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Indonesia Still Struggling to Manage Natural Rainforests

  • Kate Lamb

FILE - An aerial view of parts of a forest which has been burnt during haze in Indonesia's Riau province.

FILE - An aerial view of parts of a forest which has been burnt during haze in Indonesia's Riau province.

Indonesia is home to one of the largest areas of tropical rainforest in the world - and has one of the highest rates of deforestation. Now, signs of progress are being seen in efforts to balance economic growth with conservation of the natural rainforests.

During recent decades, millions of hectares of Indonesian forest have been cleared through illegal logging and the creation of plantations for the timber, pulp and paper, and palm oil industries.

In 2010, the governments of Norway and Indonesia signed a billion-dollar deal to impose a moratorium on the clearance of peatland and natural forest. The deal was seen as a way to help Indonesia meet its ambitious goal of cutting carbon emissions by 26 percent by 2020.

But despite the ban, natural forests have continued to be cleared for industry, in part due to weak governance and rampant corruption.

For years scientists and environmentalists have struggled to convince rural Indonesians that protecting forests is in their long-term interests.

Scientist Eric Meijaards said the message is now starting to penetrate as people realize there are huge economic costs to destroying the forest.

“Large groups of people are starting to work out that the benefits that are being offered, the increased employment opportunities, infrastructure, do not outweigh the costs. Those people are saying that very clearly and this is something the government could use as input,” said Meijaard.

Meijaard has spent years mapping people’s perceptions about forest destruction on the island of Kalimantan.

Several large companies operating in the oil palm and pulp and paper industries in Indonesia have recently pledged commitments to “zero deforestation,” while the government is also starting to prosecute companies that illegally slash and burn.

Fadhil Hasan, the executive director of the Indonesian Palm Oil Association, said that although sustainability won’t happen overnight, the palm oil industry is heading in the right direction.

For a start, the Indonesian Sustainable Palm Oil Standard, or ISPO, will become mandatory by the end of this year.

“In 2011, the Indonesian government itself launched the sustainable palm oil [standard] and then hopefully in 2014 all oil palm plantations operating in Indonesia have been certified by ISPO, for sustainable palm oil. So looking forward we are improving,” said Hasan.

Indonesia is the world’s largest producer of palm oil, which is widely used in consumer goods such as soap and lipstick, and the industry employs more than five million people here.

While the Indonesian palm oil association claims that only a small percentage of plantations are developed in natural forests, indigenous groups argue that forest clearance is coming at their expense.

Last May, Indonesia's constitutional court issued a landmark ruling declaring government ownership of customary forests null and void.

Rukka Sombolinggi from the Indigenous Peoples' Alliance of the Archipelago said the government been slow to implement the court ruling.

As the complicated process to map customary forest gets underway, the government, she said, continues to grant contracts in protected forest areas.

“The problem now is that because we don’t have our rights specifically recognized and protected, it is very easy for the government to give permits and licenses to the private sector, private companies, without considering actually there are indigenous people living in this area,” said Sombolinggi.

As a result of significant forest clearance, Indonesia is the third-largest emitter of greenhouse gases worldwide, behind China and the United States.