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Nine months in, how has Jokowi fared on the environment?

Nine months into the landmark presidency of Joko “Jokowi” Widodo, Indonesia’s first head of state to emerge from neither the political elite nor the military, the hope that ran to such a fever pitch during his campaign has dimmed somewhat, eroded by his handling of tussles with the police and his political party and by questions over his commitment to human rights and environmental issues. At times he has seemed overwhelmed, his lack of experience the impediment voters feared it would be even as the soft-spoken man who got his start in the furniture business galvanized them into making him their president.

Still, and whether for better or worse, in the arena of issues related to the environment and Indonesia’s vast natural resources, Jokowi has made some significant moves. He undertook a major restructuring of the environmental and forestry bureaucracies. He authorized several permit reviews and has sought to simplify licensing procedures. He extended a moratorium on logging in many of the archipelago’s forests and peatlands. He ventured to cut the fuel subsidy and has taken steps to reduce dependence on oil imports. He has endeavored to increase maritime strength and consolidate control over Indonesian waters; he has literally blown illegal foreign fishing vessels out of the sea.

In January, Mongabay-Indonesia – Mongabay’s independent Indonesian-language arm – launched a project to document and track progress on Jokowi’s social and environmental commitments. What follows here is an assessment of the progress he has made against those commitments – a scorecard tempered by the acknowledgement that taming the corruption and chaos of Indonesia’s forestry, plantation, mining and maritime sectors are mountains that need more than nine months to scale.

Indonesian President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo.

Land reform

The issue: After independence, Indonesia’s founding president, Sukarno, tried to mobilize a national land redistribution program. Then, in 1965, General Suharto seized power and changed course, dramatically expanding state control over land. In subsequent decades, three quarters of the land base were designated as state forest and placed under the authority of the Forestry Ministry, which became known as one of Indonesia’s most powerful and corrupt institutions.

After Suharto’s fall in 1998, land reform was placed back on the agenda. But attempts to generate concrete results have generally resulted in false starts. The proliferation of contradictory maps across the different levels and institutions of government has been a major impediment. The One Map initiative is an attempt to fix this, but the project remains far from fruition. Meanwhile, thousands of communities remain embroiled in conflict with companies, the state or each other over territory.

Jokowi’s approach: During his campaign, Jokowi promised to redistribute nine million hectares – about five percent of the national land base – to small farmers. The plan was vague at first and is still not completely clear; reform advocates’ cautious optimism has been tempered with concerns over where the land will come from and precisely whom its redistribution will it benefit. But a few specifics have started to emerge.

In May, three ministers signed an agreement to move up to four million Indonesians from the densely populated inner islands to the less-populous outer islands, in a revival of the Suharto-era transmigration program that relocated millions of people. According to the ministers, the first wave will send 345 families from Java to Kalimantan, mostly to areas along the border with Malaysia. The transmigrants will receive small plots of land and monthly cash allotments. Because previous transmigration actions have caused violent conflict between locals and newcomers, the ministers said they would pay special attention to the rights of indigenous communities who already live in the transmigration zones. Still, protests were staged in West Kalimantan in response to the announcement.

Separately, in July, the Environment and Forestry Ministry said it had targeted 5.5 million hectares of land in company concessions for redistribution to rural and indigenous citizens. According to the ministry, most of the land will come from existing pulp-and-paper and logging concessions, and 2.5 million hectares will be handed out this year. The Indigenous People’s Alliance of the Archipelago (AMAN) criticized the plan, saying it wasn’t in line with the Constitutional Court’s landmark 2013 decision that annulled state control of customary forests in favor of indigenous peoples (see next topic).

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Chevron oil fields in Riau, Sumatra. Photo by Rhett A. Butler
Chevron oil fields in Riau, Sumatra. Photo by Rhett A. Butler

Indigenous rights

The issue: Indigenous Indonesians have suffered a long history of abuse and discrimination at the hands of the state. During the Suharto regime, they enjoyed little recourse against powerful interests that came for their land and forests. After the 1998 fall of Suharto, these communities formed the Indigenous Peoples Alliance of the Archipelago (AMAN) to push for recognition of their rights. But even after nearly two decades, the government has yet to enact such a law or establish any kind of dedicated institution for indigenous issues.

