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Vanishing Act: Deforestation in Indonesia

CRISIS - Biosystem Viability by Samiha Shahreen Asia Feb 2nd 202213 mins
Vanishing Act: Deforestation in Indonesia

Reconfigured by chaotic geologic processes over millions of years, Indonesia’s verdant landscape has come to exist as a universe of its own. Its tens of thousands of species find a home above, below, and within the canopy of the forests that span 921 thousand square kilometres, or 49% of the total land area. The forests transcend the archipelago’s cultural and geographic boundaries, assuming identities that range from mangroves that serve as a buffer against coastal erosion to peat swamps with the capacity to store 30% more carbon than the country’s entire forest biomass, making them a stabilising anchor for climate dynamics. They are also the lifeline for Indonesia’s communities and industries. But rampant deforestation in Indonesia, brought on by a complicated web of elements, threatens to throw the delicate balance of the world’s ecosystems off-kilter.


Deforestation in Indonesia

One Tree at the Time

While the extent of Indonesia’s original forest cover eludes precise quantification, the country was still almost entirely enveloped in a sea of green at the start of the last century. A mapping exercise conducted by the Indonesian Forest Service in 1950 established that forest cover (counting primary and secondary forests, as well as plantations) then totalled 84% of land area, or over 162 million hectares. In 1999, a second effort at taking stock of the forest inventory, a joint venture between the Indonesian government and the World Bank, catalogued forested area at 100 million hectares. 

The inclusion of plantations in these numbers warrants a discussion of Indonesia’s conceptualisation of its forests. The Ministry of Environment and Forestry (MoEF) disaggregates the national forest estate by function into conservation, protection, and production forests. These categories are “legal distinctions” of land use, not necessarily a measure of land cover. Land designated for other purposes, outside of the forest estate, can have forest cover, and the forest estate itself can be without trees. Out of 23 land cover types in MoEF’s classification system, seven fall under the forest umbrella. Six are natural (primary and secondary) forests while the last is the plantation, mainly involved in paper and pulp production.

What follows then is an interpretation of deforestation that considers losses across all seven forest classes. This is at odds with the consensus of organisations that hesitate to combine industrial plantations with natural forests due to the obvious discrepancy in their biodiversity and the ecological services they provide. This ambiguity can allow for the conversion of natural forest systems for production purposes to not always read as deforestation, which is a convenient guise for governments to blur the exact contours of their particular situation. 

2020 officially registered as an optimistic year for Indonesia’s forests. The country, which had lost nearly 10 million hectares of primary forest in the past two decades, lost 115,459 hectares of forest cover, a 75% decrease from 2019, and the lowest rate since record-keeping began in 1990. However, Indonesia’s understanding of deforestation invites the need for a pause here. A host of variables, including the economic fallout from the pandemic, render the year somewhat of an outlier. Then there is the fact that 2020 not being a harvesting year resulted in a marked decrease in industrial plantation tree harvesting. With fluctuations in plantation tree cover factoring into the equation, the reported decline therefore emerges as exaggerated, as MoEF analysis reveals that the deforestation rate only declined by 38% in natural forests. Nevertheless, opportunities remain for the Indonesian government to welcome positive shifts in the health of its forests. 

deforestation in indonesia

Figure 1: Indonesia Primary Forest Loss, 2002-2021

Playing with Fire

Deforestation in Indonesia found a steady initial footing in its colonial past, but only really accelerated with the government’s provision of logging concessions in the 1970s. This timeline implicates the timber industry, but it is a single node, albeit one of exceptional weight, in a network of culpable processes.

A 2019 study identified palm oil plantations as responsible for 23% (the single largest proportion) of the deforestation in Indonesia between 2001 and 2016. This is unsurprising given that palm oil is one of the country’s most lucrative exports, contributing billions of dollars to its annual export revenue. In 2019, over 3 million hectares of the forest estate were allocated to palm oil production, in strict violation of national forestry law. While plantations can legally operate in production forests, they also traverse conservation and protection forests, which explicitly bar such economic activities. Lax enforcement emboldens the industry’s stakeholders, many of whom have vested interests in other businesses, like the extractives sector, whose tandem operations exacerbate the degradation of Indonesia’s forests.

