Friday, March 23, 2018

Despite Government Pledges, Ravaging of Indonesia’s Forests Continues

Seven years after Indonesian officials declared a moratorium on logging in undisturbed areas, logging and palm oil interests have not eased their assault on the world’s third-largest expanse of tropical forest, with major impacts on biodiversity and greenhouse gas emissions.

Forest loss (areas in pink) in Indonesia from 2001 to 2016. (Credit: Global Forest Watch) Click to Enlarge.
Global demand for forest commodities has devastated major portions of the world’s third-largest tropical forest, with Indonesia losing more than 100,000 square miles of woodlands and peatlands — an area larger than the United Kingdom — from 1990 to 2015, dealing a huge blow to one of the world’s biodiversity hotspots.  The island of Sumatra alone lost 29,000 square miles — about one-third of its forests — from 1990 to 2010.

Seven years ago, this relentless toll led Indonesia to declare a moratorium on logging new concessions in undisturbed tropical forests and peatlands — a move seen as critical in stemming forest loss and the accompanying fires, haze, and greenhouse gas emissions.  That it came shortly after a $1 billion dollar pledge from the government of Norway as part of the then-nascent Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD+) program, led many to hope that this was an important step toward reversing decades of deforestation in Indonesia.  Adding to the momentum were zero-deforestation pledges from companies like Asia Pulp & Paper and the Consumer Goods Forum, which includes major palm oil buyers such as Mars, PepsiCo, and Proctor & Gamble.

Nearly seven years after the declaration of the moratorium, however, the initiative has failed to stem the loss of forests and peatlands across the Indonesian archipelago.  Satellite monitoring shows that palm oil and paper plantations continue to expand, with at least 10,000 square miles of primary forest and peatland — the equivalent of five islands the size of Bali — disappearing since the moratorium went into effect, according to one analysis.  In 2015, a massive El Niño-fueled fire event — linked to burning for land-clearing — was believed to be the worst in Indonesian history, emitting an estimated 1,750 million metric tons of CO2 into the atmosphere — nearly twice what Germany does in a year, according to The Global Fire Emissions Database.

Following the moratorium, says Asep Komarudin, Forest Campaigner for Greenpeace Southeast Asia, “there were no significant improvements in Indonesia’s natural resource governance, particularly in the forestry sector.”

Indeed, several years ago, Indonesia became the world leader in deforestation, overtaking Brazil.  Erik Meijaard, a conservation scientist who founded the Borneo Futures initiative, says he has seen little change in Indonesian Borneo, where palm oil plantations continue to expand.

“If fact, there was a marked increase of deforestation after 2010… you get a very rapid expansion of the oil palm industry into forest areas, so if a moratorium was called in 2011, it didn’t seem to have an impact on the oil palm sector at least,” said Meijaard.  Data from Global Forest Watch shows a similar pattern – little change in deforestation rates across the country since the moratorium went into effect.

The reasons for this are manifold.  First, there is the weakness of the moratorium itself, which was only a so-called Presidential Instruction, not a legally binding statute, meaning it lacked strong enforcement mechanisms.  Moreover, the moratorium only applied to new concessions, not existing concessions that had already been ceded to companies and smallholders, but had not yet been cut down or burned.  Adding to the moratorium’s ineffectiveness are ongoing problems with corruption, and the drive — particularly after the election of Joko “Jokowi” Widodo to the presidency in 2014 — to rapidly expand the economy.  Moreover, government weakness and inefficiency also have meant that Norway’s pledged funds have scarcely been used to protect forests.

Moreover, the zero-deforestation pledges made by corporations have not yet had a major impact.  A study published earlier this year in Nature Climate Change analyzed pledges from 450 companies and found that the majority were insufficient in their scope to meaningfully reduce deforestation on their own.  The report’s authors argued that companies also need to push governments at all levels to crack down on deforestation globally.

Some experts say that while Indonesia’s progress is disappointing, fixing decades of forestry mismanagement in a few years was always an impossible task.  They also note that deforestation rates have come down from their peak in the 1990s and early 2000s.

“The very important steps in the right direction that Indonesia has taken are unfairly characterized as failures because the whole big ship has not turned around yet,” said Jonah Busch, an environmental economist and a visiting fellow at the Center for Global Development.  “If there hadn’t been a moratorium, deforestation might have been even higher.”

Read more at Despite Government Pledges, Ravaging of Indonesia’s Forests Continues

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