The Jakarta Post
Not many knew the inner thoughts of President Joko 'Jokowi' Widodo when he decided to merge the ministries of environment and forestry, but it strikes a measure of hope as well as caution. The hope is that the environmental perspective will be the beacon to stall and reverse deforestation and forest degradation.
On the cautious side, there is concern that environmental management could be subordinated to the pattern of production for profit that has long guided forestry ministries in the past. There is also the huge challenge to make the new ministry work in terms of bureaucratic effectiveness.
The optimistic view is that things will be different under our new President. Jokowi is very different from our past presidents.
There is the expectation that the passionate popular support that swept Jokowi into the presidency will also empower the government to engage sweeping reforms.
Forests are significant not only as a natural resource. To be sure, it is an important determinant in the struggle to keep carbon emissions and, hence, climate deterioration under control.
But, more than that, there are strong links between the natural environment and sustainable development.
This in turn sets the stage for a drive toward an equitable economy. We need to appreciate this more and more. Environmental and climate change issues must be addressed in the same breath as equitable economic growth.
This will increase the ability of the Jokowi government to provide and improve public services.
Longing for a people-based economy motivated voters to elect Jokowi. A green economy will result in improved human well-being and social equity, while significantly reducing environmental risks and ecological scarcities. It should be low carbon, resource efficient and socially inclusive.
Sustainably managed forests play an essential role in the carbon cycle and provide essential environmental and social values and services beyond their contribution of forest products.
They ensure biodiversity conservation, erosion protection, watershed protection and rural employment. They have a key role to play in the transition toward a more sustainable economy.
Indigenous communities have had a symbiotic relationship with our forests for generations. They contribute little to carbon emissions and they are sensitive to the impact of climate change.
In past decades indigenous peoples, whose livelihoods depend on their land, were marginalized from decision-making.
Aggressive corporations aided by antisocial government policies have pushed communities to climate sensitive, resource-poor areas.
Indigenous lands are at risk and many indigenous peoples already feel the impact of climate change. They are deprived of usable land and insecure in their resources.
Cynical governance shows no respect for indigenous institutions and customary law.
Ineffective information access keeps incomes low. Insensitive decision-making processes do not draw on their accumulated knowledge to mitigate and adapt to climate challenges.
The potential for indigenous peoples to be involved in sustainable forest management is substantial. Generations of experience have stored skills for adapting to climatic and ecosystem changes.
As they are linked to their natural habitat, they accumulate long-term observations, which translate into knowledge and practice. These include methods of fire and water management, forestry and agriculture techniques and shoreline management.
Forest fires on major Indonesian islands have taken the pressures on communities to a new level.
Eyewitnesses from Riau observe that the year is no longer 12 months long, but only nine months ' as three months of time stands still as smoke and haze makes normal activities impossible.
In areas where peat becomes a depository for continued burning, people not only inhale smoke but also particles strewn around by fire.
Health hazards include respiratory ailments and concerns about harm to the normal growth of babies and children. Economic productivity is damaged at the local level and airports are forced to stop their activities.
Riau accounts for about 30 percent of forest fires in Indonesia. The crisis has been on a constant annual basis for 17 years.
While outsiders will easily recognize the forest fires as a disaster, younger people have been tragically forced to accept them as a reality for their generation.
Abdul Manan, a native of Riau, is endorsing a petition on change.org and has written a note to President Jokowi. He writes: 'In my village we truly live in smoke and haze. We have had six months of thick smoke this year. Oil palm companies can and do evacuate. But where can we, the local community, go? This is our home.'
He ends on a plaintive note: 'Pak Jokowi, have you ever seen peat land on fire and smoke everywhere? Official figures cite 24,000 hectares of forests on fire and 58,000 human lives suffering from pneumonia, asthma, eye irritation and skin disease.'
Abdul Manan's letter is part of the petition being circulated to appeal for President Jokowi to visit soon.
There's an opportunity behind the challenge. As the new President is selecting priorities, a visit to Riau is a strong contender for the top of the list.
It will send the Jokowi presidency on a flying start and assure people around Indonesia and, indeed, around the world that he is living up to campaign expectations. An on-site observation visit transcends all political and administrative
The merger of the ministries for environment and forestry is an important administrative challenge. But the need for an immediate visit to the damaged forest land of Riau is crucial under any administrative setting.
It is no exaggeration to state that urgent action on Indonesia's remaining forest lands is demanded for the very survival of the forests, their key role in mitigating climate change and in reviving the essence of Indonesia's humanity.
Eyewitnesses from Riau observe that the year is no longer 12 months long, but only nine months.
The writer was a spokesman for the late Abdurrahman 'Gus Dur' Wahid, president of Indonesia from 1999 until 2001.
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