Kiki Siregar, Jakarta – Indonesia's moratorium on new permits for palm plantations ended on Sep 19 and the government has yet to make an announcement on whether it would be extended.
The three-year moratorium came into effect in September 2018, two years after President Joko Widodo pledged to halt the issuance of new permits following forest fires in 2015 that burned 2.6 million ha of land.
For decades, Indonesia has suffered from forest and land fires which have claimed lives, damaged people's health and led to economic loss as well as transboundary haze affecting neighbouring countries such as Singapore and Malaysia.
Exacerbated by dry weather, the seasonal fires on the country's tropical rainforests and peatlands are mostly caused by the practice to clear forests cheaply in order to make way for plantations in particular oil palm and timber.
Palm oil, widely used as a cooking oil, is a common ingredient in food and personal care products. It is also used to produce biofuel.
Environmentalists were hoping for an extension of the moratorium as they believed it has helped to stop deforestation in Indonesia.
They also believed that the absence of a moratorium could raise questions about Indonesia's commitment to combat climate change and tarnish its reputation internationally.
The moratorium's achievements
Indonesia is the world's biggest palm oil producer and when Mr Widodo declared in 2016 to halt the issuance of new permits for oil palm plantations during an event to commemorate World Forest Day, he believed the existing plantations were sufficient.
Jokowi, as the president is popularly known, said at that time that the production capacity could be increased by maximising the existing plantations.
He added that Indonesia is known as a country rich in biodiversity and as the lungs of the world, it is important to preserve its nature since the world depends on it.
While the moratorium's bigger aim is to stop deforestation, it is specifically targeted to improve governance of sustainable palm plantation, provide legal certainty and protect environmental preservation.
Mr Adrianus Eryan, head of forest and land division of the Indonesian Centre for Environmental Law (ICEL), said the moratorium covered three main points namely data consolidation, reviewing permits and increasing oil palm productivity.
He said that for the last three years, the government has managed to consolidate data and concluded that the total area of oil palm plantations is about 16.8 million ha, around 3.47 million ha of which have been cultivated inside forest areas.
"That 3.4 million ha is problematic because by law it cannot be in the forest, it must have a permit to 'release' forest areas," he said, referring to a permit that allows a forest area to be converted for non-forestry uses.
"The moratorium has postponed the permit issuance so that the government has enough time to evaluate it," said Mr Eryan.
However, he claimed that there has been no official information on permit reviews and what officials have achieved to increase oil palm productivity.
He noted though that some local governments such as in West Papua have taken the initiative to do their own evaluation and revoke permits.
Since the moratorium has not fully accomplished what it set out to do, Mr Eryan said it should be extended as it prevents deforestation.
"Even though it only withholds or delays granting permits, it means that the forests cannot be encroached and they will remain intact.
"It (the moratorium) has an impact because the regulations are targeted."
Mr Eryan pointed out that the government said that deforestation has decreased from about 460,000 ha in 2019 to 115,000 ha in 2020, a drop of 75 per cent, and it admitted that the moratorium is an effective instrument to reduce emission.
"This is one of the reasons why the presidential instruction should be maintained," he added.
Not extending the moratorium would also lead to a loss of state revenue, said Mr Trias Fetra, programme officer of palm oil governance at non-governmental organisation (NGO) Madani Berkelanjutan, which focuses on forest and land sustainability.
He claimed that some palm oil companies have already started planting illegally. Based on his calculation in two provinces that are central to palm oil, namely Riau and West Kalimantan, the state could lose an income of 191 billion rupiah (US$13.3 billion) and 660 billion rupiah respectively.
Greenpeace Southeast Asia's global head of forest campaign Kiki Taufik has similar views and added that in the absence of the moratorium, the controversial Job Creation Law which was passed last year would be used to resolve problems with oil palm plantations inside forest areas.
The Job Creation Law, also known as the Omnibus Law, would pave the way for parties that have been in forest areas prior to the enforcement of the oil palm moratorium in 2018 to be given an amnesty.
"And this is what we (environmentalists) are concerned about because the moratorium was positive. For example, it was found that about 500,000 ha of plantations had problems with their licences," Mr Taufik told CNA.
Indonesia's green target questioned
This raises the question of how serious the authorities are in tackling climate change, said Mr Taufik.
"If the government has big ambitions to tackle climate change, its commitment to the Paris Agreement, they should have continued the moratorium because the implementation of it is not fully done yet," he said.
Indonesia has ratified the Paris Agreement and targets to reduce 29 per cent of its carbon emission by 2030 or 41 per cent with international support.
It also aims to limit annual deforestation to 325,000 ha and 450,000 ha between 2020 and 2030. The government has also pledged to achieve net zero emissions by 2060.
"The moratorium is the main way for the improvement of the palm oil industry," said Mr Taufik.
"It ensures that forests in Indonesia are not arbitrarily converted without heeding climate commitments."
Professor Bambang Hero Saharjo, a forest protection lecturer at IPB University, an agricultural university in Bogor, said he was a bit shocked that the moratorium has ended since it helped in reducing deforestation.
"The oil palm moratorium is actually not only preventing excessive and inappropriate oil palm expansion, but it also shows our commitment to the outside world how we protect the remaining forests from the possible threat of illegal oil palm expansion.
"The public also knows that currently millions of hectares of oil palm are in forest areas and various parties are trying to legalise it with various options and statements such as stating that the forest has no economic value so it does not need to be maintained," said the professor who has for numerous times been an expert witness in environmental crime cases.
He also opined it is unfortunate that the REDD+ deal has ended but he applauded the government's move to end the cooperation with Norway if promises have not been kept. REDD+ refers to the Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation scheme, a deal between Indonesia and Norway to reduce carbon emissions from deforestation.
When announcing the end of the 11-year partnership, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs had cited lack of payment as the reason but asserted that it would remain committed to reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
"I'm sure the government must have a plan so that it dares to take these two actions because it is closely related to efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 29 per cent by 2030," he said.
No new permits: Senior official
Mr Ruandha Agung Sugardiman, the director general of forestry planning and environmental management with the Ministry of Environment and Forestry, said on Sep 24 that Indonesia would not approve new permits even after the oil palm moratorium ended.
"Even without (the moratorium), the policy laid down by the Ministry of Environment and Forestry is to continue the ban on new permits for clearing forest for oil palm plantations," he said during an online press conference.
Speaking virtually at the United Nations General Assembly last week, Mr Widodo also stressed that a "green and sustainable economy" would be prioritised due to Indonesia's strategic place on climate change. He said Indonesia has succeeded in reducing forest fires by 82 per cent last year, compared to the previous year.
"Deforestation rates have dropped significantly, the lowest in 20 years," he said.
Meanwhile, head of the Indonesian Palm Oil Farmers Association Gulat Manurung said that what is most important now is to increase productivity and the moratorium has helped to maintain the price of crude palm oil, so it is still needed.
Despite the current uncertainties, Prof Saharjo opined that everyone plays a role in mitigating deforestation.
"Efforts to reduce the rate of deforestation are actually the responsibility of all of us and not solely the government."
CNA has approached the environment ministry and the presidential spokesperson for comments on whether the moratorium would be renewed. (CNA/ks)