WRI: A Chance for Forests, if Government Can See Past the Trees

Jun 07, 2014

The Jakarta Globe. Jakarta. Indonesia’s economic ascendancy from the crippling financial crisis of the late 1990s has seen the country become one of the biggest economies in the world.

But the boom has been built in part on a high rate of natural resources extraction — including coal mining and the wholesale clearing of forests to make way for oil palm plantations — that is not sustainable, experts warn.

“With the booming economy and rise of the middle class, we’re putting a lot of stresses on our natural environment, including power, wood, minerals, oil, gas and food,” says Andrew Steer, the president and chief executive of the World Resources Institute, an organization that focuses on the overlap between the environment and socioeconomic development.

Steer, speaking at the opening of the WRI’s Indonesian office on Wednesday, Steer said those stresses were responsible for Indonesia being a major emitter of greenhouse cases, mostly from deforestation.

“Over the last decade, Indonesia’s economy has become the third-fastest-growing economy in the world. With a massive 35 million people emerging into the middle class, or consuming class, we are trying to drive people to consider their consumption with the environmental sector,” he said.

“Indonesia has contributed to climate change and should be part of the solution to make it more resilient,” he added.

Steer said it was not all gloom and doom, though, noting that his institute was encouraged to open an office here because of the government’s commitment to extending a moratorium on issuing new land-clearing permits in primary and peat forests.

The moratorium was issued in May 2011 and was initially set to run for two years. However, the administration of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono decided last year to extend it to May 2015.

Dino Patti Djalal, a board member of the WRI in Indonesia, said there was an increasing number of environmentalists, activists and civil society groups raising awareness about environmental and economic issues.

He said the country was also witnessing the rise of a new generation of local government leaders coming up with innovative ideas to address their local economic and environmental challenges.

He cited the example of an Islamic boarding school, or pesantren , in Lombok, West Nusa Tenggara, that had begun using e-books after finding a way to generate electricity from waste.

“They also grow tree seedlings and give them to members of the local community to take care of the trees,” said Dino, the former Indonesian ambassador to the United States. “So from the local [government] level to pesantren, university and civil society level, many people are adopting new techniques to promote environmental stewardship.”

Dino, who also mounted a failed bid for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination, said the central government needed to do more in terms of adopting and propagating environmentally friendly technologies for sustainable development.

“They have to know what they want, what the demands of development truly are, and what types of technologies are needed to fulfill those needs,” he said.

Among the technologies that the government has often been criticized for being slow in adopting is mapping technology to assess the true condition of forests across the country.

The first few months after the implementation of the forestry moratorium were marked by numerous instances of plantation companies being issued forest-clearing permits in areas that clearly fell within the no-limit zone defined in the government’s moratorium map. The map has since been updated several times.

The WRI has proposed the use of its Global Forest Watch platform, which it says combines innovative technologies, open data and crowdsourcing at a global scale for everyone to see the real condition of forests all over the world.

“Global Forest Watch is accessible to everyone, from governments and nongovernmental organizations and indigenous communities, to buyers, suppliers and the media,” said Nigel Sizer, the director of the platform.

He said the government could use the online map, at globalforestwatch.org, to inform forest policies and regulations, observe concessions, and identify illicit deforestation.

NGOs, meanwhile, can use it to identify deforestation zones and fire hot spots to mobilize real action and collect evidence to hold the government and companies to account for their forest-related commitments.

“Citizens can also share their experiences on forest-related issues,” Sizer said.

Rudi Putra, an environmental activist who won the 2014 Goldman Environmental Prize for his successful efforts to tackle illegal oil palm plantations in Aceh’s Leuser Ecosystem — whose omission from the original moratorium map was a major source of controversy — says there needs to be a greater understanding about the importance of forests, not just for local biodiversity but also for communities.

He welcomed any new technology that would help in the monitoring of forest conditions. Such innovations, he said, would allow people to combat illegal logging and forest encroachment, deforestation and degradation.

Besides the issue of forests, Steer said Indonesia should look to develop its wealth of renewable energy.

The country has the world’s biggest reserves of geothermal energy, but to date generates less than 5 percent of its total electricity this way. The bulk of electricity here is generated by coal-fired plants.

“Indonesia is pretty dependent on fossil fuel, so it needs a revolution in the energy sector,” Steer said.

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