Neither has the government been quick to follow up on the Constitutional Court’s landmark 2013 decision that took customary forests out of state forests, paving the way for indigenous communities to lay legal claim to millions of hectares of land (AMAN puts the figure at 40 million, a fifth of the national land base). In part to spur government action on the ruling, the National Human Rights Commission (Komnas HAM) embarked last year on a national inquiry into land conflicts affecting indigenous peoples in forest areas. The final report is forthcoming, but the hundreds of individual testimonies featured throughout the inquiry, from dozens of separate cases, affirmed that indigenous rights continue to be trampled on.

Jokowi’s approach: AMAN supported Jokowi’s campaign, but he has been slow to act on his promises to indigenous communities. AMAN did find it encouraging that during a meeting with the president and some of his ministers in June, he reaffirmed his commitment to the indigenous cause, saying he would prioritize passing a draft law on their rights, set up a long-awaited task force on indigenous issues, address widespread criminalization of indigenous citizens involved in land conflicts and issue a presidential instruction to follow up on the Constitutional Court ruling.

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A Dani man in Indonesia’s Papua province on the island of New Guinea.

Licensing and governance reform

The issue: Corruption, illegality and mismanagement have long plagued Indonesia’s forestry sector. Local chief executives commonly abuse their authority over land allocation; since district heads began to be directly elected as part of Indonesia’s democratic transition after the 1998 fall of Suharto, more than half have been linked to graft, often for trading licenses for bribes to fund their election campaigns. Corruption doesn’t stop at the district level; a former governor of Riau province, for example, is on trial in a land conversion case that has also ensnared a former forestry minister.

Mining, logging and plantation companies flout the law with impunity. London-based NGO the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) has exposed how oil palm firms routinely ignore the requirement to obtain a timber utilization permit (IPK) for harvesting logs in their concessions; a local forestry official told the EIA that not one of the 52 oil palm firms in his district held the license. Companies also get away with cheating on their social and environmental impact assessments. Protected areas, even national parks, are full of illegal plantations, mines and logging operations.

A recent Forest Governance Index assembled by the Environment and Forestry Ministry and UN agencies gave Indonesia a “relatively weak” score of 35.97 out of 100, citing a lack of transparency in licensing, among other issues.

Jokowi’s approach: Early in his presidency, Jokowi merged the Ministries of Forestry and Environment in a bid to improve management of Indonesia’s forests. Carrying out the restructuring has been a long road, but in June the head of the new institution, Siti Nurbaya, finally inaugurated her director-generals. These echelon I officials must now name their own subordinates at the II, III and IV levels.

As part of the restructuring, Jokowi dissolved the National REDD+ Agency (BP REDD) and the National Council on Climate Change, folding their responsibilities into the new ministry. The move was criticized by those felt the efforts to reduce emissions, improve oversight of forests and protect indigenous peoples would suffer without the independent institutions, but Jokowi argued for the need to streamline government and reduce overlap.

Jokowi has also sought to simplify licensing procedures and review existing permits, such as those for companies to operate on carbon-rich peatlands, which are protected if deeper than three meters or if covered by a 2011 moratorium on new clearing in certain areas (see next topic).

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Acacia logs are loaded into a truck in Indonesia’s Riau province on the island of Sumatra. Photo: Rhett A. Butler

The moratorium

Issue: In 2011, Jokowi’s predecessor, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, established a two-year moratorium on new permits for clearing primary forests and developing peatlands, part of a $1 billion REDD deal between Indonesia and Norway. The policy amounted to a partial logging ban that exempted secondary forests and existing concessions and made exceptions for “national development” projects – geothermal, oil and gas, electricity, rice and sugarcane – as well as any concession the Environment and Forestry Ministry chose to allow. In May 2013, Yudhoyono extended the moratorium for another two years. He had faced calls from environmental groups to strengthen the policy and from industry to scrap it completely. He took the middle road and left it intact.

Jokowi’s approach: Upon taking office, Jokowi pledged to extend the moratorium again. In May he did so, and like Yudhoyono he left the policy largely unchanged, to the chagrin of environmental groups that had demanded he close loopholes, bring more forests under its protection and improve enforcement.

