Despite successes in Indonesia, we can’t let our guard down in fighting deforestation

Six years ago, Indonesia was shrouded in smoke from ravaging wildfires. Today, it is cited as a successful case in the fight against deforestation. Yet the balance remains delicate.

It’s the autumn of 2015, and vast swathes of Indonesia are shrouded in a toxic ink-black haze. Hospitals are full of patients struggling with respiratory issues, orangutans are fleeing from trees where they have spent their entire lives. This is the devastating impact of the wildfires that, for over two months, swallowed up millions of hectares of forest. In April 2021, the World Resources Institute published Global Forest Review, an atlas of the state of forests around the world. In it, there’s great praise for Indonesia, hailed as a role model thanks to its brilliant achievements in the fight against deforestation. Let’s try to understand what’s changed in these six years and whether this progress is destined to last.

deforestation in indonesia
In many cases, forests are burned to create space for palm oil plantations © Ulet Ifansasti/Getty Images

From shocking wildfires to a palm oil moratorium

The consequences of the 2015 wildfires in Indonesia take on the appearance of a war bulletin. Over 2.6 million hectares of forests, peatland, and other terrain went up in flames. That’s an area equivalent to almost twice the size of Montenegro. In October, emissions from the fires hit an average of 15.95 million tonnes of CO2 per day, higher than those produced by the entire US economy. The air people were breathing in regions surrounding the fires was continuously measured as having a score of over 1,000 on the Pollutant Standards Index (PSI); the toxicity threshold is 300.

There are few doubts regarding who’s responsible for this environmental disaster. As soon as the flames began to die down, lands still covered in charred debris were already being planted with oil palm seedlings. The prospect of replacing forests with endless plantations was also appealing to manufacturers of cellulose pulp. This led the Indonesian government to take a stand by introducing a temporary moratorium on licences for new palm oil plantations, and then a second, permanent moratorium on clearing primary forests and peatlands.

Great outcomes in Indonesia’s fight against deforestation

The results of these decisions were immediately apparent. According to the Global Forest Review, the peak of deforestation in Indonesia was reached in 2016, with the destruction of 929,000 hectares of primary rainforest. By the following year, this figure had collapsed to 373,000 hectares, and it has continued to decrease, down to 270,000 hectares in 2020. Four back-to-back years of reductions in deforestation are an exception rather than the rule, the report highlights. Another factor that played in forests’ favour in 2020 was a wetter climate, which made the spread of wildfires more difficult; the opposite had happened in 2019.

Primary forests, which make up approximately 26 per cent of the world’s forests, differ from the rest because they’re untouched by agriculture and industry. Their special features make them able to absorb CO2 for centuries to come, in a much more decisive manner than any other tree-covered region. Therefore, protecting them means making an investment in our climate’s future.

This is what the Jakarta government has done, one the one hand with the moratoriums and on the other through social and agricultural reforms that alleviated poverty and encouraged sustainable land use. In 2020, the Peatland Restoration Agency’s mandate was prolonged for four more years and its scope was expanded to also include mangroves. Several regulations adopted on a local scale also proceeded in the same direction.

The last word on deforestation in Indonesia hasn’t yet been spoken

While it makes sense to breathe a sigh of relief, there’s no good reason to let our guard down. The case of Brazil is emblematic. In the period between 2004 and 2016, the country made great strides, decreasing yearly primary rainforest destruction from 2 million to 830,000 hectares. But all these efforts were nullified in just a few years. Brazil’s deforestation rate has soared once again, reaching 1.7 million hectares in 2020, with an almost 25 per cent increase over the previous year.

Today, like most other economies across the world, Indonesia is trying to lift itself out of the pandemic crisis. In November, the government passed an ‘omnibus’ law aimed at boosting business, attracting investments, and creating jobs by heavily simplifying bureaucratic and administrative procedures. Unfortunately, however, some environmental protection legislation also fell victim to this wave of simplification.

Also with regard to the Covid emergency, the government promised to nip the issue of food insecurity in the bud. To this end, it located vast swathes of land to be converted to agricultural production: 770,000 hectares in central Kalimantan, 2 million in Papua, and 32,000 in northern Sumatra. Several environmental organisations have denounced the fact that, in the past, similar initiatives turned out to be “a social and environmental disaster”. Very little food actually produced, and vast areas of forest set aflame.

Palm oil prices on the rise again

Top of the watch list, however, is always palm oil. The moratorium did have an effect, at least partially avoiding that virgin forests would be sacrificed for new plantations. Some of the credit also lies with all those people who, from every corner of the planet, contributed to a massive bottom-up mobilisation on the issue. In fact, pressure from consumers is what has led countless foodstuffs and detergent manufacturers to remove this ingredient from their products.

This led the price of this commodity to fall over the past few years, making the palm oil business less appealing. In recent months, however, prices began to rise again, reaching 2012 levels. That was one of the worst years in terms of deforestation. This has happened just as the moratorium is nearing its deadline. It’s not clear whether it’ll be renewed.

palm oil, indonesia
Oil palm fruits collected on the island of Sumatra, in Indonesia © Dimas Ardian/Getty Images

Approached by environmental news outlet Mongabay, experts are asking people not to let their guard down. The fact that deforestation in Indonesia has been slowing down doesn’t mean that it’s disappeared altogether. Furthermore, Nationally Determined Contributions (the emission reduction goals established as part of the Paris Agreement) allow for the clearing of 325,000 hectares per year, which would amount to 3.25 million hectares over the next decade – that’s an area larger than Belgium. All while toeing the line of the Agreement’s commitments. All in all, the battle to defend forests in Southeast Asia is far from over.

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