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 won widespread acclaim.
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 promise of $19bn in financial assistance.
But while British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who is leading the summit, has called the agreement “unprecedented”, not everyone is celebrating.
“In our opinion, the initial commitment to reduce deforestation is positive, but it must be accompanied by concrete actions,” Uli Arta Siagian, a forestry and plantations campaigner at WALHI (the Indonesian Forum for the Environment), told Al Jazeera.
“The problem is that this commitment is contradictory to what is being done by state officials in Indonesia.”
Forests extend to about 920,000sq km (355,214sq miles) across the Southeast Asian archipelago and have long been under pressure from illegal logging and land clearance, primarily for agricultural plantations producing 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 watered down domestic legislation and failed to take action against those found to be contributing to deforestation, even as they have promised to protect the forests.
Last week, as part of a speech on deforestation at COP26, Indonesia’s President Joko Widodo, popularly known as Jokowi, said that Indonesia, one of the world’s most biodiverse and resource-rich countries, is “committed to protecting … critical carbon sinks and our natural capital for future generations”.
Kiki Taufik, global head of Greenpeace Southeast Asia’s Indonesian forests campaign, dismisses the comments as “nothing new and not ambitious,” he 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 natural forest loss in half by 2020, and strive to end it by 2030”.
Consumer goods companies also committed to the goal of eliminating deforestation from the production of agricultural commodities such as palm oil, soy, paper and beef products by no later than 2020.
But Taufik notes that despite Indonesia’s commitment to protecting forests, it has failed to meet those targets.
A Greenpeace report produced in partnership with environmental mapping specialists TheTreeMap, which was released ahead of COP26, also found that a fifth of the country’s oil palm plantations were situated in areas such as critical watersheds, national parks and conservation areas designated as ‘national forest estate’ where such activity is illegal. Indonesia is the world’s largest exporter of palm oil, used in a whole range of products from detergents to chocolate.
“Firm rules are needed to properly protect nature,” Taufik said in a statement, accusing governments of planning on “another talking shop about deforestation at COP26”.
Healthy forests, which absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, have been identified as crucial to keeping the global rise in temperatures below 1.5C (2.7F) and tackling climate change.
Deforestation, meanwhile, not only contributes to CO2 emissions but also leads to devastating floods and fires, and the loss of flora and fauna, including endangered tigers and orangutans, as trees are cleared to make way for vast single-crop estates.
Lack of laws
The Greenpeace report also highlighted a controversial amnesty scheme that will allow some Indonesian plantations to retroactively legalise their activities as part of the Omnibus Job Creation Law (UU Cipta Kerja), which was passed in 2020 and replaced parts of the 2013 Law on the Prevention and Eradication of Forest Destruction.
“The enactment of the Job Creation Law will increase the rate of deforestation in Indonesia,” said WALHI’s Siagian. “This law no longer stipulates the obligation that 40 percent of forest in a forested area is to be maintained. Not to mention Articles 110 A and B, which provide the opportunity for an amnesty. This is also exacerbated by the lifting of the palm oil moratorium.”
The Job Creation Law replaced a moratorium on the development of new oil palm estates, which was launched by Jokowi in 2019 in a bid to stop 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 legislation and will not face criminal sanction if they are found in breach.
WALHI’s Siagian says the result is likely to be more permits for plantations and more forest clearance.
Greenpeace’s Taufik agrees that the key to tackling deforestation in Indonesia lies in tightening laws to support climate change efforts and cleaning up the supply chain to ensure consumer products companies do not buy from plantations linked to the destruction of forests.
“We need an immediate end to deforestation, backed up by water-tight domestic laws and policies which recognise the land rights of local and Indigenous peoples, properly protect forests, [and] eliminate deforestation through supply chains,” he said.
There was further questioning of Indonesia’s commitment to the COP26 deforestation pledge when the country’s minister for the environment and forestry, Siti Nurbaya Bakar, took to Twitter on November 3 to brand the agreement “unfair” adding that “the massive development of the President Jokowi era must not stop in the name of carbon emissions or deforestation”.
The comments, which were part of a wider series of 18 tweets about development and environmental issues in Indonesia, prompted demonstrations in the capital city of Jakarta on Friday and were widely lambasted by conservationists.
Members of Bakar’s political party, the National Democrats (NasDem), however, have defended the comments, saying she is committed to protecting the environment.
“The statement must be viewed in its entirety,” Ahmad SH, a member of NasDem based in West Nusa Tenggara who previously worked for WALHI, told Al Jazeera. “As I see it, she didn’t mean to neglect environmental protection. In fact, she is very committed. She is not just development minded at the expense of environmental issues but is focused on harmonising the two.”
He added that moving forward, the government’s commitment to development and the environment “must be seen as a joint effort” that includes all political parties as well as civil society organisations.
A capital crisis
Jokowi’s latest commitment also comes as the president plans a new capital for the country in the province of East Kalimantan in Indonesian Borneo, where Indigenous people have long fought to protect their lands and hold back the spread of plantations.
The city is set to cover 25.6sq km (10sq miles) of largely rural land in the island’s east and provide homes for 1.5 million people.
Work has already begun to build a large dam to supply the new capital with water. Similar projects such as setting up the city’s electricity supply are expected to begin soon after the $32bn undertaking had to be put on hold due to the coronavirus pandemic.
“They announced that the concept for the new capital is going to be that of a ‘Green City’, but how can you have a ‘Green City’ when you are building walls everywhere?” Abdallah Naem, a local activist and member of JATAM (the Indonesian Mining Advocacy Network) based in Balikpapan in East Kalimantan, told Al Jazeera.
Jokowi aims for the government to move out of Jakarta, the current capital, before the end of his second term in 2024. The low-lying city is prone to flooding and beset by environmental problems from polluted rivers to smog.
While solving Jakarta’s problems, however, Naem says people in East Kalimantan are worried they will face new ones with the new capital accelerating environmental destruction in an area where the silt from logging has already clogged up rivers and led to increased flooding.
“Years ago, there was no problem with the water here. People got water from the rivers which never ran dry and were always clear. When the companies started working here however, the rivers changed colour and became contaminated so that the water could no longer be used for drinking or bathing,” he said.
According to Greenpeace’s report, more than 730sq km (282sq miles) of oil palm – an area about the size of Singapore – is planted within Indonesia’s forest estate in East Kalimantan.
“The President should focus on returning Kalimantan to its former state but the new capital is just going to make things worse,” Naem said.
“Jokowi says all the right things when he is at an international forum, but that is not the same as what we are seeing in the field.”