Mongabay Series: Indonesian Forests

Indonesia bans peatlands destruction

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Indonesia bans peatlands destruction
  • Indonesian president Joko Widodo has banned clearance and conversion of carbon-dense peatlands across the archipelago.
  • A series of presidential and ministerial instructions bars planting of newly burned areas, instead mandating restoration.
  • Notably the instructions ban clearance of peatlands even in existing concession areas.

In response to the fires that have hospitalized roughly 500,000 people, polluted skies over a large swathe of southeast Asia, and released upwards of 1.7 billion tons of carbon, Indonesian president Joko Widodo has banned clearance and conversion of carbon-dense peatlands across the archipelago.

The move, undertaken through a series of presidential and ministerial instructions issued over the last two-and-a-half weeks, was welcomed on Tuesday by Greenpeace, which has been pushing for measures to curtail destruction of Indonesia’s peatlands.

“President Jokowi is right to seek to prevent next year’s fires by banning further expansion into peatlands, and requiring peat drainage canals be blocked. It is also just that the government has declared burned areas must be rehabilitated rather than planted,” said Greenpeace Indonesia campaigner Yuyun Indradi in a statement. “President Jokowi’s landmark decision to ban peatland development is a first step toward a cleaner, brighter future for Indonesia’s people and environment. It sets the bar for meaningful commitments from world leaders to tackle the root causes of climate change at the Paris climate summit.”

Picture courtesy of Greenpeace.
A freshly burned area that is now being replanted with oil palm in Central Kalimantan. Picture courtesy of Greenpeace.
Fires at the peatland in the district of Kapuas in the Central Kalimantan province on Borneo island, Indonesia. Peatland soils store a massive amount of carbon. When peatlands are cleared and drained for plantations, they degrade and the carbon they store starts to release into the atmosphere as CO2 emissions. If peat soils catch fire, they can smoulder away below the soil surface, which is exceedingly difficult to extinguish.
Fires at the peatland in the district of Kapuas in the Central Kalimantan province on Borneo island, Indonesia.
Members of the local community help extinguish the fire of burning peatland in Kapuas district, Central Kalimantan province on Borneo island, Indonesia.
Members of the local community help extinguish the fire of burning peatland in Kapuas district, Central Kalimantan province on Borneo island, Indonesia. Picture courtesy of Greenpeace

The government’s instructions bar planting of newly burned areas, instead mandating restoration. They also require drainage canals to be blocked in order to raise water tables and calls for criminal investigations into fires. Notably the instructions ban clearance of peatlands even in existing concession areas.

But while the move could put Indonesia on a path toward resolving its fire and haze crisis, there are no guarantees that Jokowi’s orders will be obeyed. Indonesia actually has a number of regulations in place that are supposed to protect peatlands, but these have been routinely ignored or circumvented by local officials, companies, and small farmers. Provincial governors, municipal heads, and village chiefs often encourage drainage of peatlands and push for permits to exploit these areas for oil palm and wood fiber plantations, despite the deleterious ecological impacts, including reduction in the availability of clean water, heightened flood and drought cycles, increased vulnerability to fire, and subsidence.

Art by Prabha Mallya
Members of the indigenous community live at the riverbanks in Kapuas river where the air is engulfed with thick haze at Sei Ahass village, Kapuas district, Central Kalimantan province on Borneo island, Indonesia. These fires are a threat to the health of millions.
Members of the indigenous community live at the riverbanks in Kapuas river where the air is engulfed with thick haze at Sei Ahass village, Kapuas district, Central Kalimantan province on Borneo island, Indonesia. Picture courtesy of Greenpeace.
Ecologist Reza Lubis says he took this photo a smoldering peatland in PEAK's concession earlier this month. Photo courtesy of Wetlands International
Ecologist Reza Lubis says he took this photo a smoldering peatland in PEAK’s concession in Central Kalimantan in October. Photo courtesy of Wetlands International

Greenpeace Yuyun noted that concern.

“This will only succeed if all levels of government across Indonesia are willing to play their part,” he said.

NGOs have called for a legally binding presidential decree, or perppu, which Jokowi’s administration said after a cabinet meeting on October 24 was forthcoming. The instructions are supposed to serve as stopgap measures while a decree is prepared.

A previous version of this article said the government’s edicts had come via a presidential decree, when in fact there have only been a series of instructions, which are not legally binding.

APP fire-fighting crew in action.
Asia Pulp & Paper (APP) fire-fighting crew battling peat fires in South Sumatra.
Burning peat forest and oil palm in Riau, Sumatra. Photo by Rhett A. Butler
Burning peat forest and oil palm in Riau, Sumatra. Photo by Rhett A. Butler

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