The door might still be open to changes in the policy. When the Environment and Forestry Ministry announced the extension in May, it acknowledged concerns raised by specific environmental groups and promised to “explore their proposals for follow-up.” The ministry has yet to expound on a plan for doing so.

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A Greenpeace activist dons a mask of Indonesian President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo in a smoldering peat forest that is supposed to be protected by the partial logging moratorium. Photo: Greenpeace

Forest fires and haze pollution

The issue: Every year in Indonesia, forest fires spread and burn uncontrollably. In the most vulnerable parts of Sumatra and Kalimantan, they desiccate carbon-rich peatlands, pumping greenhouse gases into the atmosphere and blanketing the region in choking haze. In recent years, neighboring countries sickened by the smog have ramped up pressure on Indonesia to deal with the issue; in 2013, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) agreed to establish a joint haze-monitoring system, and last year Singapore passed an aggressive new law allowing it punish any company responsible for haze pollution affecting the city-state, regardless of whether the firm claims Singapore as a base of operations. But the harshest effects are suffered by Indonesians themselves, with tens of thousands of people in Riau province experiencing respiratory ailments during the 2013 crisis.

Clearing land with fire is generally illegal in Asean countries, but in Indonesia enforcement has been lax, especially when it comes to prosecuting companies and their executives, though some serious attempts have recently been made. Also undermining the fight against haze are poor coordination among government institutions, a lack of specialized expertise among judges and law enforcement officers, and knowledge gaps as to certain basic aspects of how and why the fires occur.

With el Niño expected to bring unusually dry conditions to the archipelago in 2015, Indonesia faces an additional challenge in preventing a repeat of international haze crises past.

Jokowi’s approach: In anticipation of this year’s fires, Jokowi’s cabinet has coordinated with the agencies in charge of disaster mitigation and meteorology to identify areas at high risk of burning. The Agriculture Ministry, for example, has mapped drought-prone areas, while the Environment and Forestry Ministry has spoken of blocking illegal drainage canals in peatlands – fires that burn beneath desiccated peat can spread underground and be impossible to stop – and carrying out cloud seeding.

In early July, Environment and Forestry Minister Siti Nurbaya conducted a flyover over West Kalimantan, where fires had begun to burn in earnest. After landing, Siti urged local officials to better regulate the use of fire as a land-clearing device by small farmers, who can legally employ it in accordance with “local wisdom.” She also promised to follow up on hotspots she had observed in large oil palm concessions and take legal action against delinquent firms. Jokowi himself has said he would revoke the permits of companies that can’t control fires in their concessions.

The Environment and Forestry Ministry has launched a publicly available hotspot-tracking system called SiPongi, available online at The application is similar to the World Resources Institute’s Global Forest Watch.

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A fire burning underground in a Sumatran peat forest sends thick haze into the air. Photo: Rhett A. Butler

Food security

The issue: Unlike its neighbors Vietnam, Thailand, Cambodia and Myanmar, Indonesia is a net importer of rice, the staple food for most of its 250 million people. Availability of the crop has always been a concern for Indonesia’s rulers: skyrocketing food prices during economic crises were instrumental in bringing down Sukarno and Suharto. Today, the rapid expansion of coal mining, oil palm and other land-based industries has contributed to a scarcity of agricultural land. The destruction of life-giving forests has also driven food insecurity and malnutrition among a variety of indigenous peoples who rely for their meals – or once did – on tree crops and game from the jungle.

Jokowi’s approach: Jokowi has made rice self-sufficiency a pillar of his food security agenda. Not only does he want Indonesia to account for its own consumption: he’s aiming for the country to become an exporter. To achieve this, Jokowi plans, first, to increase productivity. The Agriculture Ministry has partnered with the Philippines-based International Rice Research Institute to draw on advances in rice science, for example, and Jokowi has talked about training farmers, increasing their access to quality seeds and fertilizer, and improving irrigation infrastructure.

