- Indonesia, home to the world’s third-largest span of tropical rainforest, has published its first ever report on the state of its forests.
- The reckoning is largely positive, highlighting declines in both the deforestation rate and forest fires in 2016 and 2017, thanks to policies spurred by devastating blazes in 2015.
- Chief among these is a program banning the clearing of peatlands and ordering plantation companies to restore and conserve areas of peat within their concessions.
- However, the rate of progress on the peat protection program, as well as community forest management reform, remains slow and underfunded. Experts also warn that the progress recorded over the past two years aren’t necessarily sustainable.
JAKARTA — Indonesia has released its inaugural report on the state of its forests, highlighting recent successes in conserving an ecological treasure trove that makes up the third-largest span of tropical rainforest in the world.
The report, titled “The State of Indonesia’s Forests 2018”, was published with support from the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), which puts out its own annual report on the state of the world’s forests, and Norway’s International Climate and Forest Initiative. It was first presented by Indonesia’s environment minister in Jakarta on July 11, and then at an FAO forestry committee meeting in Rome on July 16, attended by representatives from 99 FAO member countries.
The report’s findings are largely positive, with Environment and Forestry Minister Siti Nurbaya saying she hoped it would provide a detailed, comprehensive and balanced portrait of the current state of Indonesia’s rainforests, and eventually dispel perceptions of Indonesia as a major deforesting nation.
The headline figure from the report is that Indonesia’s total forest area spans 1.2 million square kilometers (463,000 square miles) — an area the size of South Africa — and accounts for 63 percent of the country’s total land area.
But not all of that area is “forest” in the generally understood sense of the word; only about 70 percent of it has tree cover, according to Siti. This stems from the Indonesian government’s definition of what constitutes a forest. Of the total forest area, more than half, or about 688,000 square kilometers (266,000 square miles), is designated as production forest, which includes vast swaths of pulpwood plantations that have often been carved out of primary rainforests.
Decline in deforestation
Global demand for timber, paper and especially palm oil has put relentless pressure on Indonesia’s tropical forests, earning it the notorious distinction of being the world’s top deforester, eclipsing Brazil in 2014.
To determine the amount of forest cover left in the country, the government analyzed deforestation data going back to 1990 and published since 2006.
The report showed fluctuations in Indonesia’s deforestation rate over the years, with highs from 1996 to 2000, when an average 35,100 square kilometers (13,600 square miles) of forest — greater than the size of Belgium — was razed per year. This period was also marked by massive forest fires, typically sparked to clear forested land in preparation for planting.
Severe fires were also recorded in 2007, 2012 and 2015, generating a choking haze that spread to neighboring countries and kicked off outbreaks of respiratory illness. The record-breaking fires of 2015 alone contributed to 10,900 square kilometers of deforestation.
Since then, the Ministry of Environment and Forestry has recorded a declining deforestation rate, with a 42 percent reduction in 2016 followed by a 24 percent drop in 2017. The total amount of new deforestation last year, at 4,790 square kilometers (1,850 square miles), was the third-lowest on record.
“So the decline has been significant,” Siti said. “Why? Because it’ll be so much easier to meet our greenhouse gas emissions reduction target if we can reduce our deforestation rate to a maximum of 3,500 square kilometers [per year].”
The 2015 fires spurred President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo to roll out a series of policies overhauling the country’s forestry management, including a moratorium on clearing new peatland and an ambitious plan to restore 20,000 square kilometers (7,700 square miles) of degraded peatland across the country.
The reported decline in the deforestation rate since then has been hailed by some as positive news from a country better known for the industrial-scale clearing of its forests.
“The ministry of forestry in Indonesia historically has been a deforestation ministry, [but] Ibu Siti [Nurbaya] has turned it into a forest conservation ministry,” Erik Solheim, executive director the U.N. Environment Programme (UNEP), said at the Oslo Tropical Forest Forum in Norway last month. “Deforestation in peatland has been reduced [by] 88 percent. Why? Because [the] moratorium from the government is [being] implemented with strength and vigor.”
