Indonesia Is Wilting

By Alexandra Di Stefano Pironti, cross-posted from IPS News

JAKARTA, May 23, 2012 (IPS) – Unless the rapid deforestation in one of the world’s most richly-forested countries is controlled, Indonesians may one day wonder, “where are all the flowers gone.” To those lyrics by legendary U.S. singer Joan Baez they might also have to add, and where are all the tigers, elephants, orangutans, birds and ancient forest communities gone.

While the 1960s icon was singing against the U.S. war in Vietnam, green groups in Indonesia are waging war against deforestation, in a country that is home to about 15 percent of all known species of plants, mammals and birds. Some are already critically endangered as a result of deforestation by the palm oil, mining and paper industries.

As Indonesia marks the first year of a two-year moratorium on deforestation that followed a pledge of a billion dollars from Norway, a coalition of international and local green groups urged Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono this week to strengthen the moratorium so that it becomes a real instrument to reduce, and ultimately halt, deforestation in the country.

“The existing moratorium only suspends the issue of new forest use permits, it did not order a review of existing permits. There are other glaring loopholes in the moratorium which need to be addressed if Indonesia is to honour its international commitments,” Yuyun Indradi, forests policy adviser, Greenpeace Southeast Asia, said at a press briefing Monday.

Such concerns are being raised ahead of the Rio+ summit on sustainable development next month.

The environment groups say the ban is being undermined by weak legislation and weak enforcement, and provides little extra protection for forests or carbon-rich peatlands, and nothing to protect the rights of forest-dependent indigenous peoples and local communities.

They added that if deforestation rates continue to average more than a million hectares a year, all of Indonesia’s forests will have been destroyed within the next 50 years.

Earlier this month, the groups said they had witnessed continuing forest destruction by several companies despite the moratorium. They estimated that 4.9 million hectares of primary forests and peatland, out of a total 71.01 million hectares covered by the moratorium, will be lost to palm-oil industries, coal mines and other forest conversions by the end of May.

Last week, Indonesia’s Asia Pulp & Paper (APP), one of the world’s largest paper companies which has been most criticised by green groups, announced that it will suspend natural forest clearance from Jun. 1, and will hold better environmental procedures.

The announcement brought a quick reaction from Greenpeace, denying good practices from APP. It said images from their latest overflight in February indicate ongoing clearance of forests across Sumatra region.

Deforestation is devastating wildlife. Fewer than 400 Sumatran tigers remain in the wild, orangutans on Sumatra island have gone down from 1,000 in early 2000 to less than 200 in 2012, while only 3,000 Sumatran elephants are still in the wild, half the number since 1985, the groups say.

“It is reasonable to expect that there are many threatened undocumented species,” Louis Verchot, a scientist with the Centre for International Forestry Research (CIFOR), told IPS.

Deforestation has also affected whole communities of indigenous people dependent on the forest for food, shelter and their livelihood. Since most of the land belongs to the state, the government has given up ancestral rights of the native communities to businesses, according to indigenous rights groups.

The deforestation taking place in Indonesia goes much beyond the archipelago’s more than 17,000 islands. The country is the third largest emitter of climate changing greenhouse gases after China and the U.S.

Greenpeace says a large volume of the gases comes from the destruction of Indonesia’s peatlands, considered the world’s most critical carbon stores. They are believed to store about 35 billion tonnes of carbon, and when drained, burned and replaced by acacia, eucalyptus or palm oil plantations, they release carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

While green groups believe Indonesia should do more to stop deforestation, some Indonesian officials believe the country needs more incentives to do so.

“The Ministry of Forestry needs a budget of 5 trillion rupiah (538 million dollars) per year to fight deforestation,” Darori, director general of the Forest Protection and Nature Conservation from the Ministry of Forestry told IPS. With a wave of his hand Darori, who like most Indonesian people goes only by one name, dismissed the billion dollar pledge by Norway as “not enough.” Indonesia “needs the support of the world” to carry out this task, he said.

Commenting on Darori’s remarks, Greenpeace spokesman Indradi said money “is never enough if we cannot solve the corruption problems in the forestry sector.”

CIFOR’s Verchot said, “the pledge by Norway was not supposed to solve the whole problem, but it has transformed the discussion in Indonesia, and in that sense it is successful…Norway’s pledge over several years is significant and if it paves the way for additional REDD + money, then the programme can become sustainable.” REDD+ (Reducing Emission from Deforestation and Forest Degradation Plus) is a global mechanism to reduce emission and deforestation as well as forest degradation.

Darori, the Indonesian official, told IPS that authorities have given eight-year jail terms to 12 plantation owners in Sumatra for illegal logging, and imposed five billion rupiah (534,000 dollars) fines on each.

Indonesian President Yudhoyono has pledge to cut emissions in his country between 26 percent and 41 percent with the help of the international community by 2020. But he has pointed out the importance of the contribution of the forest-based industries to the country’s economy.

A recent study showed this contribution to be approximately 21 billion dollars a year – 3.5 percent of the national economy. The sector employs around 4 percent of the working population. (END)

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