Timber doesn’t trail too far behind palm oil in accounting for a significant share of the burden. The real danger stems from illegal logging, which provided 219 million cubic metres of timber between 1991 and 2014, and comprised 80% of timber exports in the 2000s, costing the nation over $4 billion in annual revenue. 

The forests are again at the mercy of powerful forces that undercut established safeguards. The government mandated compliance with the Timber Legality Assurance System (known as the SVLK), a scheme to audit the timber supply chain “from forest to point of export,” in 2013. Even with the SVLK, illegally sourced wood products find their way into the market. There are logistical barriers to implementation, including verification and surveillance costs, as well as general confusion regarding the SVLK and its requirements. The pandemic compounded these challenges as “mobility restrictions” and the transition to virtual work precluded effective forest monitoring, evident in a 70% increase in illegal logging on the island of Sulawesi. Illegal logging is also a game of money. The magnates in charge are able to evade the law – while those who actually wield the axes and chainsaws cannot. 

Beyond the conglomerates and multinational corporations are the local communities who also carve out a claim to the forests. Smallholder farmers, who own an average of 2.5 hectares of land, often compete with large and organised plantations, prioritising “profitability over environmental stewardship” in the process. Small-scale agriculture relies on slash-and-burn techniques to quickly prepare the land for cultivation, but this method can easily descend into chaos. Indonesia has seen outbreak after outbreak of wildfires, which converge with a maelstrom of causes to wreak further havoc on the forests. 

When the Smoke Clears

Forests are a global carbon sink, absorbing over 7 billion metric tonnes of carbon dioxide annually. This capacity is compromised, however, by the continued destruction of the tropics, with rainforests poised to become a carbon source by the 2060s due to the combined effects of a warming climate and deforestation. Indonesia has the third largest expanse of rainforests, but deforestation and its related fires have enabled it to join the ranks of the world’s biggest greenhouse gas emitters. The 2019 fires were especially damaging, releasing 708 million tonnes of carbon dioxide, twice the amount released by fires in the Amazon that year, mostly due to the burning of peatlands. 

Deforestation in Indonesia not only threatens scores of endangered species, but also the people whose existence straddles the nebulous frontier between two different worlds. Indonesian cities are already prone to flooding. For the localities tucked away in the mountains, the loss of the trees holding together soil is a key trigger for flooding and landslides. The nation’s increasingly frequent and deadly natural disasters have been linked to the “accumulated damage” to natural ecosystems as well. 

Despite this, forests demonstrate a duality, tempering storms just as easily as they spur them. For example, coastal forests are thought to have shielded villages from the full wrath of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. The groves have immense potential for promoting disaster resilience, again reiterating the need for their protection. 

In addition to impacting biodiversity and human settlements, deforestation can induce health crises. Its most visible casualties stem from the dangerous manipulation of air quality by forest fires and ensuing toxic haze. Over the course of the 2015 fire season, 500,000 Indonesians were afflicted with respiratory ailments, costing the government $16 billion and prompting the declaration of a state of emergency. Another, maybe overlooked, victim is Indonesia’s medicinal culture. Forests are teeming with bioactive compounds that make them “rich natural pharmacies,” and these traditional medicines are fundamental to the delivery of health care in many developing countries. In 2015, global deforestation had jeopardised one fifth of the medicinal plants in a total cache of 50,000 species. Through the disappearance of these flowers and herbs, irreplaceable heritage and knowledge slip through the hands of time. Finally, deforestation facilitates the spread of infectious diseases, as the close contact required between man and tree and the movement of wild animals into human settlements bridge the threshold for a variety of familiar and emerging diseases to cross into people. 

There is a social dimension to deforestation that is worth exploring. The Indonesian government’s transmigration programme moved millions of landless families from the nation’s crowded core into the less densely populated and heavily forested outer islands. These communities live in an “uneasy coexistence” with the local populations, both of whom are deeply reliant on the forests for their livelihoods. Indonesia’s poor land management and weak governance directly cultivates conflict. Those who stand to lose everything are pitted against each other and with the commercial enterprises whose spheres of operations eclipse these communities’ legal access to land, which is just one element in a litany of human rights abuses. 

