By Lauren Gumbs
The excellent documentary series Years of Living Dangerously, just premiered on Australian television.
It could not have come sooner as Indonesian media again reported planes flying in and out of Sumatera are being grounded or forced to turn back due to a lack of visibility from forest fire smoke.
This happens frequently and smoke haze is a major problem in Indonesian communities, particularly around Riau.
Crippling air pollution is a result of the devastation of Indonesia’s forests, captured in full horror on Years of Living Dangerously.
The series demonstrates an intricate web of wide reaching climate change effects, now a globally visible phenomenon caused by human activities that have created a build-up of carbon in the atmosphere.
Nowhere in the series was human-led activity more terrifying than in Indonesia, where corruption, political apathy and major corporations work in gut wrenching unison to decimate Indonesia’s forests, releasing unprecedented amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and contributing to a cycle of warming that will soon be out of our control.
The rate at which Indonesia’s forests are decreasing, and the amount of smoke produced has made the country the third largest producer of carbon emissions after the US and China.
According to ClimateAdvisors.org, “About two-thirds come from the destruction of carbon rich rainforests and peat lands, mostly for expansion of agricultural commodities such as palm oil, timber plantations or mining operations (including the doubly damaging ‘rainforest coal’).”
Thousands of hectares of pristine natural forest and rainforest, including protected national parks, are cleared by big companies, some of whom are accused of forcibly evicting indigenous locals and who raze the land with impunity to create smoke hazes so dense that neighbouring countries, Singapore and Malaysia are also afflicted.
With patronage and clientelism part and parcel of the nature of Indonesian corruption, especially after deregulation (that produced enhanced opportunities for clients to shop around for patrons), environmental activists have faced brick walls when it comes to protecting the forests.
Not only are hundreds of years old trees being cut down, but they, and the peat land they sit on, are set alight releasing waves of noxious smoke across villages and into other countries, smouldering irrepressibly for months.
To the unacquainted, peat is the first stage of turning plant matter into coal, a rich soil made up of decomposed vegetation – thousands of years’ worth of dead trees – and a fossil fuel that is being burnt as a by-product of quick land clearing.
Former President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (SBY) initiated promising reforms that acknowledge the massive problem facing the country and he instigated several REDD (Reduce Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation) based initiatives.
In 2009 Indonesia pledged to cut emissions 26 percent by 2020 from business as usual emissions, and with international help, 41 percent.
In 2011 Indonesia put a two year moratorium on new licenses for forest clearing in primary natural forests and peat lands, and while it is filled with exemptions that neutralise its impact, it does indicate a paradigm shift from previous apathy and denial.
This was extended for another two years in 2013.
However, due to weak co-ordination between ministries and local governments, the government cannot be sure of the extent of concessions given out for land clearing and where they overlap.
This is where ‘One Map’ and the Global Forest Watch (GFW) tools come into play, data portals that new President Joko Widodo has said he will utilise for better transparency and insight into land use.
These data portals allow users to map out the boundaries of concessions and deforestation.
They provide satellite imagery, open data and crowdsourcing so users can monitor forests and track deforestation in real time.
Different ministries work together to provide information in One Map that covers a broad range of land uses.
Forests News said Data and accurate information on events such as wildfires and the amount of carbon emissions they produce, for example, is critical for countries like Indonesia to meet its emissions-reduction targets.
“Data is just one piece of the puzzle… defined concession boundaries are of equal importance in ensuring accountability for illegal logging.”
Then there are SBY’s special reform and anti-corruption units, specifically formed for forest preservation and headed by a minister of climate and forest affairs, able to review existing concessions and fine companies up to $9 million.
Civil society has also made headway and Indigenous rights activists AMAN won a landmark case in 2013 whereby the Constitutional Court granted indigenous peoples the right to land areas.
Civil society groups are now involved in emissions reductions and policy formation through the REDD Task Force.
Companies in the private sector are now starting to get on board and are becoming active supporters of sustainably sourced forest products, however links to illegally farmed land, human rights abuses and environmental degradation are still apparent in the relationships of many big companies and their suppliers.
President Jokowi is ideologically well positioned to enact the sort of reforms that are needed, but with a minority in the house, his political will is going to be tested by opponents who have power and patronage investments to lose.
In addition, the new Regional Election Bill abolishes direct elections of local and regional heads; a stick for accountable representation that means Jokowi’s policies could be blocked by regional leaders.
It also means less opportunities for reform minded politicians like Jokowi to enter politics at the local level and expose corruption in the resources sector.
Jokowi despite the touch challenges he faces, is more inclined than any other president to change the sociology of deforestation in Indonesia and he has declared his commitment to protect rainforest and peatland.
In his 42 page campaign platform Jokowi not only addressed corruption and illegal fishing, mining and logging, but also highlighted the effect of environmental damage on the economy and said Indonesia has pursued economic growth too aggressively and not paid attention to the environment.
Jokowi has agreed to continue the One Map initiative and may extend the forest moratorium - he has stated he wants to restore 2 million hectares of degraded forests each year and conserve and protect the remaining 20 million hectares of forests.
With a keen awareness of the severity of environmental issues in his country, Jokowi will be doing Indonesia a great service by continuing with the REDD targets and by broadening SBY’s programs with his own, unifying ministry regulations and tackling crimes related to deforestation by giving the task force greater authority and power to catch and prosecute such crimes.
The next time a film crew from Years of Living Dangerously interviews Indonesia’s Forestry Minister, instead of a shamefully laissez faire Zilkifli Hasan, full of excuses, we want to see a forest champion who is working hard and acutely aware of the interconnectedness between climate change, corruption and deforestation.
Lauren Gumbs is Director of Social Media at the Indonesia Institute and Editor of Indonesia Today.