Jokowi’s other tack is to open vast new tracts of land for agriculture. Several figures have been mentioned in the press, but during a recent trip to Merauke in Papua province, Jokowi said he wanted to plant an additional 1.2 million hectares of rice within three years. His administration has spoken of reviving the Merauke Integrated Food and Energy Estate (MIFEE), a controversial agribusiness megaproject whose contours have always been hazy. MIFEE was drawn up during the Yudhoyono administration but stalled after an outcry against the large-scale environmental destruction and land grabbing it seemed likely to portend.

One curious aspect of Jokowi’s food security program has been his enlistment of the army to shepherd it through. On the grounds that Indonesia has a deficit of agricultural extension officers and that the military’s mandate includes a “civic mission,” the army, on Jokowi’s orders, has dispatched tens of thousands of babinsa, or non-commissioned officers assigned to villages, to assist in the distribution of seeds and fertilzer, in the tending of fields, and more.

In June, the agriculture minister spoke of resurrecting another controversial megaproject: a massive sugarcane venture in Aru, a cluster of about 90 islands in Indonesia’s Maluku province which is home to a variety of indigenous peoples. The project had been shelved by the Yudhoyono administration in response to a public outcry and social media campaign against the plan, which proposed turning most of Aru into a giant network of sugarcane plantations.

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A pile of fresh fruit bunches from oil palm trees in Indonesia’s Aceh province on the island of Sumatra. The palm oil extracted from the fruit stands a good chance of being turned into cooking oil. Photo: Rhett A. Butler

Palm oil

The issue: Indonesia is the world’s leading palm oil producer and exporter; together with Malaysia, the archipelago accounts for around 85 percent of world output. Shipments abroad are an important source of government revenue and foreign exchange, and the industry supports the livelihoods of millions of Indonesians. At the same time, steadily rising prices have driven a rapid expansion of oil palm, fueling the country’s sky-high deforestation rate, pumping massive amounts of carbon into the atmosphere, destroying habitats of endangered species and throwing thousands of communities into conflict with companies, the state and each other.

Oil palm growers in Indonesia fall into three general categories: companies, smallholders associated with companies, and independent smallholders. The latter two are said to compose 40 percent of the sector, but the term “smallholder” remains vaguely defined, employed as a reference both to villagers with two hectares and to businessmen with 50. These mid-level entrepreneurs deploy capital in murky ways; one expert referred to a “missing middle” of the sector whose contours researchers are still struggling to understand. These questions aside, raising smallholder productivity is seen as a key to doubling palm oil production by 2020, a goal set during the Yudhoyono administration and carried on by Jokowi.

On the governance front, the sector is beset with overlapping permits, associated with encroachment in protected areas and hampered by regulations that undermine the efforts of sustainability-minded companies to set aside forests of high conservation value within their concessions. Child labor and a lack of safety equipment are also concerns.

Jokowi’s approach: With support from the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), the government has set up a national palm oil platform, InPOP, whose goals include raising smallholder productivity. InPOP aims to harness big companies’ best practices to help farmers improve their yields. The logic is that higher yields on existing plantations will mean less incentive to open additional land for new ones, reducing pressure on Indonesia’s rich and dwindling forests.

The mandate to assist smallholders is shared by the government’s new Crude Palm Oil Supporting Fund (CPO Fund). According to a decree Jokowi issued in May, income from a new levy on palm oil exports will be channeled into the fund and used by its management board to train farmers, aid research and development, promote the industry, improve infrastructure and carry out replanting.

The CPO Fund has a second mandate: supporting and subsidizing the development of palm oil biofuel. How the fund’s immense resources – conservative estimates put its annual take at $700 million – will be divvied up between the two usage categories, and whether subsidy recipients will be required to comply with any environmental or social safeguards, is still up in the air.

With regard to child labor, the manpower minister told the Indonesian Palm Oil Association (Gapki) in May to purge their operations of underage workers and promised strict sanctions for laggards.