You might also like: Deforestation in Southeast Asia: Causes and Solutions

Two Sides of the Same Coin

The central government based in Jakarta has adopted a myriad of roles in the management of forest resources since Indonesia’s independence in 1945. It has acted as both the architect of deforestation schemes and the enforcer of strict legislation. 

Sukarno, Indonesia’s first president, sought to assuage and unify the country’s warring factions through an “anti-colonial, non-aligned posture.” This outlook was articulated in the 1945 Constitution, which allowed the State to “regulate, operate, classify, utilise, reserve and preserve” natural resources to meet the needs of its people. The 1960 Basic Agrarian Law, which remains a salient guiding force today, followed the Constitution’s decree by imposing measures for the redistribution of lands to support the landless and land-poor majority. 

After Sukarno’s deposition in 1967, President Suharto embarked on the implementation of his ambitious New Order agenda. A retired general, Suharto made the most of his background, running his party as a tendril of the military, rewarding “informal relationships” with “reciprocal favours.” His reign consolidated Jakarta, and the Javanese majority, as the centres of political power that pursued decision making without attention to local input. The New Order was imbued with a decidedly Western sense of development, predicated on altering the natural world to achieve wealth; forests were therefore viewed as “valuable” but “expandable.” The “elitist” and corrupt undercurrent worked to benefit the middle and upper classes, at the behest of villages which only saw inequalities, especially in regards to land ownership, grow.

The void left by Suharto’s fall in 1998 ushered in an era of decentralisation. Policymakers, beholden to maintaining Indonesia’s structural integrity, acquiesced to regional demands for greater ownership of the revenues generated by the natural resources sectors. Provinces and districts became autonomous regions, and district governments acquired administrative authorities from the central government. While higher levels of government retained discretion over matters like spatial planning, district governments had more flexibility in overseeing timber production, issuing forestry licences and permits and granting small-scale concessions. Local priorities pursued short-term profits over the protection of the “essential ecological and socio-cultural functions of forests” or even longer-term economic benefits.

However, politics is fluid, and there have been recent efforts to transform forest governance, resulting in a degree of recentralisation. Within this oscillation is the Omnibus Law on Job Creation that passed on October 5, 2020. The bill introduced amendments to 79 existing laws, with implications for forest governance. Critical changes include a revision to Law 26/2007, which authorises the central government to settle forest claims and permits, and the elimination of the Environmental Impact Analysis (Amdal) process and other environmental permits. The bill converts the central government into a “single supervisor and law enforcer,” almost going back full circle. 

Its passage has drawn criticism, with concerns about potential environmental and social repercussions of the deregulations. These reservations haven’t proved completely futile as the Constitutional Court ruled on November 25, 2021 that the law was “legally defective” due to eleventh-hour edits appearing in the final law and its mistakes in referencing existing regulations. The court has given the government two years to rectify the issues, but the bill will remain in effect in the interim.

In spite of the points of contention, a series of nationwide policies undergird the general management of Indonesia’s forest resources. A few of these include delineating the parameters of illegal forest activities and appropriate penalties and recognising MoEF as the premier forest authority.  

Perhaps one of the most far-reaching policies is the moratorium on issuing licences for primary forests and peatlands. The moratorium was introduced in 2011 for a period of two years, with subsequent renewals in 2013 and 2015, before being made a “permanent” policy by President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo in 2019. The moratorium expired this past September, but its impermanence has been disputed by President Jokowi, who claims that because it was folded into the Omnibus Law, it wouldn’t need to be “renew[ed] every time it expires.” MoEF has stated that it will not rezone forests for further palm oil development, but in the absence of a clear directive from Jakarta, some regional governments have taken action to incorporate aspects of the moratorium into their own laws, though these still “remain few and far between.” 

