Fire and haze; palm oil and politics

02 November 2015

 By Wimar Witoelar

One week following his visit to the United States for his meeting with President Obama, President Jokowi seems to understand that the fires still ravaging our country may represent an opportunity to advance an agenda that could save our peatlands, and help him fulfill his campaign promises.

Strengthened by supporters with civil society and the indigenous peoples who helped elect him, the President says he will freeze all permits on peatland development for palm oil. He has ordered the expansion of efforts to prosecute the most egregious of groups and individuals shown responsible for causing the fires, as well as the implementation of a “one-map policy,” an initiative that weaves together the maps of various agencies, as well as those of indigenous peoples, establishing transparency concerning who is doing what and where.  And making clear the areas claimed by indigenous groups that have been fighting concessions on their customary lands.

A year ago, our newly elected president travelled to the country’s Riau province to visit one of the stretches of smoldering peatland that has indelibly linked our nation to forest fires and the haze that continues to torment our neighbors.

 The devastation the President saw that day spurred him to action. He ordered officials to block off canals that had been illegally dug to draw out moisture from the peatlands, making the land vulnerable to fire.

Jokowi was on the right track. But he now knows he must go much further if he is to serve a nation that is hungry for development and for solutions to poverty; a nation in which palm oil companies work in the shadows to undermine the agreements they themselves have made to stop destroying the forests of such great global value.

Indonesia must move away from a development model built on draining and clearing peatlands for plantations – an approach that accounts for almost half of Indonesia’s total greenhouse gas emissions, but only 1% of its GDP.

 In the short run, our government could meet the need for jobs by hiring hundreds of thousands of people to dam the canals that crisscross the peatlands.

 It could provide training to small holders, whose farms now yield only half the palm oil produced by large-scale plantations. Technical support and tools could help intensify palm oil production on smaller farms, reducing the incentive to destroy peat and forestland to improve yields.

 As our leaders teeter at the edge of a decision with global implications, they might consider how Indonesia fared the last time it gambled on peatlands as an engine for development.

 At the end of the 1990s, the last years of the 32-year rule of President Suharto, the president became obsessed with boosting rice production, and his government pursued an aggressive policy aimed at turning forests into plantations.

 The results were immediate. National output and exports of rubber, pulp and paper, palm oil spiked, all contributing to a sharp rise in our nation’s GDP.

 To keep rice production high, President Suharto’s administration turned 1.4 million hectares of peat swamp in Kalimantan into rice paddies, displacing farmers and confiscating their land.

 The Mega Project was an unmitigated disaster. It destroyed rural communities and exterminated around 5,000 orangutan and myriads of other wildlife. Not one blade of productive rice was ever grown on at least half a million hectares of primary peat swamp forest, riven with 4,600 kilometers of canals.

 Many believe that this environmental folly contributed to Suharto's downfall.

 Today, we have a new myth that threatens our nation. It says Indonesia’s future depends entirely on revenues from exports of palm oil, the primary cause of the fires that keep Indonesia in the news.

Despite consumer boycotts in Western countries, palm oil companies retain the support of members of nation’s power elite who benefit from the patronage offered by the industry giants.

And they are gaining power, as demonstrated in the latest development--the formation of a new palm oil trade council between Indonesia and Malaysia that drops the requirement that companies commit to “no deforestation.” It effectively forms a cartel and creates a common front between these two nations, at the expense of the forests and the indigenous peoples who serve as the best guardians of our forests.

The solution is to seek a middle ground. To invest in a sustainable development model that will meet the needs of the people without destroying the future of the country.

 By doing so, the President will ensure his legacy, and solve the terrible dilemma he faces in trying to stop the fires and address the needs of his people, while withstanding the forces of greed and opportunism that would send our nation up in smoke.

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