REPORT FROM INDONESIA: Frontline in the Fight Against Climate Change

Photo of Sumatra by David Gilbert.

Indonesia is ground zero for deforestation. Every year, 3.5 million acres of some of the most biologically diverse tropical rainforests in the world are destroyed in order to make way for plantations of fast-growing acacia trees, which are used in paper products and palm oil, and in everything from breakfast cereal to soap, cooking oil, and bio-diesel. Americans unwittingly contribute to the destruction of these primeval old-growth forests—home to Sumatran tigers, elephants, rhinoceroses, and orangutans—in the most prosaic of forms: the palm oil shows up as food from Pizza Hut, the trees as reams of printer paper sold by Costco.

These emerald regions not only sustain countless types of flora and fauna, but also 30 million people, who rely on these forests for wood to build their homes and boats, and for fish and animals to eat.

Clearing Indonesia’s rainforests to feed the American fast food and paper-pushing economy is an obscenity of titanic proportions. But the destruction of Indonesia’s rainforests also has a global impact, and preserving them is vital to combating climate change. It might come as a surprise, but Indonesia is the world’s third largest emitter of greenhouse gases, trailing only the economic juggernauts of the U.S. and China. Rather than being driven by belching coal plants or tens of millions of personal automobiles, though, the overwhelming majority of Indonesia’s emissions—80 percent—arise from deforestation and the denuding of its carbon-rich peat soils.

Trees are integral to the Earth’s carbon cycle. They sequester carbon, meaning that throughout their lives they pull it from the atmosphere and store it in their mass. In fact, roughly half of a tree’s weight is stored carbon. Cut one down and this carbon leaks back into the atmosphere.
For its part, peat, which is the water-soaked remains of partially decomposed organic matter, also stores carbon, but at a much higher density. Tropical peat—found primarily in Indonesia—stores 10 times more carbon than all above-ground tropical vegetation in the world. To put this in perspective, Indonesia’s 54 million acres of peat land, mostly in the provinces of Riau, Central Kalimantan, and West Papua, store an amount of carbon that is equivalent to the entire above ground biomass of the two billion-acre Amazon River basin.

Around the globe, this type of forest and soil destruction accounts for 20 percent of greenhouse gas emissions, or more than that generated by all of the world’s cars, trucks, ships, and planes combined. Thus, deforestation isn’t only bringing about the extinction of untold numbers of plant and animal species, it’s also seriously mucking up the climate for future generations. It must be drastically reduced in much the same way that fossil fuel use needs to peak, according to climate scientists, within the next three to five years.

For this reason, clamping down on deforestation has become a centerpiece at international climate change negotiations. A U.N. program called REDD, short for Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation, aims to turn governments like Indonesia’s into stewards of the forests rather than enablers of corporate-driven ecological destruction by paying them to wean their economies from unsustainable logging practices. The 12 countries that have been selected as REDD pilot nations, including Indonesia, are set to receive upwards of $51.9 billion in international aid. Direct, bilateral aid is flowing into Indonesia as well, including from the U.S.

Indonesia, a G-20 member and South Asia’s leading economy, is proving to be a willing, albeit cash-conscious, partner. In late 2009, President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (SBY) committed to reducing the country’s greenhouse gas emissions 26 percent by 2020, 41 percent if it receives adequate international climate aid.
In May, Norway decided it would pay to help Indonesia halt its deforestation. The potentially very important deal works like this: Norway has pledged $1 billion to SBY’s government if the government will in turn impose a two-year moratorium on issuing new logging permits, police illegal logging, and deploy cutting-edge technology to map Indonesia’s forests and help verify reductions in its greenhouse gas emissions.

Similar steps have been taken by Lula da Silva’s government in Brazil, resulting in a reduction of the nation’s rate of deforestation by 70 percent since 2003. The collapse of international financial markets has also helped slow the expansion of industrial agriculture into the Amazon forests.

However, cash alone will not ensure that Indonesia will check deforestation. It must also push back against the tide of its own history. Under the brutal, three-decade long military regime of President Suharto, a sordid and corrupt cooperation developed between government officials and the timber companies. As millions of acres of rainforests disappeared, so too did billions of dollars of forestry sector tax revenues vanish, into the private accounts of corrupt state officials.

Christopher Barr, of Woods & Wayside International, a U.S.-based nonprofit that promotes accountable forest governance, says: “Powerful political economic forces are driving deforestation in Indonesia. Over the last 40 years, the Ministry of Forestry has allocated extensive tracts of forested land to timber, pulp, paper, and palm oil companies with close ties to the military and state elites. In carrying out their operations, these companies have often displaced rural communities that have managed these resources for generations.”

Thus, in order to carry out its deal with Norway and make REDD work, SBY’s government must execute a 180-degree turn in how it functions and the interests it serves: protecting forests rather than permitting them to be torn asunder; working with forest communities to develop a sustainable forest policy instead of expropriating their land; and reining in government corruption that has been the sine qua non of Indonesia’s political class.

Barr, who has studied the political economy of Indonesia’s forestry sector for two decades, adds:

Corruption is widespread at all levels within the sector, and the vast majority of economic benefits are controlled by a relatively small group of actors. For the SBY administration to meet its carbon emission reduction targets, it will have to change the way these actors are used to doing business.

Since 2003, the country’s Corruption Eradication Commission has attacked entrenched graft in many parts of Indonesia’s public and private sectors. Dozens of officials have been convicted, mostly within the banking sector and Ministry of Finance. In addition, the country’s Supreme Audit Agency has made progress in bringing transparency to notoriously opaque government bodies working in the oil and natural gas industry.
In late October, a key official, Wandojo Siswanto—a member of Indonesia’s climate change negotiating team and an architect of its pact with Norway—was even arrested for allegedly receiving a $10,000 bribe from a telecommunications company that was seeking a contract with the Ministry of Forestry. Wandojo claimed that he was simply following instructions from his superior, the Forestry Minister.

This isn’t the first corruption case brought against Wandojo, and the current scandal represents a thoroughly inauspicious way for SBY’s government to begin its REDD program. To claim that’s merely a carry-over from how business was conducted during the Suharto era is not sufficient.

Despite corruption, REDD remains a potent incentive for curbing deforestation and thus checking the release of all the greenhouse gases still trapped in Indonesian peat. The progam alone will not dislodge the culture of slash-burn-and-pocket-the-cash, but it could give a boost to government reformers inside SBY’s administration who see the gravy-train of international climate aid as better than collaboration with the lawless timber firms. 

Contributor

Robert S. Eshelman

ROBERT S. ESHELMAN is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the San Francisco Bay Guardian, The Nation, and In These Times.

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