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Proposal could redefine palm oil-driven deforestation as reforestation in Indonesia

Natural forest (left) versus an oil palm plantation (right) in Indonesia. Photo credits: Rhett A. Butler

Natural forest (left) versus an oil palm plantation (right) in Indonesia. Photo credits: Rhett A. Butler

  • Indonesia’s leading forestry university is making the case for oil palms to be classified as a forest crop — a move that would see existing plantations counted as forest, and the establishment of new ones as reforestation.
  • The proposal from the Bogor Institute of Agriculture (IPB) also argues that oil palm plantations should count toward Indonesia’s carbon sequestration goals, despite studies pointing out that clearing rainforest for oil palms leads to vast amounts of emissions
  • The move has been criticized by other academics and NGOs, who say it could pave the way for the unfettered clearing of Indonesia’s remaining forests.
  • They also say that, if accepted by the government, the plan would legitimize the oil palm plantations currently operating illegally inside forest areas.

Update, 2/10/2022: The Indonesian government has now clarified that it will not seek to reclassify palm plantations as forests, read about it here.

JAKARTA — Across large swaths of Indonesia, forests have been cleared to make way for oil palms, making the plantation industry one of the leading drivers of deforestation in the country. But this inconvenient truth may soon be masked by a sleight being peddled by the country’s leading forestry university to reclassify oil palms as a forest crop rather than an agricultural one — effectively counting oil palm plantations as forest.

The push, initiated in 2018 by Yanto Santosa, a professor of forestry at the Bogor Institute of Agriculture (IPB), is aimed at allowing palm oil companies to plant in forest areas — something they’re currently prohibited from doing. Yanto, who is controversial within the academic community for his views in support of the palm oil industry, is working on an academic manuscript justifying what critics say is a blatant attempt at greenwashing.

“Through the drafting of this academic manuscript, the public will understand that the presence of oil palm actually increases the size of forest cover,” Yanto said as quoted by local media.

What that means is that when actual forests are cleared to make way for plantations, it won’t count as deforestation, according to Yanto. And when oil palms are planted in degraded forest area, this will count as reforestation.

Since there are 16.4 million hectares (40.5 million acres) of oil palm plantations in Indonesia, by classifying oil palm as a forest crop, the country will automatically gain 16 million hectares of forest cover, Yanto said — an instant reversal, but only on paper, of decades of deforestation.

Naresworo Nugroho, dean of IPB’s school of forestry, said planting oil palms in forest areas would also have climate benefits. He said the crop could absorb 57.2 tons of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e) per hectare per year, higher than stands of timber trees like sengon (18 tons of CO2e/hectare/year), teak (21 tons) and pine (20 tons).

Naresworo said the government had a “heavy duty” to consider this climate benefit, “because our emissions can be reduced by oil palm, which can also absorb carbon.”

Oil palm plantations undoubtedly store carbon, but nowhere near as much as the forests that they replace. Clearing a plot of standing forest to establish a palm plantation releases more CO2 than can be sequestered by growing oil palms on the same plot. So while a new oil palm plantation may grow faster and sequester carbon at a higher annual rate than a naturally regenerating forest, it will still end up storing less carbon (50-90% less over 20 years) than leaving the original forest standing.

Excavator working in an oil palm plantation in Aceh, Sumatra, Indonesia. Image by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay.

Plantations fronting as forests

Nearly two-thirds of Indonesia’s land mass, or 125.9 million hectares (311.1 million acres), is zoned as “forest area.” Seventy percent of this land, or 88.4 million hectares (218.4 million acres), actually has tree cover, while the rest is considered “degraded” forest.

But whether it’s degraded or has tree cover, the forest area designation means the land is usually off-limits to any kind of clearing. Some forest areas are earmarked for “productive” activities, which include growing forest crops, selective logging, and agroforestry — but not oil palm cultivation.

Forest areas fall under the authority of the Ministry of Environment and Forestry, and so when an oil palm company wants to develop a plantation there, it needs to get the ministry to delist it as forest area.

What the IPB proposal means, if adopted by the government, is that these plantation companies will no longer have to get approval from the forestry ministry to plant oil palms in the forest zone.

It could also legitimize the 3.4 million hectares (8.4 million acres) of oil palm plantations currently operating illegally inside forest areas

The proposal is based on the Indonesian government’s long-held stance that oil palm plantations technically meet the criteria for a forest as defined by the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). The FAO defines a forest as land spanning more than 0.5 hectares (1.2 acres) with trees higher than 5 meters (16 feet) and canopy cover of more than 10%.

