The Jakarta Post
On Nov. 27, in the Riau Islands province, President Joko 'Jokowi' Widodo studied the dried peatland and man-made canals that locals were building to prevent the further drainage of precious water in the peat. He held impromptu talks with victims of peat-based forest fires. The President made some announcements off the cuff. Obviously he had thought about the issues for some time.
President Jokowi said plantation permits had to be reviewed if they were indeed destroying the ecosystem; they would have to be terminated. 'We must not allow our tropical rainforests to disappear because of monoculture plantations like oil palm,' he said.
In his remarks in Sungai Tohor, the President described the community-built canal dams as very good and that they must be made permanent. He further said it was best for peatland to be given to the community to be managed for sago.
Community management was usually environmentally friendly, while companies tended to turn forests into monocultures such as acacia and oil palm, Jokowi said. 'Canal blocking will keep peatland areas wet and prevent fires. It is important to keep the canal blocking permanently as in the idea which has been raised the public.'
Meanwhile, Riau University Disaster Studies Center director Haris Gunawan said forest-fire prevention through peatland conservation in Riau was part of an effort to resolve the prolonged haze issue.
There are four policy points that Jokowi highlighted after the Sungai Tohor visit: enforcement of the law related to the Compliance Audit findings on 17 corporate transgressors in the peatland of Riau, total protection of the peatland, strengthening and extension of the moratorium on permits, accelerate implementation of the one map policy that will force a consensus on territorial issues.
In a meeting before the site visit, President Jokowi responded to lengthy technical presentations with characteristic clarity. 'We all know the problem.
Everybody knows the problem. Experts, government, law enforcers, corporations know the problem. It all boils down to one question: Do we have the will? Are we serious? I am. I am very serious. 'Forest fires have been ravaging Riau province for 17 years. That, Jokowi says, means deliberate neglect.
The U-turn came swiftly. The president went to Sungai Tohor on Nov. 27. Less than a month before on Oct. 28, a group of citizens issued a petition inviting Jokowi to visit victims of peatland fires there. The State Secretariat and the Environment and Forestry Ministry were approached with an invitation to President Jokowi to visit an area besieged by fire and haze, representing the crisis all over Indonesian forests.
The invitation came with a plan and latest data. The minister brought the message to the President immediately.
Jokowi confirmed he had received reports from all quarters, including the Indonesian Military (TNI), the National Police, relevant ministries and regional administrations as well as conservation institutions, which said that all were familiar with the issue.
Hence there was no hesitation in the President's crack down on the rampant deforestation and peatland destruction that has made the nation the world's third-largest emitter of climate-warming carbon dioxide. The measures against the draining and burning of peatland will mitigate forest fires that have gone unabated for 17 years, pumping smoke across the entire region.
Make no mistake. There is no objection to palm-oil products. And we all appreciate the value of palm oil to our exports, but there are serious objection to the wanton destruction of forests and peatland for corporate profits.
Sustainable palm oil practices will later lead to a collision course between the industry and the environment.
Indonesia suffers more deforestation than any other country, including Congo and Brazil. Most of the deforestation in Indonesia was illegal, since the days of illegal logging and now with most being used for palm oil and pulp.
A drastic step such as this will invite opposition and nitpicking. People say bad people have strong backing from local law enforcers and government officials. Fear not, says Jokowi. Good people have the backing of the President.
The impromptu visit of President Jokowi jumpstarts sorely needed reforms in the forestry sector.
But more than that, it made the communities in Sungai Tohor feel good with fresh hope for the future.
Here at last is a president who cares; a president who translates words into action. The proof of the promise is here, if we let ourselves look without cynicism.
The writer was a spokesman for the late president Abdurrahman 'Gus Dur' Wahid .
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