Wednesday, 25 February 2009

Watchdog Says Peatlands Regulation Will Lead to Village-Level Conflicts

February 25, 2009

Fidelis E. Satriastanti

The new ministerial regulation allowing peatland forests to be converted into palm oil plantations not only poses a risk to the environment, but will also encourage conflict between local villagers and plantation owners, an advocacy group says.

Edi Sutrisno, head of campaigning and public education for the NGO Sawit Watch, said on Tuesday that the Ministry of Agriculture’s regulation could conflict with still-pending rules on spatial planning, leading to increased confrontations at the village level.

“The spatial planning regulation — to be drawn up by the provincial governments — was supposed to be finished prior to the ministry regulation so that those areas meant for industry could be distinguished from protected areas,” he said. “In the absence of this regulation, we have already seen many permit violations, and this will only get worse.”

He said villagers “will be confused and defensive because they will see that even though spatial planning hasn’t been completed, the palm oil producers have already been given the permits to manage what the villagers still see as their land.”

Over the objections of environmentalists, the ministry last week ended a year-long freeze on clearing peatlands for plantations but cut the total amount of qualifying forests from four million hectares to two million.

The government closed peatlands for agricultural conversion last year amid widespread protest from environmentalists, who have urged that the freeze be maintained. The Indonesia Palm Oil Producers Association, which represents 250 plantations, rejected the moratorium last year and had continued to oppose it.

Bustar Maistar, a forest campaigner for Greenpeace Indonesia, said the ministry had acted too quickly in making a new regulation, basing it on incomplete studies.

“It is still premature. The new regulation simply strengthens the old one,” he said, adding that the ministry itself “admitted that their studies on greenhouse gas effects were incomplete.”

Achmad Mangga Barani, director general of plantations at the Ministry of Agriculture, allowed that his office had not finished a study on emissions but said “we will work on it while information on the regulation is made public.”

Edi also called the environmental viability of the decision into question. He said the regulation — which could allow at least 70 percent of those areas with a peat depth of less than three meters to be turned into plantations — was further proof of government inconsistency.

“The peatlands must be seen as a whole ecosystem; there are no specific borders for it,” he said.

Achmad countered by saying that Indonesia had around 20 million hectares of peatlands, mostly in Sumatra and Kalimantan, yet only 10 percent qualify under the regulation to become palm oil plantations.

“There’s only going to be about two or three millions hectares with a peat depth of less than three meters,” he said.

But Edi said the government was flouting requirements of transparency by not revealing the results of their studies.

“If are talking about only two million hectares of peatland forest, where are those places?” he asked.