ANALYSIS-To hit climate goals, Indonesia urged to ban new palm oil plantations forever
* Three year freeze on new palm oil permits ends in September
* Conservationists urge Indonesia to make it permanent or to extend it
* Unlimited clearing ban for existing primary forest
KUALA LUMPUR, Aug 11 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Indonesia should permanently impose its temporary ban on new permits on palm oil plantations in order to make progress on deforestation and meet its climate goals, environmentalists say.
Indonesia, home to the third largest tropical forests in the world and also the largest producer of palm oil, has introduced a three-year ban on plantation permits, which expires in September.
The aim of the moratorium was to prevent forest fires, deforestation and land conflicts, to meet the emission reduction targets of the Paris Climate Agreement, to strengthen supervision and to accelerate efforts to increase the yields of smaller palm oil producers.
Yuyun Harmono, climate justice campaign manager at Indonesian Environmental Forum (WALHI), said a three-year ban is not long enough to achieve these goals.
“You (the government) have to extend it longer because we are still having the same problems,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. “Our main goal would be a permanent moratorium.”
In 2019, Indonesian President Joko Widodo issued a separate permanent moratorium on clearing new forests for activities such as palm plantations or logging, which includes approximately 66 million hectares (163 million acres) of primary forest and peatland.
According to the Global Forest Watch (GFW) satellite monitoring service, tropical forest losses worldwide reached the size of the Netherlands last year, although protection in parts of Southeast Asia has improved.
Conservationists blame the production of raw materials like palm oil – which is used in everything from margarine to soap to fuel – and minerals for much of the destruction of forests as they are cleared for plantations, ranches, farms and mines.
The destruction of rainforests has a big impact on global climate change goals, as trees absorb about a third of the emissions produced worldwide to warm the planet, but release carbon back into the air when they rot or are burned.
“The palm oil moratorium was introduced in response to the catastrophic forest fires in Indonesia’s forests and peatlands in 2015,” said Gemma Tillack, director of forest policy for the US nonprofit Rainforest Action Network.
“Permanent moratoria would be welcome and, if enforced, would make a massive contribution to the Indonesian government’s efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions,” she added.
DECREASING FOREST LOSS
In the run-up to the UN climate talks COP26 in November, Indonesia presented an updated national climate protection plan last month.
Government ministers said the country was optimistic about meeting a net zero emissions target by 2060 or earlier – at least a decade earlier than its previous 2070 target, President Joko Widodo noted in March.
To keep that promise, limiting forest destruction and land conversion is crucial, green groups said.
“The (Paris) Agreement recognized the important role that preventing deforestation and forest degradation would play in limiting the temperature rise to 1.5 degrees (Celsius),” said Tillack.
GFW’s deforestation data for 2020 showed that Indonesia’s primary forest loss has decreased to just over 270,000 hectares – a fourth year in a row of declines.
The downward trend was due to a number of government policies, including freezing permits for palm oil plantations, forestry experts said.
In light of this success, Norway agreed in 2019 to make the first reduced emissions payment under a $ 1 billion deal with Indonesia to help protect its tropical forests.
“These moratoriums (palm oil and forest) have helped reduce deforestation in Indonesia, both in terms of greenhouse gas emissions and in terms of converted and degraded forests,” said Johan Kieft, a green economy advisor to the UN Environment Program.
The Indonesian Ministry of Environment and Forestry did not respond to requests for comments.
Despite the decline in deforestation rates in Indonesia, a lack of available data on plantation permits makes it difficult to attribute the trend directly to the moratorium on palm plantations, said Aditya Bayunanda, director of the Green Group WWF Indonesia.
The rate of expansion of the palm oil plantations had already declined in 2018 when freezing was introduced due to the low price of vegetable edible oil, said forest experts.
However, previous benefits of the directive have included the release of government data on palm plantations in state forest areas, efforts to improve smallholder productivity, better law enforcement against illegal plantations and the review of existing permits, Bayunanda said.
“We believe the moratorium was an important first step and should continue to allow time for the original goals of the decree to be met,” he said.
In Malaysia, the world’s second largest palm oil producer, limiting its palm oil plantations has resulted in higher yields than in neighboring Indonesia, said Helena Varkkey, a lecturer at the University of Malaya in Kuala Lumpur.
The best way for Indonesia now is to extend the palm oil moratorium and double the implementation of the policy, said Andika Putraditama, forest and raw materials manager at World Resources Institute (WRI) Indonesia, a think tank.
This would include enforcing a mandate for local governments to revoke licenses that are inconsistent with Indonesian regulations and sustainable development goals, he added.
But as the Southeast Asian nation has been overwhelmed by a rapid surge in coronavirus cases in recent months, authorities could still turn to the palm oil industry for an economic recovery, environmentalists warned.
A job creation bill passed by Indonesia’s parliament late last year and an ambitious biodiesel push could also prevent an extension of the moratorium on palm plantations, they added.
“Without an extension, the previously unbridled granting of palm oil licenses will resume, which would put even more pressure on natural forests,” warned Angus MacInnes, project manager at the British Forest Peoples Program. (Reporting by Michael Taylor @MickSTaylor; Editing by Megan Rowling. Please mention the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the non-profit arm of Thomson Reuters that covers the lives of people around the world who are struggling to live freely or fairly. Visit You news.trust.org)