KUALA LUMPUR – As forest fires raged in Indonesia six years ago, a thick, toxic smoke haze drifted across Southeast Asia that would threaten endangered orangutans, destroy huge swathes of forest and lead to more than 100,000 premature deaths.
In the aftermath, environmentalists and governments, both regional and local, demanded action from Jakarta, forcing a policy reset that in 2020 helped the country achieve a fourth straight year of declines in deforestation.
Bimo Dwisatrio, a senior research officer at the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR), said the 2015 crisis was a political game-changer for forest governance under Indonesian President Joko Widodo, popularly known as Jokowi.
The fires occurred just months after he was elected in 2014. “Jokowi took a bold step,” said Dwisatrio, pointing to his move to merge the environment and forestry ministries.
At the time it was criticized by many conservationists, but has resulted in better aligned policies on conservation, forest fires and permits for commodities development.
Last year, tropical forest losses around the world equaled the size of the Netherlands, according to satellite monitoring service Global Forest Watch (GFW).
Green groups blame the production of commodities like minerals and palm oil — used in everything from margarine to soap and fuel — for much of the destruction of forests, as they are typically cleared for plantations, ranches, farms and mines.
Cutting down forests has major implications for global goals to curb climate change, as trees absorb about a third of the planet-warming emissions produced worldwide but release carbon back into the air when they rot or are burned.
In Indonesia, home to the world’s third-largest tropical forests and its biggest palm-oil producer, deforestation rates have bucked the worsening global trend.
Last year, the sprawling archipelago improved from third to fourth place in the GFW ranking for tropical forest loss, which amounted to about 270,000 hectares (667,000 acres), as forest protection policies, lower commodity prices and wetter weather eased pressures.
Primary forest and peat-land
After visiting some of the areas worst-hit by the 2015 fires, Widodo introduced more legislation to stop the development of old-growth forest.
The government renewed a moratorium on new conversion permits for primary forest and peat-land — which had been extended since 2011 — before making it permanent in 2019.
In late 2018, Widodo imposed a temporary ban on new permits for palm plantations for three years.
Dechen Tsering, Asia-Pacific director at the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), said the restrictions on new clearance “have certainly been critical”, while falling palm oil prices may also have helped slow deforestation.
The establishment of an agency to restore more than 2 million hectares of damaged, carbon-rich peat has also been positive, said environment experts, who welcomed a recent expansion of its mandate to mangroves.
In addition, Widodo vowed to return 12.7 million hectares of forest land to indigenous people following a historic 2013 court ruling to lift state control of customary forests. And last year the government issued an agrarian reform decree aimed at redistributing land and issuing titles on some 9 million hectares.
David Dellatore, director of conservation programmes for U.S.-based nonprofit the Rainforest Trust, said those reforms were helping to alleviate poverty and encourage sustainable land use.
Forest-reliant businesses such as palm oil and pulp and paper companies have, meanwhile, adopted new industry-wide policies under pledges to phase out deforestation, worked with green groups and invested in technologies to track supplies and prevent forest fires.
The global palm oil industry watchdog has adopted stricter rules for certification schemes to safeguard forests, while Indonesia has also expanded its own sustainability scheme.
UNEP’s Tsering said there were still challenges, such as forest-clearing by small-scale producers for palm oil and other commodities, and conflicts over forest land between communities and businesses — which often lead to fires.
Green groups have warned of rising deforestation risks, from both food and palm oil projects, in Indonesia’s Papua province.
Brazil gains reversed
Despite those concerns, Indonesia’s conservation approach could help other countries now battling growing deforestation, like Brazil and Bolivia, forest experts said.
Success would hinge on enlisting the support of impoverished communities, said Rainforest Trust’s Dellatore.
“If one’s basic needs are not being met, it is unrealistic to expect conservation efforts that serve to limit development to flourish,” he said.
In the past, measures like those used in Indonesia have had a positive impact on deforestation in Brazil, reducing it by 80%, he noted.
They included similar efforts to clean up supply chains, in this case for beef and soy, alongside increased law enforcement and firefighting.
From 2004 to 2012, Brazil was a leader in reducing deforestation in the Amazon and mitigating climate change, thanks to public policies and private measures that it shared with Indonesia, said Dwisatrio.
“But it is clear from the case of Brazil how quickly such gains can be reversed through political instability,” he added.
Vital carbon sinks
Last week, Widodo praised Indonesia’s slowing deforestation rates and mangrove restoration projects during the virtual climate summit hosted by U.S. President Joe Biden.
Under the 2015 Paris Agreement, Indonesia has committed to cut its greenhouse gas emissions by 29% by 2030 — a target that could rise to 41% with international support.
While progress on protecting forests will help achieve its emissions pledges, they will not be strengthened in an updated climate action plan due to be submitted ahead of a U.N. climate summit in November, officials have indicated.
UNEP’s Tsering said all countries, including Indonesia, would need to set their sights higher in protecting massive, irrecoverable carbon sinks like tropical forests and peat-lands.
More than half of Indonesia’s emissions are related to deforestation, peat-land degradation and fires, she noted.
“Without addressing these emission sources, Indonesia will not be able to meet its … (targets) under the Paris Agreement,” she added.
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