Medan, Indonesia – As the COP26 climate change conference continues into its second and final week in Glasgow, a pledge signed by more than 100 countries to reverse deforestation by the end of 2030 has garnered widespread praise.
Brazil, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Russia and Indonesia, which together account for 85 percent of the world’s forests, are among the signatories to the agreement, which also comes with a pledge of $ 19 billion in financial assistance.
But while British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who is leading the summit, has called the agreement “unprecedented”, not everyone is celebrating it.
“In our opinion, the initial commitment to reduce deforestation is positive, but it must be accompanied by concrete actions,” Uli Arta Siagian, forestry and plantation activist at WALHI (Indonesian Environment Forum) told Al Jazeera.
“The problem is that this commitment is contradictory to what state officials are doing in Indonesia.”
The forests stretch some 920,000 square kilometers (355,214 square miles) throughout the Southeast Asian archipelago and have long been under pressure from illegal logging and clearing of land, mainly for agricultural plantations that produce palm oil. , as well as pulp and paper. About 10 percent of primary forest cover has been lost since 2001, according to Global Forest Watch.
Critics say officials have relaxed national legislation and failed to take action against those who contribute to deforestation, even when they promised to protect forests.
Last week, as part of a speech on deforestation at COP26, Indonesian President Joko Widodo, popularly known as Jokowi, said that Indonesia, one of the most resource-rich and biodiverse countries in the world, is “committed to protect … critical carbon sinks and our natural capital for future generations ”.
Kiki Taufik, global director of Greenpeace’s Indonesian forests campaign in Southeast Asia, dismisses the comments as “nothing new or ambitious,” she says.
Taufik notes that Indonesia was one of the original signatories to the New York Declaration on Forests, which was agreed at the United Nations Climate Summit in 2014 and committed Indonesia and other signatories to “cut the loss of natural forests in half by 2020 and fight to end it by 2030.”
Consumer goods companies also committed to the goal of eliminating deforestation from the production of agricultural products such as palm oil, soybeans, paper and meat products by 2020 at the latest.
But Taufik notes that despite Indonesia’s commitment to protecting forests, it has failed to meet those goals.
A Greenpeace report prepared in partnership with environmental mapping specialists TheTreeMap, which was published before COP26, also found that one-fifth of the country’s oil palm plantations were located in areas such as critical watersheds, national parks, and areas. designated as ‘national forest heritage’. ‘where such activity is illegal. Indonesia is the world’s largest exporter of palm oil, which is used in a wide range of products, from detergents to chocolate.
“Firm rules are needed to adequately protect nature,” Taufik said in a statement, accusing governments of planning “another talk on deforestation at COP26.”
Healthy forests, which absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, have been identified as crucial to keeping global temperature increases below 1.5 ° C (2.7 ° F) and addressing climate change.
Meanwhile, deforestation not only contributes to CO2 emissions, but also causes devastating floods and fires, and the loss of flora and fauna, including endangered tigers and orangutans, as trees are cut down to make way. to vast monoculture properties.
Lack of laws
The Greenpeace report also highlighted a controversial amnesty scheme that will allow some Indonesian plantations to retroactively legalize their activities as part of the Omnibus Job Creation Act (UU Cipta Kerja), which was passed in 2020 and replaced parts of the Prevention Act. and Eradication of forest destruction.
“The enactment of the Employment Creation Law will increase the rate of deforestation in Indonesia,” said WALHI’s Siagian. “This law no longer stipulates the obligation to keep 40 percent of the forest in a wooded area. Not to mention Articles 110 A and B, which provide the opportunity for an amnesty. This is also compounded by the lifting of the palm oil moratorium. “
The Job Creation Law replaced a moratorium on the development of new oil palm plantations, which was launched by Jokowi in 2019 in an attempt to halt deforestation and expired in September.
Under the controversial new law, companies that have been operating illegally have three years to bring their activities into line with the law and will not face criminal penalties if found to be in breach.
WALHI’s Siagian says the result is likely to be more plantation permits and more forest clearing.
Greenpeace’s Taufik agrees that the key to tackling deforestation in Indonesia lies in tightening laws to support efforts against climate change and cleaning up the supply chain to ensure that consumer products companies do not purchase from linked plantations. to the destruction of forests.
“We need an immediate end to deforestation, backed by hermetic internal laws and policies that recognize the territorial rights of indigenous and local peoples, adequately protect forests, [and] eliminate deforestation through supply chains, ”he said.
Indonesia’s commitment to the COP26 deforestation promise was further questioned when the country’s minister of environment and forestry, Siti Nurbaya Bakar, took to Twitter on November 3 to call the deal “unfair,” adding that “The massive development of the President Jokowi era must not be stopped in the name of carbon emissions or deforestation.”
The comments, which were part of a larger series of 18 tweets on environmental and development issues in Indonesia, sparked demonstrations in the capital city of Jakarta on Friday and was widely criticized by conservationists.
Members of Bakar’s political party, the National Democrats (NasDem), however, have defended the comments, saying it is committed to protecting the environment.
“The statement should be viewed in its entirety,” Ahmad SH, a West Nusa Tenggara-based NasDem member who previously worked for WALHI, told Al Jazeera. “As I see it, she did not want to neglect the protection of the environment. In fact, she is very engaged. She not only cares about development at the expense of environmental issues, she focuses on harmonizing the two. “
He added that looking to the future, the government’s commitment to development and the environment “should be seen as a joint effort” that includes all political parties as well as civil society organizations.
A capital crisis
Jokowi’s latest compromise also comes as the president plans a new capital for the country in the East Kalimantan province in Indonesian Borneo, where indigenous peoples have long fought to protect their lands and stop the expansion of plantations.
The city will cover 25.6 square kilometers (10 square miles) of largely rural land in the east of the island and provide homes for 1.5 million people.
The construction of a large dam to supply water to the new capital has already begun. Similar projects, such as the installation of the city’s electricity supply, are expected to begin shortly after the $ 32 billion commitment had to be suspended due to the coronavirus pandemic.
“They announced that the concept of the new capital will be that of a ‘Green City’, but how can you have a ‘Green City’ when walls are being built everywhere?” Abdallah Naem, a local activist and member of JATAM (the Indonesian Mining Defense Network) based in Balikpapan in East Kalimantan, told Al Jazeera.
Jokowi is aiming for the government to move out of Jakarta, the current capital, before the end of its second term in 2024. The lowland city is prone to flooding and beset by environmental problems, from polluted rivers to smog.
However, while solving Jakarta’s problems, Naem says that people in East Kalimantan are concerned about new problems with the new capital accelerating environmental destruction in an area where logging silt has already clogged rivers and caused a increased flooding.
“Years ago, there was no water problem here. People got water from rivers that never dried up and were always clean. However, when companies started working here, the rivers changed color and became polluted, so the water could no longer be used for drinking or bathing, ”he said.
According to the Greenpeace report, more than 730 square kilometers (282 square miles) of oil palm, an area roughly the size of Singapore, are planted within the Indonesian forest estate in East Kalimantan.
“The president should focus on returning Kalimantan to its former state, but the new capital is only going to make things worse,” Naem said.
“Jokowi says all the right things when he’s in an international forum, but that’s not the same as what we’re seeing on the field.”