‘Not a trend’
The government’s figures for the drop in deforestation track with new tree-cover loss data published on Global Forest Watch, a monitoring site run by the U.S.-based think tank World Resources Institute (WRI).
The WRI data show that Indonesia managed to reduce its tree-cover loss last year even as tree-cover loss rate in other tropical countries increased. Globally, tropical tree-cover loss in 2017 was the second-highest since 2001, and only slightly lower than the high in 2016.
WRI researchers said the decline in the rate in Indonesia was likely due in part to the peat moratorium, given that primary forest loss in protected peat areas went down by 88 percent between 2016 and 2017 to the lowest level ever recorded.
But they also noted that 2017 was a non-El Niño year, which resulted in wetter conditions and fewer fires than in past years. Measuring the deforestation rate under drier conditions would give a better indication of just how sustainable the decline is, they said.
“One year doesn’t make a trend,” Frances Seymour, a senior fellow at the WRI, said during recent a global press call. “I’ll be cautious in interpreting the data. We need to look at the various factors, including weather like El Niño,” she said, adding that the weather phenomenon contributed to the relatively higher deforestation rates of 2015 and 2016.
Putting out the fires
The probability of an El Nino this year, and the dry weather it brings, remains low, but already there’s been an uptick in one of the signal causes of deforestation: fires.
The area of burned peatland in the first half of this year, at 180 square kilometers (69 square miles) as of early July, already exceeds the 2017 total of 136 square kilometers (132 square miles), Siti said.
“It means that we still have to be cautious,” the minister said. “If we manage to reach mid-October [without major fire episodes], then we can breathe easy.”
Between 2015 and 2017, the government recorded significant declines in both the incidences of fires, known as hotspots, and the area of land burned. There were 2,581 hotspots recorded in 2017, down from 21,929 in 2015. The total area of burned land, including peatland, was 1,654 square kilometers (639 square miles) in 2017, from 26,114 square kilometers (10,083 square miles) two years earlier.
These efforts, Siti said, have led to the “relative absence of transboundary haze in 2017.”
Key to Indonesia’s touted success in reducing deforestation is the peat conservation and restoration effort, underscored by the recognition that the degradation of peatlands has historically made Indonesia among the biggest greenhouse-gas emitters in the world.
According to the government’s report, the average annual levels of emissions from the forestry sector and peatlands stood at 709.4 million tons of carbon dioxide for the period from 2000 to 2016.
Much of those emissions, some 304.3 million tons of CO2 a year, came from peatland degradation. The average over that period was skewed by the 2015 fires, when emissions from peatlands spiked to 712.6 million tons of CO2, before declining to 90.2 million tons in 2016 and 12.5 million tons in 2017.
The peat fires of 2015 were so immense in scale that at one point the daily emissions exceeded CO2 emissions from all U.S. economic activity, according to research from the University of Amsterdam.
In the wake of that disaster, President Jokowi launched his policies aimed at preventing future fires on peatland, which included establishing a Peatland Restoration Agency, or BRG. The agency has identified 239,600 square kilometers (92,500 square miles) of degraded peatland across the country, and plans to restore 20,000 square kilometers by 2020. But it has only achieved 5 percent of that target to date, and some researchers have said its efforts are severely underfunded.
Some of the targeted areas fall within existing timber and oil palm concessions. The affected companies are obliged to retire those parts of their concessions for conservation purposes.
To date, more than 100 oil palm and pulpwood companies have pledged to restore a combined 14,000 square kilometers (5,400 square miles) of degraded peatland, an area the size of the U.S. state of Connecticut, that fall within their leases. Eighty of the companies are oil palm planters and 45 are pulp and paper firms. Of these, 49 palm oil companies and 31 pulpwood companies have had their plans approved by the Ministry of Environment and Forestry.
Forestry management reform
Another major program launched by President Jokowi is an ambitious plan to distribute 120,000 square kilometers (46,300 square miles) of land inside forest areas to local communities, under various “social forestry” schemes.
The program is intended to provide communities with legal access to use forest resources, granting permits for various categories of forest, among others: village forest, in which villages apply for a 35-year permit to manage and protect nearby forests; community forest, which grants farmers’ groups a similar right; and customary forest, which applies to indigenous peoples.
