At the Oslo Climate and Forest Conference, the Indonesian and Norway governments had signed a partnership agreement on Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD) with an immediate two-year moratorium. The deal signed with Norway aimed at mitigating greenhouse gas emissions earnings worth US$1 billion. President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono pledged that the two-year moratorium would not affect the current palm oil industry, which means business as usual.
REDD is a scheme that is regarded as the cheapest and most efficient ways in compromising obligatory deep cuts of emissions for industrialized countries such as Norway, yet acceptable under the principle of common but differentiated responsibility (CBDR).
What does business as usual mean? The palm oil industry is allowed to continue converting forest and peat at its already approved areas. The pulp and paper industry also still maintains the production of raw materials from the existing forest or land concessions, including in natural forests.
Then what does the two-year moratorium deforestation mean for the palm oil industry? To be honest the moratorium came too late. Why? There are already around 26.7 million hectares of land for oil palm plantations in 23 provinces that will be exempted from the two year moratorium.
Many environmental and social NGOs are skeptical with the moratorium commitment. Many question on whether the government can achieve the noble objective of the partnership. The palm oil industry is facing abundant dilemmas that might hamper the moratorium commitment due to an absence of a much needed system, institutions and implementing framework with strong and proper social, economic and cultural as well as environmental considerations.
First, oil palm is grown in monocultures, and often involves total clearing lands and ecosystems, which is environmentally devastating, socially irresponsible and ultimately does not bring benefits to business. A massive deforestation continues in Indonesia where about some 600,000 to 1,000,000 hectares of land are planted each year.
Second, the rapid and massive expansion of oil palm makes it hard to avoid significant impacts to the remaining ecosystems, including the endangered habitats of rare and threatened species like the orangutan, Sumatran tiger and elephant. Such deforestation also adds to global greenhouse gas emissions as, according to recent controversial reports, does the conversion of peat land and peat land forests to plantation — undermining palm oil’s claims to be carbon neutral.
Third, the country has weak and discriminatory legal frameworks that resulted in the failure to secure the rights of indigenous peoples and customary rights. The central and local governments also strongly endorse the conversion of forest into palm oil plantations to increase national and regional revenues.
Fourth, there are not less than 630 conflicts related to land issues and the resentment of communities against oil palm plantation developments 17 provinces in Indonesia (Sawit Watch, May 2010). These unresolved conflicts will get worse as policies deprive further local communities and indigenous people of their land and livelihoods.
If Indonesia wants to continue to maintain palm oil for food and biodiesel production, the government must ensure that its future development incorporates environmentally friendly measures and sufficiently takes into account respect for ratified international laws and customary rights and adherence to the principles of free, prior and informed consent (FPIC). Wherever possible, the government must aim to minimize violence, and avoid its use in dealing with local communities and indigenous peoples around the plantations.
The moratorium must be extended to zero conversion of primary forests and other high conservation value ecosystems within the existing concessions. The government also must ensure the effective monitoring of the slash and burning policy, evaluate and revoke the certificates for oil palm in disputed areas with local communities.
With greater support of the affected local communities and indigenous peoples, the moratorium will be much more effective. Therefore, the moratorium must without any delay set up effective and meaningful conflict resolution mechanisms with immediate and affirmative measures, institutionalized actions and resources available in place in addressing conflicts over ongoing impact and unresolved land claims.
When plantation companies and mills committed illegal practices and irresponsible operations, the government must be firm in upholding the rules of the laws.
Within the moratorium operational framework, socially responsible palm oil producers must avoid forced and child labor, illegal and discriminatory practices, or gender-sensitive issues of violation, discrimination and harassment.
The writer is the head of the Department, Social and Environmental Risk Mitigation, Sawit Watch, a watchdog and NGO that is concerned with the ongoing adverse social and environmental impacts of the massive oil palm plantations in the country.