Govt ‘bows down’ to planters, forest moratorium ‘means little’

Protection of the country’s threatened forest areas remains weak despite a moratorium on new conversion permits as most of the forests covered by the moratorium are legally protected anyway, activists and expert argued.

They said terms such as primary and secondary forests used in a presidential decree on the moratorium were kept vague to give concessions to businesses to continue exploiting forests.

Activists said the government had bowed down to pressure from the palm plantation lobbyists.

“There was lots of pressure on the Indonesian government from the palm oil industry about this ban since we bring in significant investments. Today’s final details show that agreeable concessions have been made,” a Malaysian planter, who declined to be identified, told Reuters.

Greenpeace activist Yuyun Indradi said the decree would not address deforestation and curb emissions because the primary forests stipulated in the decree were located mostly in areas already protected by law.

“It’s business as usual. Even without the decree, it is impossible to issue conversion permits for protected and conservation forests,” he told The Jakarta Post on Friday.

Greenpeace says the moratorium should cover 104.8 million hectares of forests. “With only 64 million hectares [covered by the moratorium], there would be about 39 percent [some 40 million hectares] of forest destroyed,” it said in a statement.

After a five-month delay, President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono signed into decree a moratorium on new permits on Thursday that would cover primary forests and peatland.

The decree allows for several exemptions that have been criticized by activists as proof of the government’s pandering to the plantation industry.

The decree allows the conversion of primary forest for geothermal projects, rice and sugar plantations and ecosystem restoration projects.

Businesses that secured “principal permits” before the decree would be allowed to continue exploiting forests.

The decree also allows the Forestry Ministry to revise a map of protected forest areas every six months.

The program manager for Forest and Climate at the Indonesian Center for Environment Law (ICEL), Giorgio Budi Indrarto, said the decree failed to regulate much-needed law enforcement to address massive forest crimes.

“Yudhoyono lied again not only to the people [through the moratorium] but also to the international community,” he said.

Reuters reported that Norway’s environment ministry declined to comment on the moratorium as officials were still studying the details.

Bogor Agricultural Institute (IPB) forestry expert Hariadi Kartodiharjo said the decree did not adhere to the government’s goal of reducing deforestation triggered mainly by massive expansion of oil palm plantations and mining.

The Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR), however, praised the decree as a positive development in protecting forests.

Industry lobby group the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) also praised the moratorium, as it targets an annual 10 percent increases in “green” palm supplies.

“It is a [positive] step in the right direction that upholds the integrity of sustainable practices towards the production of palm oil, and reaffirms the country’s commitment in this area,” RSPO secretary-general Darrel Webber said in a statement.