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An oil palm plantation borders a natural forest in Indonesia’s Riau province on the island of Sumatra. Photo: Rhett A. Butler

Climate change, energy security and renewables

The issue: Since the 1980s, dwindling Indonesian oil production and rising domestic demand have turned the country from a major exporter to a net importer of the fossil fuel, increasing its vulnerability to price fluctuations and sapping foreign exchange reserves. Reliance on oil is also a subject of environmental concern. In 2009, President Yudhoyono pledged to reduce emissions over the next decade by 26 percent, or 41 percent with international help. Indonesia is the third-largest emitter behind China and the United States, and some have called for it to play a leading role in producing a new international agreement on climate change at the Paris Climate Change Conference (COP21) later this year.

Jokowi’s approach: As part of a government restructuring, Jokowi dissolved the REDD+ Agency and the National Council on Climate Change, putting Indonesia’s climate change agenda in the hands of the Environment and Forestry Ministry’s Climate Change Oversight Directorate-General. He did it in the name of streamlining government and reducing overlap, but some fear the emissions reduction program will languish under the weight of the ministry’s bureaucracy.

The architects of the new Crude Palm Oil Supporting Fund (CPO Fund) have justified its biofuel mandate primarily on sustainability grounds, arguing that it will reduce dependence on foreign oil (see “Topic: Palm oil”). In the same vein, Jokowi has set ambitious targets to raise Indonesia’s electricity generating capacity by dozens of gigawatts, much of it from renewable sources but also from large coal-power projects like the one in Batang, Central Java province. His plan is to reduce the percentage of Indonesian energy consumption that oil accounts for from 41 to 26 and raise that of renewables from six to 23, while leaving that of coal and gas roughly unchanged at 30 and just over 20 respectively, by 2025.

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A coal barge on the Barito River in Indonesia’s South Kalimantan province.

Access to water

The issue: In February, the Constitutional Court struck down the main governing law on water resources, passed in 2004 as part of a World Bank loan condition to regulate private involvement in the sector. The ruling was the result of a judicial review brought by Muhammadiyah, Indonesia’s second-largest Islamic organization, as part of a “constitutional jihad” against foreign control of the natural resources. The following month, a Jakarta court annulled the city’s contract with the two private operators that had run the capital’s piped network since 1998. That case had been brought by civil society groups in the name not of resource nationalism but of anti-corporatism. Though the two camps’ aims differ slightly – the civil society groups want to separate water stewardship from the profit motive, while Muhammadiyah seems more concerned with putting it in Indonesian control – both are pushing for the remunicipalization of privatized waterworks across the country. Control over water resources by companies like Paris-headquartered Danone, whose Aqua is Indonesia’s reigning bottled brand, have also been called into question by the court decisions.

Jokowi’s approach: The water law’s annulment has created a legal vacuum the government must fill with new legislation. The civil society groups behind the Jakarta suit hope the new law will emphasize the human right to water rather than its commercial value. Meanwhile companies like Danone are said to be lobbying to protect their interests. The government has assured that a new law will be drafted by year’s end and that all outstanding public-private partnerships will remain valid during that time.

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A water filtration chamber at a treatment plant in Jakarta. Photo: Antara/Dhoni Setiawan

Depletion of fish stocks

The issue: Indonesia is the world’s largest maritime country, but its fish stocks have been depleted by overfishing and destructive fishing methods, a consequence of rising global demand, a regulatory regime lacking in scope and detail and prone to corruption, and the prevalence of illegal foreign fishing vessels in Indonesian waters. When familiar fishing grounds dry up, fishermen venture farther out to sea, which can be costly and dangerous for small operators. Fishermen have also complained about a lack of access to credit, insurance and information technology and called on the government to prevent the conversion of fisheries for other industries and to improve infrastructure.

Jokowi’s approach: Turning Indonesia into a maritime nation was a pillar of Jokowi’s campaign, and that includes regenerating fisheries. The Maritime Affairs and Fisheries Ministry has declared bans on trawl fishing and catching egg-bearing crustaceans and imposed size limits on wild-caught lobsters and crab. When fishermen expressed concerns that the trawler ban would harm their livelihoods, Jokowi formed a task force to help them transition to more sustainable practices.

Some of the new size limits have had unintended consequences. The one on lobsters prompted many Javanese fishermen to focus on stingrays, which are more endangered and perform crucial ecosystem services that help lobsters survive. The minister, Susi Pudjiastuti, said she intends to restock the oceans beginning with the spiny lobster, though her precise plan remains unclear.