Looking to the Future

A Not So Small World 

The national government cannot limit the consequences of its deforestation to its borders. Since the impacts reverberate across country lines and oceans, the international community features prominently in concerted efforts to curb deforestation in Indonesia.

Indonesia was one of 196 parties to adopt the Paris Agreement in 2015. Countries submitted tailored action plans (Nationally Determined Contributions or NDCs) that relayed their efforts to achieve the treaty’s goal of limiting global warming to well below 2 degrees Celsius, and preferably 1.5 degrees Celsius, of pre-industrial levels. Indonesia pledged a 29-41% reduction in emissions by 2030 through an approach that leverages better land use, clean energy, and improved waste management. Its updated NDC for 2021 expressed a commitment to intensifying these efforts, noting that the forest and energy sectors produced 97.2% of emissions. One of the forest-related targets is the restoration of 2 million hectares of peatland and the rehabilitation of 12 million hectares of degraded land. The country’s long-term low carbon and climate resilience strategy, submitted to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in 2021, also underscored how seismic shifts in the energy and land-use systems are needed to realise such ambitious objectives. 

From October 31 to November 13 of 2021, the Scottish city of Glasgow was the preeminent hub of global cooperation and innovation as the host of the United Nations Climate Change Conference. The summit addressed a range of topics including deforestation. The leaders of over 100 countries agreed to “commit to working collectively to halt and reverse forest loss and land degradation by 2030 while delivering sustainable development and promoting an inclusive rural transformation.” While President Jokowi had signed on to the deal, Minister of Environment and Forestry Siti Nurbaya Bakar didn’t hold back her disapproval, tweeting: “Forcing Indonesia to zero deforestation in 2030 is clearly inappropriate and unfair.” She added that halting deforestation should not take precedence over Indonesia’s economic development. The government’s stance was further obfuscated by Vice Foreign Minister Mahendra Siregar’s comments questioning what the pledge really entailed, saying that it was construed as promoting “sustainable forest management,” and not bringing deforestation to a complete standstill. 

This highlights the challenges in navigating the nuances of the international policy space. The deforestation pledge is arguably vague in its aspirations and terminology. Indonesia’s conflicting attitude hints at the East-West and North-South disconnect, which raises a few questions. How universal can, or should, these agreements be? How effective are these forums in accelerating solutions to global problems? And to what extent can progress be painted as an illusion? 

The Way Forward

Indonesia’s vision for sustainable forest management can be supported by a resolute political will and strong regulations, and ensuring that local communities continue to stay at the heart of the conversation. The latter idea is gaining momentum and has been integrated into some reforestation efforts. President Jokowi initiated the social forestry programme in 2015 to provide communities with legal access to 12.7 million hectares of forests. The programme entails land rezoning, capacity building, and improving the sustainable livelihood value chain. The emphasis is not on granting basic access to the forests. Rather, as a MoEF official explains, it is on empowering these communities to materialise the “honourable purpose” of social forestry, which is to secure the comprehensive wellbeing of the land and its people. 

Even with its economic and geographic idiosyncrasies, Indonesia can glean insight from other countries’ experiences. India’s version of ecological fiscal transfer was introduced in 2015 to allocate its $6 billion in annual tax revenue across states based on forest cover, in addition to existing indicators like population, area, and income. China, which recently unveiled a project to plant 36 thousand square kilometres of trees a year to reach 24.1% forest coverage by 2025, is also at the forefront of reforestation. It has spent decades greening itself, and is now exporting its trove of knowledge. A notable project is one that ran in Shandong province from 2010 to 2016. The project transformed over 66 thousand hectares of barren mountains and coastal areas, and demonstrated a feasible model that could generate additional wealth for farming communities. Since it illuminated some of the same principles forming Indonesia’s social forestry programme, there are takeaways that translate well. One is the merit in moving away from monoculture production to mixed planting for maximising ecological restoration and resilience. There is also the case for increased investment in research, training, and technical support. However, these blueprints are just that – blueprints. Indonesia needs to acknowledge and contend with its reality before it can fully embrace a tonic for its forests.  

Featured image by: CIFOR/CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

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