On Nov. 25, 2021, IPB and a research organization chaired by Yanto, called Pusakakalam, co-hosted a seminar where dozens of forestry experts were invited to discuss the proposal. Among them was Musdalifah Machmud, the deputy for agriculture to Indonesia’s chief economics minister, who welcomed the proposal.

“Oil palm trees can be more than 5 meters [in height],” she said. “If other palm [trees] are categorized [by the FAO] as forest crops, then why not oil palm?”

This is an argument that experts have long countered. In a 2010 policy brief, Dutch forestry consultancy Tropenbos International and Wageningen University & Research wrote that oil palm must be considered an agricultural crop by the very nature of how it’s cultivated and harvested.

“Although oil palm plantations do resemble tree plantations in terms of their height and crown cover, in other aspects they are primarily an agricultural crop, due to their time cycle, nature and intensity of management,” they wrote.

That hasn’t stopped the Indonesian government from trying to declare oil palm a forest crop. In 2011, the forestry minister at the time, Zulkifli Hasan, issued a regulation to this effect, only to revoke it less than a month later, following backlash and criticism that the regulation essentially legalized illegal plantations inside forest areas.

Palm oil plantation on rainforest peatland in Central Kalimantan, Borneo, Indonesia. Image by glennhurowitz via Flickr (CC BY-ND 2.0).

‘This will be very dangerous’

As with that earlier attempt, the IPB proposal has elicited pushback on the same grounds, including from within the university.

Teddy Rusolono, a professor of forest management at IPB, said it could result in even more palm oil-fueled deforestation in the future.

“Oil palm entering forest area will speed up the loss of natural forests,” he said in a Dec. 7 online seminar. The deforestation rate “is already high, let alone if oil palm is officially categorized as a forest crop.”

Data from Madani, an environmental NGO, show there are 5.7 million hectares (14.1 million acres) of natural forests in forest area that are earmarked for industrial activities. Under existing laws and regulations, the forestry ministry needs to issue forest conversion permits to delist these lands into non-forest area. But if the IPB proposal becomes a regulation, then oil palm plantations can be established here without the need for a forest conversion permit.

“This will be very dangerous,” Teddy said.

Sigit Sunarta, dean of the forestry department at Gadjah Mada University, said classifying oil palm as a forest crop would effectively redefine deforestation in Indonesia in a way that the international community would not acknowledge. This would thus jeopardize Indonesia’s global commitment to reducing emissions, which hinges largely on halting deforestation, Sigit said.

He added the massive expansion of the plantation industry in forest areas had already caused widespread deforestation, a decline in biodiversity, the eviction of Indigenous and local communities from their customary lands, and an increase in the frequency of natural disasters like floods, drought and forest fires.

A 2019 study found that large-scale oil palm and timber plantations together accounted for more than two-fifths of deforestation across Indonesia from 2001 to 2016.

“Recently we heard of floods [in some regions], including in oil palm plantations,” Sigit said during the Nov. 25 seminar organized by IPB. “This is an ecological problem.”

The forestry ministry has denied any links between flooding and deforestation caused by mining and plantation activity, putting the blame solely on high volumes of rain. But President Widodo recently acknowledged that one of the causes of flooding is the degradation of watershed areas. He added that the environmental degradation of forested watersheds in Borneo was caused by mining and plantation activity.

Sigit said it’s unethical to propose oil palm as a forest crop at a time when the country is experiencing flooding that’s linked in part to the clearing of forests for oil palm plantations. Shortly after voicing his criticisms at the IPB seminar, Sigit’s presentation was hacked, with a female voice shouting obscenities in English.

Seminar host Yanto said he suspected the hacking was the work of groups opposed to IPB’s proposal. But others say its consistent with a pattern of intimidation against critics of the industry, since the hacking occurred during the presentation of an academic, Sigit, arguing against IPB’s proposal.

Forest clearing for oil palm in Riau, Indonesia. Image by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay.

‘Attempts at whitewashing’

Yanto said the government isn’t obliged to adopt the IPB proposal, and that even if it does, the proposal doesn’t mandate planting oil palms in forest areas, but simply justifies it.

