SINGAPORE — Recent developments in curbing high levels of forest loss around the world, particularly in the tropics, are promising. They are significant because deforestation, including the clearing of trees from peat swamps in Southeast Asia, is the biggest source of global warming emissions from human activity after fossil fuel burning.
Indonesia has the eighth-largest forest area on the planet and half the global total of tropical peatland. It is the world’s leading emitter of carbon dioxide (CO2) and other greenhouse gases from deforestation.
So Indonesia’s announcement last month that starting next January it will place a two-year moratorium on new permits to clear natural forests and peatlands is a potentially important advance in a program backed by Japan to help developing countries protect forests and slow global warming.
In fact, advocates of the United Nations-backed forest preservation scheme, known as Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation (REDD), argue that it is the fastest and cheapest way to cut greenhouse emissions.
Indonesian officials say they will honor existing forest concessions but use the moratorium to get plantation companies to expand on 6 million hectares of degraded land that was once covered by trees but is now unproductive.
In return for Indonesia’s suspension of forest-clearing permits and other reforms to improve land management and make it more sustainable, Norway has announced that it would provide $1 billion to fund the program. It will mirror similar schemes in Brazil and other major tropical forest nations in South America, Africa, Asia and the South Pacific.
A group of developed nations, including Australia, Britain, Denmark, France, Germany, Japan, Norway, Sweden and the United States, have separately pledged more than $4 billion to pay for REDD and set up a monitoring agency to coordinate the various programs and prevent duplication and waste.
All this sounds good on paper. But implementing forest conservation schemes poses many challenges. Indonesia illustrates the scale of the challenge in making REDD effective.
For a start, how do you ensure that the money paid to cut emissions actually does so and that the benefits flow down to local communities and small farmers that are intended beneficiaries of the scheme?
Some Indonesian officials would like the deal with Norway to be expanded from payments of a fixed sum per ton of CO2 emissions verifiably reduced through forest preservation, to rewards for efforts to expand forest cover by tree planting.
In January, Indonesia announced that it planned to plant 21 million hectares with trees to absorb and store CO2 from the atmosphere. This would help achieve President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s commitment to reduce greenhouse emissions by 26 percent relative to business-as-usual levels by 2020, or as much as 41 percent with the help of international partners.
At the time, environmentalists expressed concern that enlarging forest cover in Indonesia would focus on planting commercial timber and oil palm plantations, which they blame for much of the primary forest burning, clearance and peatland drainage that has taken place. (Peatland is formed as plants rot in water-saturated areas. By some measures, it stores nearly 450 billion tons of carbon worldwide, substantially more than the 290 billion tons held in forests.)
Apart from the power of vested commercial interests, widespread corruption and the increasing decentralization in Indonesia in recent years also make it difficult for REDD to work well. Just last month, Indonesia’s anti-graft commission announced that it was investigating corruption in the forestry sector that had cost the state more than $100 billion.
The commission’s deputy chairman Mohammad Jasin said as many as 470 companies might be involved in various abuses of forest permits, including logging without replanting and avoiding tax payments: “Those with power take advantage of weak forestry regulations, and local government officials who are supposed to supervise the forests take bribes from plantation companies.”
A forestry ministry official explained that a “big percentage” of companies given permission to use forest resources had broken laws designed to limit damage to the environment and protect Indonesia’s rich biodiversity. “Many of these permits were issued by local governments, not the ministry,” the official added. “The permit holders illegally cleared land for plantation and mining activities and carried out illegal logging.”
Still, the rate of deforestation in Indonesia has reportedly slowed in recent years, although it is still expected to reach nearly 1.2 million hectares this year. The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization reported in March that Asia had moved from having a net loss of forest cover in the 1990s to having a net gain in the five years to 2005, primarily due to large-scale tree planting in China.
However, the FAO found that global deforestation, driven mainly by conversion of forests to agricultural land, continued at “an alarmingly high rate” of about 13 million hectares per year.
Several months earlier, a group of leading specialists scaled back the commonly used estimate of deforestation’s contribution to global greenhouse gas emissions. They said it was now about 15 percent, including peat degradation, not 20 percent. But they cautioned that this was a relative decline due to fossil fuel emissions rising faster than deforestation emissions.
More than one-third of all forests are classed as primary or old-growth, meaning they contain native species where there are no clearly visible indications of human activities. These are the most commercially valuable targets for logging and the FAO survey showed that the rapid decrease in primary forest reported in the 1990s continued from 2000 to 2005.
Whether REDD programs can overcome serious obstacles and bring tree loss under control in the primary forests of Indonesia and other tropical forest-rich nations will be a key test governance reform.
Michael Richardson is a visiting senior research fellow at the Institute of South East Asian Studies in Singapore.