Hans Nicholas Jong, Jakarta – Indonesian officials have backtracked on the country's pledge at the COP26 climate summit to end deforestation by 2030, calling it unfair and inappropriate to demand that it stop clearing the world's third-largest swath of tropical rainforest.
The flip-flop has prompted concerns among environmental activists that Indonesia – one of the world's largest greenhouse gas emitters due largely to the clearing of its forests – has no intention of respecting the zero-deforestation pledge and thus will continue to destroy its forests for plantations, mines, and infrastructure projects.
This will spell disaster for the global effort to end deforestation and curb climate change, activists say.
Indonesian President Joko Widodo had signed on to the pledge, the Glasgow Leaders' Declaration on Forests and Land Use, on Nov. 2 along with the leaders of more than 100 countries representing 85% of the world's forested land. The declaration calls for an end and reversal of deforestation by 2030.
That same day, however, Indonesia's forestry minister, Siti Nurbaya Bakar, told an audience of Indonesian university students in Glasgow that the pledge "shouldn't be interpreted as zero deforestation."
This is because it would be "inappropriate and unfair" to hamper the country's development by prohibiting it from clearing forests for roads, for instance, she said.
Separately, Indonesian Deputy Foreign Minister Mahendra Siregar criticized the U.K. environment minister, Zac Goldsmith, for describing the deal as a zero-deforestation pledge, saying this characterization is "erroneous and misleading." He said the exact term used in the declaration is "to halt and reverse forest loss and land degradation by 2030."
Mahendra said that "to halt" is not the same as "to end," arguing that the former means forests can still be cleared but they must be compensated for by reforestation.
"Halting forest loss is more about using forests in a balanced way, which means no net loss," Mahendra said. "So utilizing forests is still allowed, but overall, the size of forest cover can't decrease. Meanwhile, ending deforestation is stricter. [It means] forest can't be touched."
Responding to Indonesia's abrupt U-turn, COP26 president Alok Sharma said all nations that had signed the declaration are "in full understanding of what they are signing up to."
A spokesperson for U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson said Indonesia's statements didn't contradict the global pledge.
"My understanding of what the Indonesian government has said is that they need to be able to continue legal logging and agriculture to support their economic development," the spokesperson said. "It would be consistent with the pledge – what countries have committed to is to end net deforestation, ensuring that any forest lost is replaced sustainably."
'For the people'
Siti said Indonesia still needs to clear forests because it's still developing its economy and the government is mandated by the Constitution to improve the welfare of its people.
"The massive development of President Jokowi's era must not stop in the name of carbon emissions, or in the name of deforestation," she said, referring to Widodo by his nickname.
The statement, posted on her Twitter account, has gone viral and received backlash, with some interpreting it as a sign that Indonesia remains on track to continue clearing its forests well into the future.
Following the backlash, Siti said the president had clearly instructed that all development efforts must be carried out in accordance with government policy of reducing deforestation and emissions.
"There has to be a balance," she tweeted. "President Jokowi also stressed that all ministries have to consider the environment and its impact in constructing anything."
Iqbal Damanik, a forest campaigner at Greenpeace Indonesia, said local activists know that the government has never made any kind of political commitment to end deforestation, as its long-stated policy is to continue deforesting, but in a restricted way and offset through reforestation. The government's long-term strategy for low carbon and climate resilience expressly calls for limiting deforestation, halving the deforestation rate over the next three decades, not ending it.
Under the strategy, the government still allows for clearing of up to 6.8 million hectares (16.8 million acres) of forests, an area twice the size of Belgium, by 2050. This represents 7.5% of the country's remaining natural forests of 90.1 million hectares (222.6 million acres).
This planned deforestation will be offset by restoring ecosystems such as peatlands, mangroves and degraded forests.
But with Indonesia signing the Glasgow declaration, activists had hoped the government would try to halt deforestation by 2030, Iqbal said. Those hopes were dashed with Siti's statement insisting that development will take priority over the environment and forests, he added.
"With her statement, we're sure that whatever Indonesia signed at COP26 won't have any impact on our domestic policies," Iqbal said.
Yosi Amelia, a climate and forest program officer at environmental NGO Madani, said unabated deforestation in the name of economic development will have dire consequences for the climate and environment. Indonesia has seen an increasing number of extreme weather events in recent years, which have been linked to deforestation and climate change.
A deadly flood in southern Borneo in January this year has been linked to widespread deforestation for oil palm plantations and coal mines in the region. Siti, however, denied this, saying it was a high volume of rainfall, rather than the ground's decreased capacity to absorb the water, that was to blame.
In April 2021, part of Indonesia and neighboring East Timor were hit by Tropical Cyclone Seroja, which killed more than 180 people. While tropical storms often form in the waters around Indonesia, they rarely make landfall in the country.
Indonesia's meteorological agency, the BMKG, said Seroja was the strongest tropical cyclone Indonesia had seen since 2008, and attributed it in part to an increase in sea temperature.
"As we're facing the climate crisis, if there's no serious policy or action to minimize the impact by 2030 and afterward, this nation will pay a hefty price," Yosi told Mongabay. "And its people will be the ones who bear the highest risk. So how can [the government] fulfill the Constitution's mandate?"
To prevent the country's natural forests, especially those with high carbon stock and high conservation value, from being cleared, the government has put in place some safeguards. Among these is a permanent moratorium on the clearing of primary forests and peatland.
However, Madani has identified 9.6 million hectares (23.7 million acres) of natural forests that are not protected by the moratorium.
"Protecting these forests will not only help Indonesia in achieving its climate commitments, but also empower people's livelihoods, particularly those in the thousands of villages in and around forests," Yosi said.
Existing safeguards can also be waived for projects that the government deems to be of national priority, according to Rizaldi Boer, director of the Center for Climate Risk and Opportunity Management in Southeast Asia and Pacific at the Bogor Institute of Agriculture (IPB).
Last year, the government announced 89 national strategic projects, including roads and railways, ports and airports, dams and power plants, industrial estates and plantations. There's no clear definition for what constitutes a national project of strategic importance.
The government expects the projects, tagged at $100 billion, to jump-start the economy out of the current pandemic-induced slump.
"With existing regulations, there's no way natural forests can be cleared," Rizaldi told Mongabay. "But there are exceptions, such as national strategic projects, mines that are strategic for economic need."
In 2017, the government issued a regulation that allows these projects to override local governments' zoning plans. In practice, that means that projects can proceed in areas that would otherwise be off-limits, including forests and conservation areas.
And in May 2020, President Widodo signed a new regulation on eminent domain, which experts say will make it easier for the government to take over community lands, including those of Indigenous groups, and degazette forests to allow them to be cleared.
The 2020 regulation expands the types of land that can be unilaterally acquired by the state for purposes deemed to be in the public interest. Limited under a 2016 regulation to land held by state-owned companies, areas that may be subject to eminent domain under the new presidential regulation now include forests, villages, and land bequeathed for religious and charitable use.
Rizaldi said projects that are deemed to have national strategic importance change from time to time, which is why it's important to have strong safeguards.
Rizaldi cited the case of a government-led program to boost domestic food production as a national strategic project that needs strong and robust safeguards.
The program calls for establishing millions of hectares of agricultural estates, mostly for rice and other staple crops. In October 2020, the forestry ministry issued a regulation that permits protected forest areas to be cleared for that purpose on a "large scale."
As safeguards, the government demands a suite of documents, including management plans and environmental permits, but most of these can be produced after the land is cleared. Furthermore, rezoning areas for the food estate only requires a "commitment" by the developer to complete them.
The regulation also waives timber taxes for logging companies that manage land inside the designated food estates, which analysts say might encourage unbridled logging.
Even with these scaled-back rules, the government has moved unusually swiftly in clearing forests in a district in Indonesia's Central Kalimantan province to make way for the food estate program, according to a joint investigation by Tempo magazine and The Gecko Project.
Clearing began three weeks after the ministerial regulation was issued.
Satellite images show that the majority of the area earmarked for the food estate program in the district overlaps with orangutan habitat and was rainforest at the time the proposal was made.
A separate analysis by Madani has found 1.5 million hectares (3.7 million acres) of natural forests inside areas that have been designated by the government as areas of interest for the food estate program.
Given all this, Yosi said, the government should explicitly ban the clearing of all natural forests, including those inside the food estate program's areas of interest.
Infrastructure for whom?
In her argument for the need to continue deforesting, Siti cited infrastructure development to connect villages in remote areas.
She said that in many cases, villages are disconnected because they're located in or near forest areas, which are off-limits to non-forestry activities like infrastructure development and mining unless the forestry ministry grants permits.
"If the concept is no deforestation [at all], it means there can't be roads," Siti said. "Then what about the people? Will they have to be isolated? Meanwhile, the state has to be truly present amid its people."
Activists said Siti failed to mention that deforestation in Indonesia mostly benefits companies that cleared forests on an industrial scale to make way for their plantations, particularly oil palm, and mines.
Indonesia is the world's biggest producer of palm oil, a product used in everyday products ranging from soap to margarine, and a top five producer of coal.
A 2019 study published in Environmental Research Letters identifies oil palm plantations as the single largest driver of deforestation between 2001 and 2016, accounting for 23% of total deforestation nationwide.
Iqbal of Greenpeace Indonesia cited the forestry ministry's own data showing that most permits that it issued to allow the clearing of forests are for mining infrastructure, and not the public roads Siti cited in her example.
From 2004 to 2014, the ministry issued permits for mining infrastructure in 305,070 hectares (753,800 acres) of forest areas, compared to 17,097 hectares (42,248 acres) for non-mining infrastructure such as the construction of roads, telecommunications and electricity networks. From 2014 to 2020, those respective areas were 117,106 hectares (289,400 acres) and 14,410 hectares (35,600 acres).
"So the portion for non-mining activities is very small," Iqbal said. "I suspect the minister wants to skew the definition [of deforestation for development] and make development synonymous with increasing access to local communities and Indigenous peoples in forest areas."
Iqbal also cited the case of a proposed mining road in the thick and dense Harapan forest, one of the last remaining expanses of lowland tropical rainforest on the island of Sumatra. A coal mining company, PT Marga Bara Jaya, plans to build a road that will cut through the forest and connect its mine in Musi Rawas district to power plants in Musi Banyuasin district, both in South Sumatra province.
The forest is home to critically endangered species such as tigers, orangutans and elephants. It's also home to Indigenous groups such as the Batik Sembilan community.
Conservationists have panned the planned road as the single biggest threat to this patch of biodiverse forest in central Sumatra, calling the project an "environmental crisis in the making."
And yet the forestry ministry approved the project in 2019.
"Most of the roads approved by the ministry in forest areas are mining roads, such as the case in the Harapan forest," Iqbal said. "These roads are for large mining trucks, they can't be accessed by the locals."
Activists say this raises concerns that the "massive development" championed by Siti refers to large-scale projects that primarily benefit companies in the extractive industries, such as mining and plantations, rather than road construction aimed to connect and empower small villages in remote areas.
"Connectivity is important but we have to really pay attention to see if road or infrastructure development is meant to connect people with basic public faciltiies such as health, economy and education, or simply to facilitate the extractive industry," Yosi of Madani said.
Rizaldi said development doesn't have to sacrifice the country's forests and environment. Instead, protecting forests can empower the people and their economy, he said. This can be done by restoring unproductive lands and giving local communities access to sustainably manage them for various purposes, such as agroforestry and ecotourism, Rizaldi said.
Greenpeace Indonesia echoed Rizaldi's view.
"If the government keeps its ambition for massive development, the principle of green economy has to always be the basis of policymaking," the NGO said. "Because our fight against the climate crisis must not stop in the name of political interests or oligarchs."
Austin, K. G., Schwantes, A., Gu, Y., & Kasibhatla, P. S. (2019). What causes deforestation in Indonesia? Environmental Research Letters, 14(2), 024007. doi:10.1088/1748-9326/aaf6db