Jokowi leaves COP21 talks as questions remain over Indonesia haze reforms

  • Jokowi has yet to sign regulations necessary to make his land-management pledges legally binding.
  • Jokowi would need Indonesia’s parliament to approve the Perppu six months after its issuance.
  • Asia Pacific Resources International Holdings said it would invest $100 million over 10 years to expand protection and restoration of carbon-rich peat lands in central Sumatra.

President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo returned to Jakarta on Wednesday from crucial climate talks in Paris with Indonesia’s commitment to combatting forest fires and reducing greenhouse gas emissions still in the balance.

“We will later announce real actions to which we will commit. This will include peat restoration, a review of existing permits and a moratorium [on issuing new permits for development on peat],” Jokowi told reporters at an airbase in Jakarta before traveling to Paris on Sunday afternoon.

Indonesia formally submitted a plan on September 29 to cut emissions 29 percent from business-as-usual levels by 2030 – a target that will depend on the government’s ambitious goal of achieving 23 percent of its energy from renewable sources by 2025. It will also require a crackdown on fires that contributed to Indonesian emissions surpassing those of the U.S. on 47 of the 74 days to October 28 during the recent haze crisis.

“Indonesia is one of the world’s biggest carbon emitters, [and Jokowi] should be ready to face the music and clear the air — and not get defensive or come up with pointless excuses,” the English-language Jakarta Post said in an editorial.

Jokowi has pledged sweeping land-management reforms in a bid to address the archipelago’s disastrous annual wildfires. More than half a million people were diagnosed with respiratory illnesses of varying severity due to the smog after at least 2.1 million hectares of land went up in smoke. To avoid a repeat of this level of destruction the president plans to enforce a moratorium on all new development on peat soil, claw back plantation licenses on peat where development has yet to begin and block hundreds of thousands of kilometers of canals used to drain the marshes for planting.

It remains unclear, however, whether the president is committed to issuing a presidential regulation, known as a Perppu, to make the reforms legally binding. The alternative is that Jokowi could avoid changing the law by relying on a presidential instruction, or Inpres — a non-binding policy instruction to ministries — which he issued in October.

“Permanent forest and peatland protection is the true test of Jokowi’s climate commitment,” said Greenpeace Indonesia.

Pulp and paper plantation on peatland in Riau. Photo by Rhett A. Butler
A pulpwood plantation on a peatland in Indonesia’s Riau province. Photo by Rhett A. Butler

A senior NGO source told Mongabay last week that Jokowi was unlikely to issue the binding Perppu, saying environment minister Siti Nurbaya and chief security minister Luhut Pandjaitan had advocated that the president rely on the Inpres, which is not legally enforceable.

Jokowi would need Indonesia’s parliament to approve the Perppu six months after its issuance, and the source said the two senior ministers believed it unwise to risk a potential confrontation with legislators. Attempts to contact the government for clarification were unsuccessful.

Indonesia’s commitment to reduce emissions 29 percent by 2030 have also come under scrutiny because the data used to calculate the reduction does not include emissions from fires.

The severity of this year’s fires, which the Guardian newspaper called “this year’s worst disaster,” was made worse by the El Nino weather phenomenon prolonging this year’s burning season, with rains falling on Sumatra and Kalimantan and Sumatra only in November.

The most serious haze crisis was during the El Nino in 1997-8, when around 11 million hectares of land was burned. But research by the Center for International Forestry Research shows that Kalimantan and Sumatra remain vulnerable to spells without rain. The 2013 haze crisis, in which then President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono issued an apology to Singapore for the pollution, occurred earlier in the dry season.

Jokowi said in September that Indonesia would solve the annual pollution crisis in three years. The archipelago’s chief security minister, Luhut Pandjaitan, has said repeatedly the measures the government is taking will result in improvements in future years.

“To reach a Paris deal, all parties, I repeat, all parties have to contribute more in mitigation and adaptation actions, in particular developed countries,” Jokowi said in a speech in Paris on Monday.

Indonesia says it requires $3.6 billion to meet the costs of its peat restoration plans and is seeking funding from external sources.

Indonesia's haze is shown via NASA satellite imagery.
Indonesia’s haze is shown via NASA satellite imagery.

Analysts are concerned, however, about Jokowi’s ability to implement central government policies at the local level. A merger between the forestry and environment ministries last year has caused bureaucratic delays in the newly single department. Similar teething trouble after a merger between the housing and planning ministries was a primary reason in Indonesia spending only a tenth of its $20 billion infrastructure budget by the first half of the year. In another indicator of the legal minefield Jokowi must walk through to implement tangible change, the government declined this year to announce the haze situation as an official national emergency because of worries companies could declare force majeure.

Indonesia’s provincial police forces are, however, making gradual progress in building criminal cases against companies and individuals suspected of culpability in fires. Jambi Police chief Brig. Gen. Lutfi Lubihanto said this week the province’s police were preparing case files against executives of four plantation companies, adding that the four would likely soon be detained. The chief of the criminal investigation division of the National Police said last month 78 suspects have been detained, with nine completed cases filed to the prosecutor’s office.

The government of Singapore remains frustrated, however, by Indonesia’s intransigence on providing information on companies suspected of culpability. The republic passed its landmark transboundary pollution law last year to clamp down on errant agribusiness, but its $2 million maximum fines will be difficult to enforce without information sharing with Jakarta.

Some work has begun in damming the canals that have been used to drain the peat to plant oil palm and pulpwood trees. Greenpeace Indonesia has been working with volunteers, other NGOs and Palangkaraya University to dam one canal in Sebangau regency in Central Kalimantan province.

“This action is the first step in stopping annual catastrophic forest fires,” said Greenpeace Indonesia forestry campaigner Rusmadya Maharuddin. “We urge everyone in the plantation sector, including multinational companies and suppliers, to work together to stop cooperation with any company that is still draining peat land and engaging in forest destruction.”

Picture courtesy of Greenpeace.
Saplings on burned land in Central Kalimantan. Picture courtesy of Greenpeace

The private sector is also beginning to announce multimillion-dollar commitments to address the underlying causes of the fires. Large agribusinesses, such as Asia Pulp & Paper, have emphasized in recent months that it is against their interest to burn land, blaming fires in their concessions on encroachment by opportunist farmers and embers from nearby fires being carried into their management zones by the wind.

Asia Pacific Resources International Holdings said it would invest $100 million over 10 years to expand protection and restoration of carbon-rich peat lands in central Sumatra.

“This commitment illustrates how private sector organizations can support climate goals not just in terms of pledges but by going beyond them and actually putting resources on the table,” said Tony Wenas, APRIL’s managing director in Indonesia.

The Riau executive of the Indonesian Forum for the Environment, an NGO, called on APRIL to ensure it works with local communities to meet its legal obligations.

“Areas of deep peat should not be converted and we note the many concessions APRIL and its partners still operate in peatlands,” Riko Kurniawan told Mongabay.

With Jokowi back in Jakarta, the government will be under scrutiny to ensure the president’s policies are given full legal standing.

“As a country with one of the largest forest areas acting as the lung of the world, Indonesia is here today as part of the solution,” Jokowi said in Paris on Monday. “My government is developing Indonesia in a way that is giving due attention to the environment.”

President Jokowi holds a banner referencing the support of 253,800 people for saving Indonesia's forests and peatlands at the climate talks in Paris on Monday. Photo courtesy of Greenpeace
President Jokowi holds a banner referencing the support of 253,800 people for saving Indonesia’s forests and peatlands at the climate talks in Paris on Monday. Photo courtesy of Greenpeace


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