Regions seek forest conversions

Adianto P. Simamora - THE JAKARTA POST - 02/02/2009

The Forestry Ministry has said it has received a mounting number of requests from local administrations for permits to convert Indonesia's dwindling forests into plantations, mostly due to uncertainty surrounding the spatial planning law.

Ministry senior official Soenaryo said Saturday the most controversial proposal had come from Central Kaliman despite conflict with the spatial planning law.

"We prioritized the proposals from Central Kalimantan and Riau because many forest conversion permits have been issued there, and some of the companies have already started their operations," Soenaryo, an expert assistant to Forestry Minister Malam Sambat Kaban, told The Jakarta Post.

Central Kalimantan has asked to convert about 2.5 million hectares of forest, he said.

Soenaryo said the ministry was still studying the consequences of approving the proposals.

"We know Central Kalimantan has violated the law, but they justify their demand for the central government's approval for the forest conversion under a regional ordinance and other regulations," he said.

Kaban, Soenaryo said, was "very careful" in responding to forest-conversion requests from local administrations.

"It is like a dilemma for the central government. If we grant the requests, we violate the law on forestry and spatial planning. But if we turn down the proposals, the local governments will force the government to approve them," he said.

The forestry law says only the ministry can issue a forest-conversion permit, but must have the consent of the House of Representatives.

Two former House members in charge of forestry affairs have been jailed for receiving gratuity related to the House's approval of a forest conversion project in Bintan, Riau, in the South Sumatra regency of Banyuasin. Another former legislator is standing trial for the same violation.

Soenaryo said the local administrations in Sumatra and Papua had applied for permits to convert two forest plots into an oil palm plantation and an agricultural area.

Data from the ministry reveals that the total area of oil palm plantations jumped to 6.1 million hectares in 2006 from 1.1 million hectares in 1990.

According to a study by Forest Watch Indonesia (FWI) last year, Central Kalimantan's forests are being converted into oil palm plantations at the fastest rate in the country. In a recent 16-year period, the rate shot up more than 400 times to 461,992 hectares per year in 2007 from 1,163 hectares per year in 1991.

The study also found that 14 percent of 3 million hectares of peat land in the province had been converted into palm oil plantations.

FWI said the Riau administration had allocated 38.5 percent of its total forest area for conversion into plantations. As of 2006, there were 2.7 million hectares of plantation, including 1.5 million hectares of oil palm plantations in the country.

Director for forestry and water source conservation at the National Development Planning Board (Bappenas), Basah Hernowo, said a revision of the law on spatial planning would accelerate deforestation as well as damage to the environmental.

"It will harm the investment climate in the forestry sector. Investors will be afraid of doing business if the spatial planning [law] change every five years," he said.

The 2008 spatial planning law allows local administrations to revise spatial planning regulations after five years.

Basah said Bappenas have received complaints from forest concession holders about the uncertainty of the law.

The Indonesian Association of Forestry Concessionaires (APHI) has expressed concerns over the future of Indonesia's forests.

APHI data reveals that total forest area in the country declined from 26 million hectares last year from 61 million hectares in 1992. Forests that naturally provide products also fell sharply to 2.69 million cubic meters in 2008 from 26 million cubic meters in 1992.

Indonesia has the third largest rainforest area in the world, with 120 million hectares.

The deforestation rate between 1987 and 1997 was 1.8 million hectares annually. From 1998 to 2000, it rose sharply to 2.8 million hectares per year before falling back to 1.8 million hectares per year between 2000 and 2006.