Indonesia’s president, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, is not known as a conviction politician… On the environment, though, Mr Yudhoyono has been uncommonly courageous. In 2009, two years after world leaders met on the island of Bali to agree on a “road map” to slow climate change, Mr Yudhoyono pledged Indonesia to cutting its carbon emissions by at least 26% by 2020. Then, in 2011, he imposed a two-year moratorium on forest-clearing concessions under a $1 billion agreement with the Norwegian government. The money is meant to support a UN programme to reduce emissions from deforestation and forest degradation. On May 16th Mr Yudhoyono once again showed his environmental mettle: despite intense pressure from commercial interests, he signed a decree extending the moratorium for two more years.
This is good news for Indonesia’s forests, home to a dizzying diversity of wildlife, from endangered orangutans and rhinos to a Rafflesia that produces the largest flower on earth (1 metre, or three feet, wide). It is also a fillip for global efforts to combat climate change. According to a 2007 study by the World Bank, Indonesia is the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases after America and China, mostly because of the destruction of forests and peatlands.
The moratorium excludes concessions leased before May 2011 and does not protect secondary forest. But Frances Seymour, a former head of the Centre for International Forestry Research now at the Packard Foundation in Washington, DC, says that the extension is important because it also identifies threatened peatlands for preservation. Indonesia’s peatlands are a vital habitat, partly because they are huge absorbers of carbon from the atmosphere, just like forests. The forestry minister, Zulkifli Hasan, claims the moratorium has slowed the pace of deforestation to 450 hectares (1,100 acres) a year, down from an annual 3.5m hectares in the late 1990s and early 2000s. That represents a very large cut in the carbon that would otherwise have been released into the Earth’s atmosphere.
Some of the biggest logging and plantation firms are starting to take their environmental responsibilities seriously, too. In February Asia Pulp and Paper, a subsidiary of the Sinar Mas Group, announced an end to all natural-forest clearance—a victory for Greenpeace and other environmental campaigners that had organised international boycotts of its products. Now the firm has opened its concessions to the Forest Trust, an environmental group, to ensure that future plantation development does not take place in forests, including forested peatlands. Its announcement followed a similar commitment in 2011 by Golden Agri-Resources, Sinar Mas’s palm-oil subsidiary.
Some of the old problems still bedevil Indonesia’s efforts to combat climate change. Environmental governance remains weak, the result of a decentralised government and conflicting laws and regulations. The president’s own task-force on climate change often fails to impose its will on ministries determined to defend their fiefs.
The forestry ministry is widely seen as corrupt, even by Indonesian standards, and officials have been caught selling permits to exploit forested areas. National development schemes, such as Mr Yudhoyono’s “master plan” to turn the country into one of the world’s ten biggest economies by 2025, do not always take account of the environmental impact. His government has yet to finalise a reference map of the country’s forests on which everyone can agree. Meanwhile, convincing local leaders of the case for preserving their forests remains a challenge.
The transparency introduced since Indonesia signed the original letter of intent with the Norwegians in 2010 has transformed the conservation debate. A constitutional court ruling on May 16th, for example, allows indigenous people to exercise their traditional rights over a forest. Mr Yudhoyono deserves credit for helping this freer debate to take place.
Indonesia’s forests: Logging the good news,Economist, May 25, 2013, at 40