Mongabay Series: Indonesian Palm Oil, Indonesian Fisheries

Jokowi turning over a new leaf for Indonesia on haze but details still foggy

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Green groups welcome recent policy announcements on swampy peat protection but are still waiting for the edicts to be codified in law.

Jokowi turning over a new leaf for Indonesia on haze but details still foggy
  • The president has ordered the damming of canals used to drain peat.
  • Jokowi has yet to pass a presidential decree, known in Indonesia as a perppu, codifying these changes in law.
  • Indonesia shipped a record 2.61 million metric tons of palm oil in October, with the month’s shipment to China rising 36%.

Environmental groups have welcomed new technical guidelines issued by Indonesia’s forestry ministry which, if implemented correctly, could prohibit new development in Indonesia’s peatlands, keeping them moist to prevent wildfires.

“This gives a real hope that the country is changing its direction on how it manages its peatlands,” Woro Supartinah of the Riau Forest Rescue Network (Jikalahari) said in a statement on Thursday. “These instructions on peat protection and management pave the way for Indonesia’s paper and palm oil billionaires to address their legacies and restore the country’s carbon sinks.”

In a presidential instruction, or inpres, issued on October 24, and then in pair of edicts from the ministry on November 3 and 5, President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo’s administration has required that no new development occur on any peatland in Indonesia, even those covered by existing concessions. This would appear to entail clawing back tranches of peat from companies that have been granted a license to develop a particular concession, but have yet to begin clearing or planting, possibly through land swap or compensation deals.

Previously, Indonesia’s forestry moratorium set up in 2011 banned new licenses to clear peat but allowed development on peatlands covered by existing permits.

The ministry has also instructed that canals in peatlands that have already been planted either be blocked completely or dammed in accordance with “eco-hydro” principles to keep the water at a certain level and the peat wet, according to the Eyes on the Forest coalition’s interpretation of the ministry’s edicts.

Agribusiness digs canals in order to drain the land because palm and acacia trees cannot grow in such saturated conditions. This draining by companies then leaves peat without the water level necessary to guard against it combusting, a prime cause in this year’s exacerbated wildfire and haze crisis.

“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,” Yuyun Indradi, a campaigner at Greenpeace Indonesia, said in a statement this week.

“Companies must work together with the Indonesian government to implement these decrees and ensure they stop doing business with any company that continues forest and peatland destruction.”

A drainage canal runs through a smoldering peatland in an oil palm company's concession in Central Kalimantan. Photo courtesy of Wetlands International/Reza Lubis
A drainage canal runs through a smoldering peatland in an oil palm company’s concession in Central Kalimantan. Photo courtesy of Wetlands International/Reza Lubis

Jokowi has yet to issue a presidential decree, known in Indonesia as a perppu, codifying these changes in law. This is has raised concerns that the policies will lack a legal basis and will consequently be circumvented at the local level, where oversight is sparse.

Several instructions issued by Jokowi from his office in the State Palace have failed to be implemented on the ground.

“WWF with other NGOs in Eyes on the Forest is fully committed to support the Ministry of Environment and Forestry by monitoring its implementation in the field,” said Aditya Bayunanda from WWF-Indonesia.

The largest pulp and paper concession holder in Sumatra has applauded Jokowi’s change of tone.

“APP welcomes the Government of Indonesia’s review of activities on peatland concessions as part of wider efforts to tackle the problem of forest fires and haze,” Asia Pulp & Paper director of sustainability Aida Greenbury told Mongabay after Jokowi issued the inpres last month.

But a trade association representing small farmers in Sumatra and Kalimantan said a more robust legal response is required by the government.

“Burning will still happen because the government hasn’t changed the regulations,” Mansuetus Darto, head of the Indonesian Oil Palm Smallholders Union, told Reuters.

A photo posted to @zelfihariandi's Twitter account depicts a green leaf amid burned-out shrubbery. The account's owner has entered the image in a photo contest.
A photo posted to @zelfihariandi’s Twitter account depicts a green leaf amid burned-out shrubbery. The image has been entered in a photo contest.

Palm oil farmers have been struggling under rock-bottom prices for the commodity in recent months, with prices nearing the break-even point of $500 per metric ton. Small farmers have also expressed concern about a new $50 per metric ton charge levied on crude palm oil exports.

Indonesia shipped a record 2.61 million metric tons of palm oil in October, with the month’s shipment to China rising 36 percent. The data from the Indonesian Palm Oil Association as well as futures contracts on the price of palm oil indicate traders expect supply to drop substantially because smog has deprived the trees of sunlight, crimping growth.

Toxic haze pollution and Indonesia’s annual fires will feature heavily at a meeting of the 10-country Association of Southeast Nations (ASEAN) in Malaysia next week.

In Jambi, Indonesia’s meteorology agency, the BMKG, is installing new air pollution detectors which will link better data to the forecaster’s website. In neighboring Riau province, a team of volunteers has reached a village affected by the haze and is offering free medical checkups to 300 people, many of them children.

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