Trees don’t get to vote, but if they did it would be instructive to know who they are backing in Indonesia’s Presidential election. As the world’s third biggest democracy approaches its July 9th election date, the implications for the country’s vast tropical forests remain shrouded in mystery. The environmental decisions made by the next president will have global implications. Indonesia’s carbon emissions are enormous, third only to China and the US. The bulk of these emissions are a result of logging and clearing for agriculture, along with the vast forest fires that accompany these activities.
A study published just last week in Nature Climate Change reported that the country’s annual forest loss is now the highest in the world, greater even that Brazil’s — a country with five times the natural forest area. Deforestation is not a new problem in Indonesia. In the 69 years since independence, timber, pulp and paper, and plantation industries have razed over 40 percent of the country’s forest, an area comparable to the size of France. Much of this was achieved as part of a successful strategy for rapid, resource-based economic growth, and political longevity, by the Suharto dictatorship.
Democratic reforms in the late 1990s saw much government responsibility, including aspects of forest management, passed down to hundreds of new district governments. Despite the increase in accountability that decentralization aimed to provide, district governments showed the same preference as Jakarta bureaucrats for timber royalty payments over forest conservation. And given pressing economic needs, this is not surprising.
So what does this have to do with the president, and the current election campaign? While district governments may have power over the fate of specific forests, it is national leadership that sets the broad forest policy agenda. The two candidates — Jakarta’s Governor Joko “Jokowi” Widodo, and former special-forces General Prabowo Subianto — have made only brief statements on forests and the environment. Notably, each candidate’s climate change stance is contained in just a single, vague line. This represents a worrying departure from the cautious, but encouraging commitments made by the outgoing president, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, who announced a targeted 26 percent greenhouse gas reduction by 2020, relative to business as usual. With financial assistance from other countries, Yudhoyono promised, Indonesia would be prepared to make cuts of up to 41 percent.
Forest protection is clearly required to achieve these targets, and the outgoing President’s signature initiative to this end was a moratorium on new clearing concessions in primary forest zones, made with support — in the form of a one billion dollar pledge — from the government of Norway. The moratorium was implemented in 2011, and will be up for reconsideration by the new president next year. Simply renewing the moratorium, however, will not be enough. Last week’s study in Nature Climate Change showed that deforestation increased, and to world-leading levels at that, even while this initiative was in place. Reasons put forward for this failure are varied, but one possibility is that the moratorium encouraged a spike in clearing in existing concessions — those not covered by the initiative — as businesses rushed to clear in case further regulations targeted them next. High commodity prices, in the form of demand for timber, and for agricultural commodities grown on forest land, may also have contributed.
The good news is that the moratorium did bring about new laws to facilitate REDD+ projects, and started the process of reforming the forest bureaucracy. Recent court decisions have strengthened indigenous people’s rights to manage and protect their own forests. This provides a foundation for action — if the new president is interested in building on it. The new president will need to strengthen the moratorium, not merely extend it in length. This means regulating activities on forest concessions already granted, rather than simply preventing new concessions from being issued. Effectively fighting the dry season forest fires is also crucial. A failure on either point would be a rejection of the country’s climate change commitment, and bad news for the planet.
The president could also pursue new international funding agreements: rich countries will be looking for opportunities to make easy (relatively speaking) emissions cuts, and paying to reduce deforestation in other countries is one way to do so. Governments at all levels will need to get tougher on illegal logging, which is estimated to be a larger industry than even legal logging. And in the longer-term, electoral reform at the district level may be needed to break the dependency some local politicians have on forest concessions, sold to raise campaign cash or given away to reward political backers.
So who is most likely to make this happen, Jokowi or Prabowo, the pragmatist or the nationalist? Given that environmental issues have played no more than a tertiary role in the campaign, it is difficult to know. Both have spoken only in broad platitudes on the need to balance economic growth and environmental protection. Neither has shown much interest in his predecessor’s international climate change ambition. One hint comes from AMAN, an organization that represents 2,000 of Indonesia’s indigenous communities. It has not previously supported a presidential candidate, but since Jokowi adopted the alliance’s platform — which gives indigenous communities increased rights over forest management — he has received their blessing. Indonesians and the world’s climate will have to wait and see.
Image Credit: Eric Bajart