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Jakarta Post

Regional haze and questionable efforts to save the forests

  • Simon Pollock

    The Jakarta Post

Canberra   /   Fri, July 24, 2015   /  06:39 am

The annual burning of Indonesian rainforests is an example of the increased clouding of regional-global divides when it comes to environmental problems.

Many Southeast Asians wonder if they will have to withstand another blanket of haze as Indonesia enters its annual dry season. Signs of an impending El Niño weather pattern mean the country'€™s traditional dry period this year could extend from May to August into September.

In the past, Indonesia'€™s dry season has often coincided with extensive fires '€” many deliberately lit '€” resulting in palls of smoke that recognize no borders and threaten to foul the lungs of Indonesians and their neighbors, while exacerbating climate change concerns.

The most recent assessment by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in 2013 estimates the conversion of forests to other land uses is responsible for around 10 percent of net global carbon emissions. Indonesian forest fires are thought to be responsible for about a third of global emissions from tropical deforestation.

While the future effects of untrammeled climate change are projected to be devastating on a global scale, Indonesia'€™s leaders realize they must address this problem in the here and now to assuage regional concerns.

Two years ago, Indonesian forest fires set off the region'€™s worst pollution crisis in a decade, while sparking regional tempers.

While regional efforts continue to search for a coordinated fix to this perennial problem, the potential remains for further disruptions to the famed, polite pursuit of consensus among ASEAN states.

In March this year, Vice President Jusuf Kalla issued a broadside against other ASEAN countries'€™ complaints about the haze. '€œFor 11 months, they enjoyed nice air from Indonesia and they never thanked us,'€ Indonesian press quoted him as saying. '€œThey have suffered because of the haze for one month and they get upset.'€

It is obvious amid the vagaries of shifting politics and regional wind patterns, the haze problem must be tackled at its core, at the sites of ignition. As in many cases though, trying to find an equitable path through the sometimes uneasy balance between environmental protection and development is not easy.

Indonesia is a developing country, so any measures that alleviate local poverty and feed into trade-generated national economic growth should not be dismissed out of hand.

Developed countries, many of which have already destroyed the majority of their own virgin forests, should account for international balances of equity in calling for developing countries to avoid similar fates.

The intrusion of climate change concerns into the haze problem is actually advantageous, at least in terms of providing a catalyst for attracting international financing. During the past few years, the concept of REDD+ has emerged to promote development and environmental protection simultaneously by providing a financial value for carbon left stored in forests.

REDD first saw light in 2005 to help generate payments from outside sources to assist developing countries in Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation. The + was added in 2007 to signify safeguards that ensure a drive for REDD profits did not come with social and environmental costs.

Indonesia has naturally been a frontline country in aid donors'€™ attempts to introduce REDD+ because of its large forested areas and past, strong climate change stance '€” as the first developing country to voluntarily pledge emission reductions in 2009.

In another first, former president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono signed an agreement with Norway in 2010 to reduce forest-based gas emissions, including a moratorium on forest clearing licenses, in return for financial REDD+ support of up to US$1 billion. At the end of 2013, Yudhoyono established the independent National REDD+ Agency, known in Indonesian as BP REDD+.

Ironically, the inauguration mid-last year of Yudhoyono'€™s successor Joko '€œJokowi'€ Widodo '€” hailed as a progressive political figure '€” has been followed by a questioning of how serious Indonesia is in reducing deforestation and tackling climate change.

While President Jokowi extended the moratorium on forest clearing in May this year, his earlier decision in January to abolish BP REDD+ has raised eyebrows.

In the stated interests of streamlined bureaucratic efficiency, the functions of BP REDD+ have been subsumed into a new government department, based on the merging of the formerly separate ministries of environment and forestry.

The jury is still out on whether the restructuring of Indonesia'€™s government agencies dealing with forest management will prove to be advantageous to REDD+.

Some point out the new Ministry of Environment and Forestry will inject further environmental oversight over the management of Indonesia'€™s forests.

Others are concerned the traditionally strong power of Indonesian forestry officials will continue to overshadow decisions made in far flung provinces on whether to clear or preserve tracts of rainforest.

What is clear is that governance reform will remain a crucial issue in curtailing the destruction of Indonesian rainforests.

A University of Maryland study of satellite data last year by an Indonesian forestry employee found that 40 percent of forest clearing in Indonesia was illegal.

But gaining a true appraisal of the extent of illegal logging is always going to be problematic as these activities are clandestine.

What is less contested is that a central part of the solution must involve finding profitable ways to keep trees in the ground. While there have been few indications of new REDD+ funding offers recently, major countries may choose to make strategic announcements around the seminal Paris climate change meeting starting from November.

Whether the regional haze sets a pall over Indonesia'€™s ties with its neighbors this year or not, the imperative of preventing a warming world will continue to focus international attention on ways to help Indonesia keep its forests intact.

The author is an Australian-based climate change writer and journalist

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