Hans Nicholas Jong, Jakarta – Indonesia's deforestation rate hit a historic low in 2020, with the government crediting its various policies prohibiting forest-clearing, and experts attributing the trend to more rains, falling oil palm prices, and an economic slowdown as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The country lost 115,459 hectares (285,300 acres) of forest cover in 2020, an area the size of Los Angeles. That's a 75% drop from 2019, according to the Ministry of Environment and Forestry.
"In the past, we've often said that our deforestation [rate] was in the millions [of hectares]," said Belinda Arunarwati Margono, the ministry's director of forest resource monitoring. But the 2020 deforestation rate, she said, "is remarkable for us because this is the lowest deforestation figure that we've ever achieved."
Government figures show the country also managed to maintain its total forest cover at slightly more than half (50.9%) of its total land area, at 95.6 million hectares (236 million acres). That's more than double the size of California and behind only Brazil and the Democratic Republic of Congo in terms of tropical forest area.
The forestry ministry, which started tracking annual deforestation rates in 1990, attributed the drop last year to the culmination of a number of policies aimed at protecting the country's forests. These include a permanent ban on issuing new permits to clear primary forests and peatlands; a moratorium on new oil palm plantation licenses; forest fire mitigation; a social forestry program; land rehabilitation; and increased enforcement against environmental violations.
"This [drop in deforestation] shows that various efforts done by the Ministry Environment and Forestry lately have produced significant results," said Ruandha Agung Suhardiman, the ministry's director-general of planning. "Their impact on reducing deforestation is tremendous."
Arief Wijaya, senior manager of climate and forests at the World Resources Institute (WRI) Indonesia, agreed that these policies could have had a positive impact on the deforestation rate, adding that the government's efforts "should be appreciated." He also said other factors, such as the economy and the weather, may have contributed to the drop.
For one thing, Arief said, 2020 was wetter than usual, and in fact among the wettest years in the past four decades, thanks to the La Nina weather system.
"As a result, fires dropped to 296,000 hectares [731,400 acres of land] and deforestation [from fires] was only 1,100 hectares [2,700 acres]," he told Mongabay.
He also pointed to the decrease in global oil palm prices since 2013, responsible for slowing the expansion of the industry.
"Since 2013, the global oil palm prices tend to fluctuate and decline due to the decreasing demand for the vegetable oil, which might be caused by the trade war with the European Union which is looking to phase out [palm oil-based biodiesel from] Indonesia," he said. "Coupled with the COVID-19 pandemic last year, of course industries are slowing down."
A recent study, not yet peer-reviewed, has also attributed the slowing deforestation rate in Indonesia to declining oil palm plantation expansion and lower palm oil prices. The study, out by researchers from technology company TheTreeMap and other institutions, found that the rates of plantation expansion and forest loss correlated with palm oil prices.
According to the study, a price decline of 1% was associated with a 1.08% decrease in new plantations and a 0.68% decrease in forest loss. The trends showed deforestation peaking in 2016 and falling below pre-2004 levels in 2017-2019 following a slowdown in new plantations being established from its peak in 2012.
Mufthi Fathul Barri, a researcher with Forest Watch Indonesia (FWI), said another factor that likely contributed to the decline in deforestation was the economic slump induced by measures imposed in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
"The disruption to economic activity can be seen from timber production from natural forests, which declined," he said. "In 2019, Indonesia produced timber from 8.4 million hectares [20.7 million acres] of natural forests. In 2020, it was 6.6 million hectares [16.3 million acres]."
No time to slack off
Arief said Indonesia should sustain its efforts to bring down the deforestation rate and not become complacent after recording a historic low.
"Indonesia's declining deforestation is a good trend that we have to maintain together, and even strengthen, because next year, El Nino might return," he said, referring to the weather system that typically brings an intense and prolonged dry season – ideal conditions for forest fires to spread out of control.
And with Indonesia's COVID-19 vaccination drive underway, the anticipated economic recovery could jump-start forest-clearing activity, Arief added.
"So the government's commitments in maintaining deforestation rate this low have to be protected, as well as the zero-deforestation commitments by the private sector," he said, adding it's important not to sacrifice the environment for economic growth.
Grita Anindarini, program director at the Indonesian Center for Environmental Law (ICEL), said the declining deforestation in Indonesia should be commended, but the government shouldn't be satisfied with the figure.
"Deforestation means there are still forests lost," Grita said. "In the span of two years [since 2019], a total of 578,000 hectares [1.4 million acres], almost the size of the province of Jakarta [was deforested]. So don't get fixated with the percentage drop without looking at the real size [of deforestation]."
The forestry ministry's Belinda said the government is not pursuing a zero-deforestation target as part of its climate pledge, or nationally determined contribution (NDC), under the Paris Agreement.
"Because in our NDC, it's been said that Indonesia still [has room for] deforestation," she said. "It's because Indonesia is still developing and of course we [try to] curb deforestation as much as possible."
