by Fitrian Ardiansyah and Erik Meijaard, published in The Jakarta Globe, 20 September 2013, Opinion.
A recent regulation issued by President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono on the National REDD+ [reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation plus] Agency shows the government’s continuous willingness to better manage our environment. Yet, it also triggers an interesting question about whether the establishment of this new agency is sufficient to save our remaining forests.
Indonesia is one of the most important countries in the world for biodiversity and ecosystem conservation, and has more species than all other countries but Brazil. Also, because of its unique geology, the country has very high levels of endemism: species occur here but nowhere else.
Indonesia and its population have every reason to be proud of their incredible natural heritage. Nevertheless, more serious and comprehensive efforts appear to be needed to ensure that this heritage can be sustained and enjoyed by future generations too.
In Indonesia, some of the most pristine forests have been gazetted as protected areas. These are the cornerstone of ecosystem and wildlife conservation, and to a large extent, have provided human populations with valuable goods and services, including water and local climate regulation.
Protected areas are supposed to provide a safe haven for endangered animal and plant life, away from the human threats, such as over-exploitation and disturbance. In this country, however, the reality seems different. Two recent studies, for instance, found that Indonesian protected areas had suffered from significant deforestation between 2000 and 2010.
A study by Douglas Fuller of the University of Miami and colleagues — in press in the Indonesian Journal of Nature Conservation — is likely the first-ever assessment looking at all terrestrial protected areas in Indonesia, including national parks, and nature and wildlife reserves. The study reveals that between 2000 and 2010 these areas lost 3,700 square kilometers of forest, equaling about half the greater metropolitan area of Jakarta.
When it comes to the status of the areas, deforestation rates in nature and wildlife reserves were about twice as high as those in national parks. Such different deforestation rates may be due to the fact that national parks have been slightly better equipped with funds, human resources and technology compared to other protected areas.
A second study published in the journal PLOS ONE, and led by David Gaveau of the Center for International Forestry Research in Bogor, confirms similar findings.
This study assessed forest loss in Kalimantan between 2000 and 2010. An estimated 303,525 square kilometers or 57 percent of Kalimantan’s land area was covered by natural forest in 2000, of which 14,212 square kilometers had been cleared by 2010. Forests in oil palm concessions had been reduced by 5,600 square kilometers, while the figures for logging concessions are 1,336 square kilometers and for protected forests 1,122 square kilometers. The remaining deforestation happened in land with other uses, such as small-scale agriculture.
In relative terms the study showed that deforestation rates in timber concessions and protected areas were not significantly different. This is a surprising finding since timber removal is obviously allowed in logging concessions but not in protected areas.
This finding, however, can provide a crucial suggestion. This could mean regardless of the status of forests — either production or conservation and unless not changed to conversion forest — as long the areas are well managed, deforestation can be largely avoided.
Under Indonesian laws, logging concessions have to be managed sustainably and remain permanently forest-covered. If these concessions are well-managed, they can continuously function as wildlife habitats and host a wide range of forest species, as well as generate income for government, companies and surrounding communities.
The International Union for Conservation of Nature recognizes this conservation potential of well-managed timber concessions.
Still, this only works as long as the government does not license the conversion of these natural forest concessions to non-forest land uses, such as oil palm plantations, which are of far less value to wildlife, ecosystems and people’s livelihoods.
The remaining forests of Indonesia provide important wildlife habitats and are greatly valued by people for a range of products and services (including flood buffering, temperature control, but also a free source of bush meat and fish). The future of Indonesia’s forest wildlife and the prevention of natural disasters therefore greatly depends on preventing further forest loss in protected areas and timber concessions.
The two studies suggest, however, that much works needs to be done by the Indonesian government and society since either protected areas or logging concessions seem to be inadequately managed and not strong enough to prevent deforestation.
The core weaknesses of the present protected area management system, for instance, will have to be addressed urgently. Performance-based systems should help the government to reward improvement in management and penalize failure, increasing the accountability of those in charge. The new REDD+ agency could support such systems.
Sustainable management of remaining forest areas from which timber can be legally harvested is a second key strategy. President Yudhoyono, for example, committed in 2012 to maintaining at least 45 percent of Kalimantan’s land area as forest.
Achieving such a target requires integration of forest estate planning, including prevention of further conversion of the remaining forests and ensuring that other development planning, both at sub-national and national levels, is synergized. Also, improved governance of forests requires further reforms in forest and land use licensing and management.
Indonesia still has significant forest areas. The future of these valuable resources is in the hands of the government, private sector and public. We need to continuously make decisions and put forward actions that not only boost our current economic growth but also sustain it and secure the country’s future economy by keeping and sustainably managing our forests.
Fitrian Ardiansyah is a doctoral candidate at the Australian National University and a recipient of Australian Leadership Award and Allison Sudradjat Award.
Erik Meijaard is a long-term Indonesia-based conservation scientist leading the Borneo Futures initiative as a consultant for People and Nature Consulting International.