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Mixed response to forest moratorium

An aerial photograph of the Crude Palm Oil (CPO) factoryin Muko-Muko Regency, Bengkulu Province, Sumatra Island. Many communities throughout Indonesia are losing their land to companies seeking to profit from the booming palm oil industry
(Jefri Aries/IRIN)

A long-awaited moratorium by the Indonesian government on new forest concessions, aimed at curbing deforestation, has been welcomed by palm oil farmers but activists believe it does not go far enough.

"We support the government's decree on the moratorium," Maruli Sitorus, a palm oil farmer in Labahan Batu in North Sumatra Province, said. "We have seen outrageous expansions of big plantation companies at the expense of small farmers whose land has been shrinking. We hope the moratorium can limit this." 

More than 100,000 hectares of peatland in Southeast Asia are being converted annually into plantations for palm oil and pulpwood, according to the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR).

Peatlands store enormous quantities of carbon and their destruction releases large amounts of carbon dioxide, which contributes to climate change.

According to the World Resources Institute, deforestation and forest degradation and loss of peatland in Indonesia accounts for more than 80 percent of the country's greenhouse gas emissions.

Indonesia is home to one of the world's largest areas of peatland and is the largest exporter and producer of palm oil, with 7.5 million hectares of plantations.

On 20 May, Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono issued a long-awaited decree banning concessions on 63 million hectares of primary forests and peatland as part of a US$1 billion deal with Norway signed in May 2010 to fight climate change.

The two-year ban puts a halt to new logging areas in "primary" forests - including areas untouched by humans and areas containing peat - but does not apply to existing forest licences and those that have been approved in principle.

Sitorus, speaking on behalf of small farmers, urged the government to help improve productivity, including subsidizing saplings and fertilizers and determining the price of oil palm fresh fruit bunches, which are used in palm oil production.

"The government should not stop at the moratorium. We small farmers have very limited access to technology," he said. "Prices of fertilizers are skyrocketing and they are scarce."

Sawit Watch, an NGO advocating for small palm oil farmers, said about 500 families depended on palm oil for their livelihoods in North Sumatra.

Upping production

Swisto Uwin, a palm oil farmer in Sekadau District of West Kalimantan Province, said the moratorium was a good first step, but that further support was necessary.

"We recognize that it's a good policy, but we want the government to help farmers improve productivity so that we can focus on replanting. Lack of support for small-scale palm oil farmers from the government will not help us to be able to stand on our feet," he told IRIN. Uwin said farmers could only produce 12 tonnes of fresh palm fruit per hectare per year, while those in Malaysia produced twice as much.

Aida Greenbury, a managing director at the Asia Pulp and Paper (APP), one of the biggest pulp and paper companies in the world, was confident about the outcome of the moratorium for the firm.

"Asia Pulp and Paper will take action to emerge from the moratorium a healthier business with a clear and definitive vision for the future of our sustainable forestry management, manufacturing, conservation and social investment programmes," she said.

APP is part of the Sinar Mas Group, which also operates Indonesia's largest palm oil manufacturer, SMART. The conglomerate has been accused by environmentalists of being responsible for much of Indonesia's forest destruction.

More needed

CIFOR called the decree a "positive development", but said more stringent measures were needed if Indonesia was to meet its ambitious targets of cutting greenhouse gas emissions by 26 percent by 2020.

The moratorium's omission of secondary forests, woodlands that have been re-forested, raises concerns about Indonesia's ability to meet its emission reduction target.

"Significant reductions in forestry emissions in Indonesia through tree planting alone would not be feasible as the number of trees needed to fully achieve emission reduction targets would require a land area twice the size of the entire country," said Louis Verchot, CIFOR's principal climate change scientist. "Instead, emission reduction efforts need to focus on keeping existing forests as forests."

The NGO Greenpeace described the decree as a "progressive" move but said it was inadequate. "It doesn't mean much in terms of forest protection because most of the forest areas covered by the ban are under protected forest status legally," Yuyun Indradi, a Southeast Asia forest campaigner for Greenpeace, explained.

"We want to stress there's a need for a review of licences given to logging, pulp and paper, mining and plantation companies because they are operating in ecologically important areas," he said.

According to the environmental group, under the moratorium about 40 million hectares of forest, an area roughly the size of California, could still be destroyed.


This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information:

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