A moratorium or more of the same

Jakarta Globe: Erik Meijaard : June 15, 2011

In December 2007, President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono launched Indonesia’s orangutan conservation strategy and action plan, which calls for all wild orangutan populations to be viable and stable by 2017.

The plan calls for an end to the destruction of orangutan habitat. Without such action, populations will not be stabilized by 2017.

To these ends, last month came the presidential instruction many of us hoped would be a step in the right direction. At first glance, the instruction looks good. It suspends the issuance of new licenses within primary natural forest and peatlands, in conservation forest, protected forest and production forest areas, with the aim of reducing Indonesia’s emissions of carbon dioxide that result from deforestation and forest fires.

As usual, however, the devil is in the details.

The instruction to suspend issuance of new licenses raises two problems. First, the instruction does not apply to areas with primary forest cover or peatlands that are outside the national forest estate. This has consequences for orangutans.

For example, many areas of peatland on the west coast of Sumatra with important orangutan populations do not appear on the map. These carbon-rich peatlands, which the government purportedly seeks to protect, are not covered.

Business as usual, therefore, means oil palm companies in these areas can clear what remains of these peatlands, and in doing so indirectly exterminate any remaining orangutan populations.

Second, if we compare areas covered by the suspension of new licenses and the current orangutan distribution in Sumatra and Borneo, the results are disturbing.

Approximately 27 percent of orangutans’ habitat in Sumatra remains unprotected by the instruction. In Kalimantan, this figure is as high as 56 percent. Thus, roughly a quarter of the orangutan population in Sumatra, and more than half of the population in Indonesian Borneo, will be lost under the current moratorium that allows forests to continue to be divided and converted.

Strangely, the instruction includes national parks and other nature reserves. One would think that such areas would already be exempt from new licenses.

The action plan for orangutans and the new instruction for reducing Indonesia’s carbon emissions actually seem to work against each other.

For both of them to achieve their targets (stable orangutan populations and reduced carbon emissions), there needs to be better spatial congruence.

This need not be difficult. Orangutans are generally most common in areas that happen to have the highest carbon content (essentially, forested swamp areas). This means Indonesia could achieve high carbon emission savings simply by maintaining forests that harbor orangutan populations.

This does not necessarily mean all of these forests must immediately be protected. Much more important, for both orangutans and carbon, is that they are better managed.

Orangutans can survive in well-managed timber concessions, and such forests retain high carbon value. However, according to the World Bank, for the last 25 years many concession holders have been systematically degrading the forests in their concessions until they can be reclassified as degraded land, allowing them to be converted to plantations, for either palm oil or pulpwood for the paper industry.

Orangutans do not do very well in monoculture oil palm or pulp wood tree habitats, and carbon stocks are much reduced in plantations compared with natural forests.

Kuntoro Mangkusubroto, the leader of the president’s carbon task force, had proposed including previously logged forests within the moratorium. For the orangutan’s sake, it is regrettable that this proposal was ignored.

The simple solution to Indonesia’s combined challenge of maintaining its wild orangutans and reducing its carbon emissions from deforestation is to expand the moratorium on new clearing licenses to include all important orangutan populations. Putting such a plan into action still leaves ample space on already deforested and degraded land for Indonesia to develop its agricultural and silvicultural (forest harnessing) industries.

Speaking in December 2007, Yudhoyono said: “The orangutan represents a solution, an interlinked process in which we stop deforestation, save endangered forest wildlife [and] store greenhouse gas emissions.” He added that “the orangutan and its fate brings us closer to the reality of the effects of global warming, and the opportunities that forests provide to mitigate it.”

Somewhere along the line, the president’s own intentions to act on this statement have been hijacked and diverted. Despite the oil palm industry crying wolf and shedding crocodile tears, the new instruction does not achieve the president’s stated aims.

Hopefully the good intentions put forward in one action plan to save the orangutan will not be undermined by the next action plan intended to “save” the forests.

Erik Meijaard is a senior forest adviser for Bali-based People and Nature Consulting International, Serge Wich is with the University of Zurich and Ian Singleton is with PanECO.

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