The House of Representatives is discussing a proposed new law to protect and empower fishermen, and the government is carrying out a “techno park” pilot program in four provinces to improve human resources in the sector.

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A dock extends into the sea in the coastal village of Sunur in Indonesia’s West Java province. Photo: Rhett A. Butler

Marine governance and illegal fishing

The issue: Indonesian waters are rife with illegal foreign fishing vessels. These ships harvest marine commodities throughout the archipelago, depleting fisheries and driving local fishermen out of business. Part of the problem is corruption and lax oversight in the issuance of permits, with provincial and national administrations failing to share crucial data and information. Another is that Indonesia has yet to fully zone its waters and define its maritime boundaries in agreements with other countries. Further, polluting or destroying marine ecosystems lacks repercussions, and little to no taxes are collected on fish and shrimp exports.

The situation is especially concerning in less-developed eastern Indonesia, whose fisheries are among the world’s most biodiverse. Due to the region’s remoteness, monitoring and law enforcement are especially weak. That point was driven home recently by an Associated Press exposé of widespread slavery aboard fishing vessels in eastern Indonesia. Official corruption appears to have played a role in allowing it to persist.

Jokowi’s approach: Under Susi Pudjiastuti, the Maritime Affairs and Fisheries Ministry has literally waged war on illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing. The ministry has seized and exploded dozens of illegal foreign fishing vessels, a policy Jokowi referred to as “shock therapy.” Officials have also enforced a rule requiring ships to keep on their vessel monitoring systems, banned transshipment at sea and announced plans to launch a publicly accessible e-database of illegal fishing cases in conjunction with the Attorney General’s Office to help the ministry coordinate with law enforcement, judicial and military authorities.

In the wake of the slavery revelations, Jokowi formed a special team to investigate the matter. Indonesia and Thailand have also agreed to establish a joint task force to combat IUU fishing.

The Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK) signed a memorandum of understanding with the Maritime Affairs and Fisheries Ministry, the Environment and Forestry Ministry and a number of provincial administrations to better integrate management and monitoring of the country’s oceans and forests. The signatories committed to zoning Indonesian waters for industrial and fishing use and ensuring that national maritime boundaries are demarcated and protected from trespassers.

In April, a six-month moratorium on permits for foreign vessels was extended for an additional six months.

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A fishing vessel off the coast of Indonesia’s West Papua province. Photo: Rhett A. Butler

Endangered species

The issue: Populations of threatened or endangered species continue to decline despite being officially protected. Poor staffing, high monitoring costs and differing cultural attitudes toward conservation have all been blamed for the historic lack of enforcement. Flagship megafauna such as the Sumatran rhino, tiger and elephant species are particularly under siege as their habitats are destroyed.

A variety of creatures – manta rays, sharks, bears, hornbills and many others – are harvested illegally for export to traditional East Asian medicine markets. The domestic pet trade is also thriving. Traffickers have made increasing use of the Internet to connect with customers and elude authorities. Even if caught and convicted, traders usually receive light sentences.

Jokowi’s approach: The government has made a string of high-profile busts of wildlife traffickers in recent months. In May at a port in Surabaya, for example, authorities arrested a man with 24 rare birds stuffed in plastic water bottles. Most of the creatures were critically endangered yellow-crested cockatoos, a staple of the domestic pet trade. Following a public outcry, the government encouraged people to hand over their pet cockatoos to special command posts it had set up to accommodate them. The birds people turned in would be taken to rehabilitation centers for reintroduction to the wild.

Authorities are beginning to hone in on traders who sell protected species over the Internet. In July, for example, a man was arrested in Surabaya for selling rare eagles on Facebook. The government has also pledged to crack down those using social media to show off dead or abused animals after several individuals drew widespread condemnation for bragging about wildlife crimes on the Internet. The Environment and Forestry Ministry said it intends to strengthen the 1990 Conservation Law to increase penalties and cover offenses like online trafficking.

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A knobbed hornbill is ready for his closeup on the island of Sulawesi. The birds are popular among poachers for their beaks. Photo: Rhett A. Butler


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