“This is an academic paper, which only says that from the biological, ecological and economical perspectives, oil palm is worthy of being categorized as a forest crops, and thus can be planted in a forest area, not that it has to be,” he said at the Dec. 7 seminar.

He also said it would be preferable to establish plantations in areas of degraded forest rather than in areas where there’s still natural forest cover.

“So don’t worry, there’s no intention to destroy existing natural forests,” Yanto said.

Arie Rompas, Greenpeace Indonesia forest campaigner, said there’s no guarantee that this won’t happen if oil palm is categorized as a forest crop. He noted that “there have been past attempts at whitewashing” the illegal cultivation of oil palm plantations inside forest area.

“If oil palm plantations are allowed to be established in forest area, it’ll exacerbate the climate crisis and destroy our home,” Arie added.

Yosi Amelia, forest and climate program officer at Madani, agreed that there aren’t enough safeguards in existing regulations to prevent natural forests from being cleared to make way for oil palm plantations if the proposal is adopted.

She cited a 2021 forestry regulation that says new palm oil permits can be issued for forest area earmarked for industrial activity but which is no longer “productive,” such as abandoned logging concessions.

“The problem with this regulation is that it gives an opportunity” for palm oil companies to get permits for forest area, which should be off-limits to them, Yosi told Mongabay. “In case there’s no more unproductive forest area, then new palm oil permits could be issued for productive forest area.”

New oil palm planting near a protected area in Indonesia. Image by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay.
New oil palm planting near a protected area in Indonesia. Image by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay.

Record of supporting industry

Eyes on the Forest, a coalition of NGOs based in Sumatra, point out that Yanto and other academics behind the IPB proposal are known for being proponents of the palm oil industry.

Yanto, in particular, has served as an expert witness for plantation companies in a number of cases where the firms have been sued for the fires burning on their concessions, according to the coalition.

Yanto and other IPB professors also testified for the country’s main palm oil business association, GAPKI, in a challenge before the Constitutional Court in 2017. The challenge sought to strike down a law holding plantation firms strictly liable for fires on their concessions. GAPKI eventually dropped its challenge.

“It’s very obvious that the [Nov. 25] seminar, which was held by Yanto Santosa, was for the interest of big companies,” said Made Ali, the coordinator of Riau-based NGO Jikalahari, a member of the coalition. “It’s not for the sake of farmers at all, let alone the environment.”

GAPKI secretary-general Eddy Santoso said the association doesn’t have any plan to push for oil palm to be categorized as a forest crop, saying such a change would require substantial revisions of existing laws and regulations.

For instance, Eddy told Mongabay, unpermitted plantations in forest areas would have to be grandfathered through so that they would have the necessary paperwork.

“So unless the law is revised … will our banking regulations allow [farmers and companies] to receive loans without legal permits? Right now it’s not possible, unless the law is revised,” he said.

This legitimizing of illegal plantations is already catered for under the so-called omnibus law on job creation. The law, which was passed last year amid protests, ushered in a wave of deregulation across a range of industries, including rolling back environmental protections and incentivizing extractive industries such as mining and plantations, in an attempt to cut red tape and spur investment.

In particular, it gives plantation companies operating illegally in forest areas a grace period of three years to obtain the proper permits to legitimize their operations and to pay fines. The same lawmakers that passed the omnibus bill into law have called this provision “a whitewashing” of criminal activity.

The environment ministry, for its part, has justified the amnesty program on the grounds that imposing fines is much easier, and more lucrative, than pursuing criminal cases.

But Sigit said classifying oil palm as a forest crop shouldn’t be the solution to the problem of illegal plantations inside forest areas. Instead, he said, the government should ramp up law enforcement against these illegal operations. Short of that, Indonesia’s palm oil industry will continue to be perceived as environmentally unsustainable, Sigit added.

Boy Even Sembiring, director of the Indonesian Forum for the Environment’s (Walhi) chapter in Sumatra’s Riau province, echoed the argument.

“The phenomenon of oil palm plantations inside forest area can’t be underestimated, because this is a massive [problem] with trillions of rupiah in state losses, as well as forest and ecosystem destruction that’s equally huge,” he said.

“This problem has to be solved where the perpetrators have to be held responsible for their actions and made to restore the function of protected and conservation forests in accordance with the law.”


Banner image: Natural forest (left) versus an oil palm plantation (right) in Indonesia. Image by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay.


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