As President Yudhoyono was first greeting and then demanding leadership from visiting US secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton on climate change, the old saying ‘those in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones’ comes to mind. In particular two recent events do not bode well for the future, namely the re-emergence of the forest fire problem and the decree to use peat lands as palm oil plantations.

Forest Fires

Forest fires are one of the main reasons that Indonesia is the third largest carbon dioxide emitter in the world. Beyond that, it also creates tensions with Indonesia’s neighbours: for example in 1997-8, the forest fires blanketed the whole of SE Asia causing health problems and economic damage. Faced with these issues the Indonesian government has made routine pledges to prevent the situation ever arising again. For example the National Action Plan for Climate Change promises to reduce forest fire hot spots by 50% in 2009. Unfortunately this year, severe fires have already been detected in Riau, Sumatra, resulting in haze over Pekanbaru, the provincial capital. Two factors suggest that this problem will only get worse, not better:

  1. El Nino/ La Nina effect: This is a southern hemisphere oscillation that has a large effect on the weather across the globe. As a general rule La Nina brings heavy rain to Indonesia while El Nino conditions are associated with drought. So far this year has been La Nina: nonetheless there have still been hundreds of fires. However these conditions are likely to end in April, with El Nino starting either later this year or next year, resulting in a significantly drier climate, which of course encourages fires.
  2. Lack of government supervision: despite government promises to stop the building of commercial sites of forested lands, the recent fires have been directly linked to forest clearance for palm oil plantations. While independent programmes exist to help control burning on the local, subsistence level, there appears to be no such effort in the commercial field.

Peat Land conversion

Peat lands are crucial carbon sinks, trapping CO2 that would otherwise be released into the atmosphere. Greenpeace estimating that Indonesia’s peat lands contain 37.8 billion tonnes. In order to grow palm oil on peat lands, it must be first cleared then drained thereby releasing the trapped CO2 into the atmosphere. Furthermore this practice increases significantly the chances of fires: a report by Wetlands International in 2006 concluded that in this entire process, Indonesia emits 6.5 times the CO2 it does by burning fossil fuels.

Despite this, the government announced new plans to open up peat lands for conversion to commercial palm oil plantations. The agriculture and environmental ministries tried to assure environmentalists that the process will be strictly regulated, will recapture all the carbon lost in the conversion process and that the plantations will not be opened on peat land more than 3 meters deep.

Such claims have led to anger among activists: for example Yuyun Indradi of Greenpeace states “the government needs to protect the remaining peatlands and forests if we are to slow down climate change and protect the livelihoods of forest-dependent communities and biodiversity.” This is also a slap in the face of campaigners who have been pushing for the utilization of degraded land for palm oil plantations (last week’s blog dealt with this issue) rather than forests. It seems that the government has ignored these pleas.

So why? The first reason involves economics and the global recession. Gatot Irianto, from the Agriculture Ministry, admits as much when he said “we still need land for oil palm plantations. We must be honest: the sector has been the main driver for the people’s economy”. The second deals with domestic politics and the upcoming general elections. As Bustar Maitar of Greenpeace accuses “with the general elections coming up, the Agriculture Ministry’s plan is fishy, because it seems like an attempt to satisfy the country’s powerful paper and palm oil industries at the expense of the environment.”

Overall this has been a bad week for Indonesia who once again seems to put short-term economic interests above those of the health of its people and the global climate. By pursuing such dubious policies, it puts at risk Indonesia’s participation in future REDD projects. While it is important to demand action from leading Developed countries like the US, it must also show commitment at home to take action. So far it is failing.

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