Friday, 2 January 2009

Favorable forest protection laws needed

January 02, 2009 The Jakarta Post: Opinion

Favorable forest protection laws needed

Sudibyo M. Wiradji, Jakarta

Indonesia's tropical forests, once said to serve as the lungs of the planet, have shrunk dramatically over the past few decades. Of some 120 million hectares of forest, only around 61 million remain -- around half has been cleared. But the glorious belief in economic growth to alleviate poverty at the expense of these forests has, conversely, lead Indonesia to become one of the world's top carbon dioxide (CO2) emitters.

Forests have been felled at an increasing speed for their timber and cleared for agriculture and plantations. These areas include peat lands which, according to Western climate scientists, store highly concentrated "sinks" of underground carbon. These peat lands when drained for agriculture and palm oil plantations cause gaseous carbon to be released on a massive scale, accelerated further by intensive illegal logging and forest fires.

Deforestation in the tropics is widely believed to be responsible for almost 20 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. At the recent UN climate conference in Poznan, Poland, participants agreed these emissions must be addressed under the Copenhagen agreement next year.

The Copenhagen agreement is expected to follow on from talks about the Reduction of Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation (REDD) scheme proposed at the Bali climate change conference last December.

Under REDD, tropical forest countries including Indonesia can secure financial incentives from developed countries to prevent further forest deforestation and degradation.

If the REDD scheme can really be adopted, Indonesia is expected to reap huge rewards from the sale of carbon that its forests stores.

At this point, crucial issues pertaining to the state of the country's forests must be addressed so efforts to combat human-induced climate change in Indonesia work better.

Population pressures coupled with poverty are among the major causes of deforestation and degradation. Provinces with tropical forests such as the severely deforestation-affected Riau province in Sumatra, and Kutai in East Kalimantan, see an increasing number of migrants from neighboring provinces and other islands each year seeking fortunes -- many clearing forest areas for agriculture or plantations.

While population pressures and poverty are typically regarded as inevitable causes of forest loss in developing countries (which entails government responses by, for instance, providing alternative job opportunities), deforestation and forest degradation in Indonesia continue because of forestry policies and regulatory frameworks that are substantially similar to those that were issued under the New Order government.

Legal experts say the 2008 Law on Non-Tax Sate Revenue and previous legal instruments originate from the utilization of forest areas for development purposes other than forestry.

Tracing back, the substance of such policies was established during the New Order period under then president Soeharto.

It is still fresh in our minds that Soeharto was so powerful that all ministers, legislators and high-ranking officials had no courage to oppose any policies or decisions he made -- including those associated with forestry. All they could do was just say "yes" without being aware that the policy or legal instrument they unanimously agreed on without reservation would later cause ecological disasters, such as landslides and floods.

Take the 1970 Law on Forest Concessions and the Forest Product Levy for example. This legal instrument, issued to underpin the implementation of the capital-oriented development policy, paved the way for the over exploitation of forests in Indonesia.

Under the regulatory framework, forest concessions were issued only to relatives and those close to Soeharto. The granting of forest concessions by Soeharto was not based on transparency, but through what is known as corruption, collusion and nepotism (now referred to as KKN).

Forest concession holders, including high-ranking military officers and business people such as Bob Hasan, Prayogo Pangestu and Burhan Urai exploited forests in Kalimantan, Sumatra, Sulawesi and Irian Jaya (now Papua) on a massive scale and at an uncontrolled rate from the 70s to the mid-80s. And they were immune to the law, because their "money talks" approach flourished in those years, with authorities including judicial officials wide open to bribery. As a consequence, forests were not only ecologically degraded but huge areas of forests disappeared as well.

The Soeharto legacy of legal instruments on forests and forestry apparently remains deeply ingrained in most authorities, government officials and lawmakers, and has been reflected in the poor law enforcement regarding environmental violations.

Indonesia should learn from the erroneous policies or legal instruments that former President Soeharto issued and should not repeat the oversight, especially in regard to forestry. An uncontrollable exploitation of forests even under the pretext of development or poverty alleviation can not be tolerated.

Given the high degree of degradation our forests have already suffered, it is thus imperative for Indonesia to set new policies with its legal instrument in favor of forest protection.

No doubt, more Indonesian leaders with high integration and environmental leadership will emerge once REDD is officially adopted for use by 2012, when the Kyoto protocol expires


The writer is a journalist at The Jakarta Post.