For land outside what’s defined as forest area, the government has initiated an agrarian reform program known by its Indonesian acronym of TORA. This program will see the government grant title deeds to more than 90,000 square kilometers (34,750 square miles) of land, about half of it degraded forest.
Communities that have lived for generations within forest areas have long lacked legal rights to live and manage their lands, thanks to a previous legal framework that recognized the state as the default owner of forested land. As a result, such communities today manage just 4 percent of the 424,000 square kilometers (164,000 square miles) of concessions that fall inside forest areas, while companies with government-issued leases control the rest.
This massive disparity in land ownership has sparked conflicts throughout the country. In 2017, the nonprofit Agrarian Reform Consortium (KPA) recorded 659 such conflicts, a 50 percent increase from 2016.
The social forestry and TORA programs aim to address that imbalance, eventually giving local and indigenous communities the right to manage up to 31 percent of concessions inside forest areas under the latter policy. The government also plans to give them control of up to 41 percent of concessions outside forest areas.
The social forestry program, meanwhile, has seen some 390,000 households receive titles to a combined 17,300 square kilometers (6,700 square miles) of land as of early July. Siti said this alone had lifted 1.2 million people out of poverty, from a population of 10 million poor people living in and around forests.
For indigenous communities in particular, the “customary forest” permits received under the social forestry program are for life, as opposed to the 35-year leases for other permits under the program. These customary forest permits now cover 244 square kilometers (94 square miles) of forest area, out of a government target of 22,000 square kilometers (8,500 square miles).
The slow pace at which these permits have been issued has drawn criticism from observers. Greenpeace Indonesia has pointed out that the total area for which titles have been issued under the social forestry and TORA programs combined is far smaller than the area of forest land that the government plans to designate as non-forest area — more than 33,800 square kilometers, or 13,000 square miles, mainly for plantations.
”If we look at the numbers, the TORA program prioritizes large-scale plantation development, rather than supporting small farmers, farmers without lands and indigenous communities,” Greenpeace Indonesia forest campaign team leader Arie Rompas said in a press release.
He called on the government to be cautious about redesignating forest areas for plantations, saying it could lead to greater deforestation because of the lack of transparency in the forestry sector.
On the to-do list
Environment and Forestry Minister Siti said Indonesia had long been criticized by other countries for not doing enough to protect its forests. “I think nothing could solve this unless we have good data. So for the very first time, we’re explaining what’s happening in our forestry sector,” she said at the presentation of the report.
Now that the Indonesian government has finally published a definitive reckoning of the state of its forests, environmentalists and activists are urging a follow-up to ensure the progress made so far can be sustained, even if Jokowi is no longer in office after next year’s elections.
Monica Tanuhandaru, executive director of the NGO Partnership of Governance Reform (Kemitraan), said she was “a bit worried” about whether a new administration would keep the momentum going and building on the progress made. “All these achievements can be improved in the future,” she said.
Wahjudi Wardojo, a senior adviser to the environment and forestry minister, said future policies and an economic evaluation of Indonesia’s forestry sector were key aspects missing from the report.
“This book explicitly mentions challenges and opportunities both on national and global levels,” he said. “So from these challenges and opportunities, I hope there’s one point that says what the next policy should be.”
Having an assessment of the value of the country’s forestry sector could give the government leverage to lobby for more funds to improve the sector, Wahjudi said.
“Not many documents mention the value of our nature,” he said. “The implication is that whatever this ministry does is perceived to be not significant.”
The report should also suggest ways in which other countries can help Indonesia improve its forest management, Wahjudi said.
“Indonesia has always been scrutinized by developed countries,” he said. “But they don’t hate us, they’re just afraid our natural resources, which are the future of the planet, are damaged. So it’s better if we mention in this report what they can contribute to ensure the future of the planet.”
Banner image: Sumatran elephants in Indonesia’s Leuser Ecosystem, one of the region’s last great swaths of intact rainforest. Rapid oil palm expansion is eating away at the creatures’ habitat and driving them into increased conflict with humans. Image by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay