Michael Taylor, Kuala Lumpur (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Indonesia is set to weaken rules on timber products it exports, undermining measures adopted by other countries to fight illegal logging and deforestation, green groups said on Friday.
Rule changes signed off last month by Indonesia's trade ministry mean inspections of timber goods for export – to ensure the wood has been obtained legally and is not linked to deforestation – will no longer be a requirement from late May.
The move follows years of lobbying by the Southeast Asian nation's furniture and handicrafts industry, which says compliance with current legal checks hikes the cost of doing business.
"This is the worst possible point in time to scrap the system," said Oyvind Eggen, executive director of Rainforest Foundation Norway.
"When government capacity to enforce legislation is reduced due to the coronavirus outbreak, it is even more important to ensure legal and deforestation-free value chains," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Home to the world's third-largest tropical forests and a major timber producer, Indonesia has worked hard in recent years to stop illegal logging, protect its forests and meet its pledges to tackle climate change.
About a decade ago, Norway signed a $1-billion deal with Indonesia to protect its forests, including the introduction of a moratorium on new forest clearance to slow deforestation.
Indonesia lost 1.6 million-2.8 million hectares of forests annually before 2010, according to its forestry ministry.
Last year, Norway made a first payment to Indonesia for cutting carbon emissions after deforestation rates fell.
A Voluntary Partnership Agreement, a legally binding trade agreement signed between Indonesia and the EU six years ago, requires government inspections to ensure all timber originates from areas licensed for logging.
And in 2016, Indonesia won international praise after it became the first country to receive a licence from the European Union's Forest Law Enforcement Governance and Trade (FLEGT) framework to reduce illegal logging in supply chains.
But earlier this year, Indonesian President Joko Widodo, a former furniture salesman, called for furniture manufacturers to double export values by 2024 as part of a government push to reduce the current account deficit.
Indonesia's trade ministry could not be reached for comment.
The latest rule change is counter-productive at a time when consumers and governments increasingly require evidence of legally sourced raw materials, said forest activists.
Removing export restrictions would contravene the timber trade rules agreed with the EU, they added.
International buyers of Indonesian timber products have raised concerns about the regulatory change, while green groups are planning to challenge it.
"After years of hard work to gain unparalleled access to EU markets, Indonesia is in danger of making EU imports of its products illegal," said Hannah Mowat, campaigns coordinator at Fern, a Europe-based environmental justice group.
The EU, meanwhile, should "fight attempts to use the coronavirus crisis to weaken environmental and social protections", she added.
With the coronavirus outbreak already expected to leave a "devastating" legacy, "let's ensure it doesn't also sound the death knell for Indonesia's remaining forests", Mowat said.
[Reporting by Michael Taylor @MickSTaylor; Editing by Megan Rowling.]