Indonesia: An environmental law is not ‘green’ without full peat protection

Yuyun Indradi, Jakarta Post 16 Mar 14;

President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s recent steps to regulate development on Indonesia’s carbon-rich peatlands might look like a step forward, but the regulation contains one major weakness: It does no guarantee full peatland protection.

The protection of peatland is one of the first levels of defense that Indonesia can implement if it is to reduce the release of climate-changing greenhouse gases — not to mention a measure that could mitigate the conditions that have lead to the forest fires.

Indonesia’s peatlands store approximately 60 billion tons of carbon — nearly six times more than all the carbon humans emitted in 2011. And this does not even include carbon in the forests themselves. If they disappear, it would unlock much of this carbon and release it into the atmosphere.

But while Yudhoyono’s new law might look at first sight to be progressive, it is not more than a very partial initiative. Peatlands within concession boundaries and shallow peat will not be protected by this regulation. Many companies have peatlands inside their concessions that have not been turned into plantations yet.

In fact, peat is such a complex facet of the landscape that even degrading shallow peat at the fringes of a massive peat dome often leads to the collapse of the entire dome.

While an increasing number of companies are adopting policies that exclude peat from conversion, the government seems unable to match these commitments, even if it is clear that Indonesia can only achieve its greenhouse gas emission reduction commitments by halting the conversion of peatland into palm oil and pulpwood plantations. A consistent approach is missing.

First, these areas should be properly identified and mapped. Without knowing not only exactly where they are but also where the areas are that companies could use to develop new plantations, it is impossible to halt the disintegration of peatland.

Second, many existing plantations are on peatland. Measures must be taken to restore the damage that has been done. Peat landscapes exceed plantation borders, therefore an integrated landscape-level approach, as proposed in the National REDD+ Strategy, will have to be adopted. This is missing from the proposed regulation.

A review of all existing concessions is urgently needed to both halt peatland clearance and restore what has so far been damaged. This should not solely depend on a handful of companies taking responsibility for doing the exercise themselves.

Instead of a comprehensive plan to protect one of Indonesia’s most precious landscapes — and the world’s largest carbon stores — President Yudhoyono is considering a proposal that might “green” Indonesia’s image, but do little to make a lasting difference. The current forest fires in Sumatra and Kalimantan are proof of the fact that regulations without coherent action plans are of no use. Nevertheless, peatland destruction continues largely unabated.

Yudhoyono, who is constitutionally ineligible for the presidency after two terms in office, should not sign this regulation if it does not protect all peatland. He should first revise it to be in line with what scientists say is necessary to halt the disintegration of peatland. And then he should ensure that existing government initiatives currently spread across different policies come together in one coherent peat ecosystem action plan.

Only then will he leave a legacy that will make a real difference.

The writer is a Greenpeace Indonesia forest campaigner.