares in Sumatra and Kalimantan destroyed, and a cost to the Indonesian economy of an estimated US$16 billion in immediate costs, along with an estimated US$15 billion (World Bank) from the hit to forestry, agriculture, tourism, and other industries throughout Sumatra, Kalimantan and Papua.
Again according Greenpeace, a staggering 74million hectares of rainforest has already been logged, burned or degraded in the last 50 years, making the moratorium’s remit seem small in comparison. Admittedly, the rate is slowing; in 2017, Indonesia saw an encouraging 60% drop in tree cover loss in primary forests compared with 2016.
But more worrying, a similar, earlier decree to this months update only applies to land in forest areas controlled by the Ministry of Forestry, and does not cover land controlled by local governments or forests within oil palm concessions, which makes millions of hectares of forests and peatlands unprotected, with no sanctions for violators, said Rompas. This coupled with the lack of response by perpetrators to the fines previously levied, makes the two moves seem a little less comforting.
"The … moratorium is a step forward but is less (effective) because the freezing is only temporary,” said Rompas. “The Indonesian palm oil industry has serious reputation issues that the government can fix as a whole, once and for all by permanently banning the practice of forest destruction, including those in concessions."
Rompas addes that ideally, the policy should not be established using a presidential instruction because “that is the weakest among legal instruments," he said. He noted that despite the air pollution in Palangkaraya in Central Kalimantan on Borneo being so bad it forced authorities to restrict school hours, the moratorium still did not provide adequate protection for primary forest and peatland in the long run, and blamed the previously mentioned lack of punishment and loopholes in regulations.
And as Rompas pointed out, the moratorium, although a Presidential Instruction, is also not legally binding on government agencies or local officials.
"If it's a permanent (moratorium), changing the map should not be allowed anymore," he added. “We have already found that permits for palm-oil, pulp wood, logging and mining have been granted on 1.6 million hectares (since the) original 2011 moratorium.”