Land use change, which includes deforestation and forest fires, accounts for most of Indonesia's greenhouse gas emissions. Under Indonesia's NDC, the government allows up to 325,000 hectares (803,000 acres) of deforestation per year to reach its emissions reduction goal while leaving room for economic development. That means that by the 2030 deadline for the Paris Agreement, Indonesia could potentially clear 3.25 million hectares (8 million acres) of rainforest, an area larger than Belgium, and still call it a success.
A 2018 report by the NGO Rainforest Foundation Norway (RFN) shows this won't be enough to cap the average global temperature increase at 1.5 Celsius (2.7 Fahrenheit) as mandated under the Paris Agreement.
Annisa Rahmawati, an environmental advocate at U.S.-based campaign organization Mighty Earth, called for a more ambitious deforestation and climate target by the Indonesian government. As global emissions continue to rise, with energy-related emissions already rebounding back to pre-COVID-19 levels amid a revival in economic activity, Annisa said even stopping deforestation outright might not be sufficient.
"Even zero deforestation is no longer enough considering the current condition of our climate," she told Mongabay. "Experts say our planet is already warming by 1.2C [2.2F], and soon we'll reach 1.5C. So we have to start reforesting in better ways than before. All forests have to be protected no matter their functions, coupled with conservation and restoration as massive as possible."
More ambitious targets
Grita from ICEL said reforestation is one aspect where Indonesia still has a long way to go.
"Our reforestation number is still very small, only 3,000 hectares [7,400 acres] in 2018-2019 and 3,600 hectares [8,900 acres] in 2019-2020," she said. "This can be greatly improved. The government should be more confident about achieving more ambitious emissions reduction in the forestry sector."
In 2019, Indonesian officials considered boosting the country's emissions reduction target to 45%, from the previous figure of 41% with international aid. But in 2020, the government decided not to go for the higher figure, saying it wants to focus instead on economic growth.
Key to that focus is a slate of deregulation measures passed last year, in particular the revised mining law and the so-called omnibus law on job creation. Critics say these measures roll back environmental protections and could lead to greater deforestation. For instance, the omnibus law removes an article in the 1999 Forestry Law that requires at least 30% of each watershed and/or island area be maintained as forest area.
The government's recent ambition to establish millions of hectares of farmland across Indonesia under the "food estate" program has also prompted concerns over future deforestation. A new study by the NGO Madani shows that there are 1.57 million hectares (3.8 million acres) of natural forests located in areas targeted by the government for conversion into farmland.
Nearly nine-tenths of these forests are in the province of Papua, one of the most biodiverse regions on Earth and home to the majority of Indonesia's remaining tropical rainforest.
"Our last frontier of intact tropical forest in Papua is in the food estate program's area of interest," said Madani researcher Anggalia Putri.
She noted that the food estate program is exempted from the moratorium on clearing primary forests and peatlands; 1 million hectares (2.5 million acres) of the program's area of interest in Papua is theoretically covered by the moratorium.
Going the way of Bolsonaro's Brazil
In an interview with the BBC last year, President Joko Widodo said his priority was to boost economic growth, and that "maybe after that, then the environment [will be the priority], innovation and then human rights. Why not?"
Arief said Indonesia could easily end up like Brazil if it's not careful.
Between 2004 and the early 2010s, annual forest loss in Brazil, home to nearly two-thirds of the Amazon's forest cover, declined by roughly 80%. The drop was driven by a number of factors, including increased law enforcement, satellite monitoring, pressure from environmentalists, private and public sector initiatives, new protected areas, and macroeconomic trends.
But Brazil's success in curbing deforestation has stalled since 2012, and forest loss has increased since then, especially under the administration of President Jair Bolsonaro, who came to office in January 2019.
Bolsonaro campaigned on the promise to open the Amazon to the extractive industries and agribusiness while disparaging environmentalists and Indigenous peoples, and immediately set about dismantling protections for the Amazon when he took office. Deforestation has increased sharply under his watch, reaching levels not seen since the mid-2000s.
"Don't let us become like Brazil, where even its foreign donor, Norway, has decided to stop its support for the Amazon Fund because deforestation in the Amazon keeps rising," Arief said. "What Indonesia has achieved has to be maintained because the potential for massive deforestation is still there."
Arief said that now that it's been proven that Indonesia can slash its deforestation rate significantly, the government should not be afraid to adopt a more ambitious climate pledge.
"Maybe Indonesia can have bolder climate target, more than 41% [by 2030]," he said. "Because in order to limit global warming by 1.5 degrees, we have to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050."
And achieving this ambitious target doesn't mean that Indonesia has to sacrifice its economy, according to Annisa. For instance, she said, the government can focus on restoring the millions of hectares of degraded peatlands and forests, something which will create jobs.
"Restoration and conservation activities are one of the best job creators, where the involvement of local people is key to success," Annisa said. "Non-timber forest resources as well as ecosystem services are also abundant [in Indonesia], which can be managed sustainably without destroying forests."
She said there's needs to be a change in mindset from the established perception that clearing forested land is the only way to get value out of it.
"Massive exploitation and deforestation don't lead to growth because no matter how much money we get [from it], when there's a disaster [caused by the exploitation], the money will go away, and so we can't develop," Annisa said. "Because there's no business on a dead planet."