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Clearing Indonesia: is there hope for the world’s biggest logger?

It’s a bleak picture, but there’s hope on the horizon. Bill Laurance

What comes to mind when you think of Indonesia?

For biologists like myself, Australia’s northern neighbour provokes visions of ancient rainforests being razed by slash-and-burn farmers, and endangered tigers and orangutans fleeing from growling bulldozers.

This reality is true, but there is also hope on the horizon.

Indonesia is a vast, sprawling nation, spanning some 17,000 islands. Among these are Java, Sumatra, half of New Guinea and much of Borneo.

Some of the planet’s most biologically-rich and most endangered real estate is found on this archipelago.

Today, Indonesia is losing around 1.1 million hectares of forest annually. That’s an area a third the size of Belgium, bigger than Australia’s Wet Tropics World Heritage Area.

With forest loss now slowing in Brazil, Indonesia has the dubious distinction of being the world’s deforestation “leader”. No nation is destroying its forests faster.

In Sumatra, where I visited recently, the world’s biggest paper-pulp corporations are chopping down hundreds of thousands of hectares of native rainforest to make paper and cardboard.

Some of these corporations also fund aggressive lobbyists, such as World Growth in Washington DC, to combat their critics and dissuade major retail chains from dropping their products.

In addition to rapid deforestation, large expanses of Indonesia’s forests are being selectively logged, with bulldozers used to extract the biggest trees from the forest. Much of this is illegal — the timber is effectively stolen and there are no environmental controls over the cutting operations.

Indonesia leads the world in deforestation. AAP

Aside from having serious environmental impacts, illegal logging is losing the Indonesian government up to $4 billion in timber royalties every year.

This all sounds pretty bad — but there are glimmers of light behind the storm-clouds.

The best news is that in 2010, Indonesia and Norway hammered out a billion-dollar deal to help save Indonesia’s forests and reduce atmospheric carbon emissions.

This is important because the destruction of tropical forests globally spews almost 5 billion metric tonnes of CO₂ into the atmosphere every year. That’s more than every car, truck, train, boat and airplane on earth combined.

Indonesia is the world’s third-largest producer of greenhouse gases (behind China and the US), with 85% of its emissions coming from forest destruction and degradation.

The funds from Norway are being used to enact a two-year moratorium on granting new licenses for clearing or logging of native forests and carbon-rich peatlands.

Some of these funds are also being used to establish a taskforce to zone and monitor Indonesia’s forests, and to introduce desperately-needed bureaucratic reforms. These are necessary so the Norway funds can be distributed equitably to different levels of the Indonesian government and people.

Doing all of this is a tall order, and there are still many hurdles in the way.

Forests are being replaced by palm oil plantions. Bill Laurance

For starters, a vast expanse of selectively logged forest in Indonesia — around 35 million hectares; an area the size of Germany — is being left out of the Norway deal. Even though these forests retain much of their biodiversity and carbon storage, Indonesia says they aren’t “natural”, and hence are being excluded. These forests might be cleared or re-logged at any time.

In addition, in the days just before the Norway deal was to be implemented, there was a landslide of new clearing and logging licenses granted. These totalled around 3 million hectares.

That means there is plenty of forest that can be exploited in the next two years, at which point the moratorium will have ended.

It also appears that many forests protected under the Norway deal are in steep or remote areas that are relatively safe from loggers, farmers and forest-pulpers. The most endangered forests — those remaining in the flatter lowlands, outside of national parks — are mostly excluded from protection.

To some people, this sounds a lot like business as usual in Indonesia. But it’s too soon to give up on the Norway deal.

If nothing else, the Norway deal has helped encourage Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono to take a more pro-forest perspective.

Although under enormous pressure from industrial timber, oil palm and pulpwood interests in Indonesia, the president is urging reform at many levels.

Deforestation is a major threat to the endangered Sumatran tiger. Kevin1234

He is pushing hard to fight the scourge of illegal logging, and is sticking by a commitment to slash the country’s greenhouse gas emissions.

In his remaining three years in office, President Yudhoyono has committed to seeing the Norway deal succeed while also pressing ahead with rapid economic development — a vital priority in a populous and growing country where standards of living are often perilously low.

It is a difficult balancing act, and one that might yet fail.

One should bear in mind, however, that there might be a lot more carbon funds available in the coming years. Australia has already contributed over $200 million to help slow Indonesian deforestation and, with the Gillard government’s new carbon tax about to be enacted, there might even be more Aussie funding to come.

Add to this the potential for billions of dollars in additional carbon funding from Europe, the US and other countries, and suddenly the prospects for forest conservation in Indonesia don’t look quite so bleak.

If Indonesia can establish itself as a reliable partner and forest protector, it stands to reap some real economic benefits.

And it’d be brilliant to see Indonesia getting paid for conserving its forests, rather than just for cutting them down.

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