The Jakarta Post
While the entire island of Sumatra is covered over with smoke, the government's opposition to a voluntary commitment of some palm oil companies to zero deforestation is profoundly out of place.
Sumatra's burning wasteland gives the impression that the government is incapable of managing the forestry and land use sector sustainably. Yet the good intentions and voluntary actions from the private sector are not welcomed. It is as if the government wants to continue to support forest degradation.
In the past few weeks, opposition to the zero deforestation commitment has been markedly open in the media. The opposition has tried to denigrate the commitment as a kind of 'cartel', or an 'imposition of foreign interests' that seeks to 'sell out Indonesia's sovereignty'.
In its most extreme form, opposition claims that such a commitment from the private sector is 'unconstitutional' and represents some kind of 'government takeover'.
The Environment and Forestry Ministry has been at the forefront of these attacks, even as Sumatra burns to the ground.
The zero deforestation pledge ' part of the so-called Indonesia Palm Oil Pledge (IPOP) announced in September 2014 at the UN General Assembly ' surprised many.
After the expansion of palm oil plantations was targeted as one of the main factors instigating the destruction of Indonesia's forests, the five largest palm oil companies, possibly representing 60 percent of palm oil production and 80 percent of palm oil exports, responded boldly by voluntarily increasing their sustainability standards.
There are two remarkable characteristics of the current IPOP. First, it is indigenous to Indonesia, and second, it was developed by the private sector in the absence of government regulation.
The critics apparently missed those points. First, the IPOP was accused of submitting to pressure from foreign companies. Yet it is a voluntary commitment that is above and beyond market expectations.
Our palm oil industry used to be criticized, sometimes boycotted, by overseas buyers.
To unlock critical markets, the industry must respond directly to the sustainability challenge.
One way for private companies to respond is through employing sustainability standards. The Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), a standard developed through a multi-stakeholder process, was considered a breakthrough.
A domestically-created standard was seen as more tenable to the government's Indonesian Sustainable Palm Oil (ISPO).
Largely a certification for legal compliance, ISPO was immediately embraced by the industry. Yet until today only a few companies in Indonesia are ISPO-certified. All signatories of IPOP are also signatories of ISPO.
The Consumer Goods Forum and the Tropical Forests Alliance 2020 lobbied for a better standard. Fortunately, they gained political support from the highest levels; then president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono opened their first conference in Jakarta in July 2013.
Indeed, pressure from the palm oil market has been real. But instead of only responding to (overseas) market pressure, IPOP went further than that.
The critics also say the industry still needs to be expanded and that a zero deforestation commitment may hinder such an expansion.
This is simplistic and unfounded. First, with better landscape and industrial management, the plantations can deliver annual palm oil growth to 40 million tons by 2020 without expanding existing plantations, as shown by a World Bank study.
Second, the IPOP standard is purely and entirely voluntary, and only applies to its signatories. Producers covering the remaining 40 percent, and exporters covering the other 20 percent, are not bound to this commitment.
Zero deforestation critics also miss the point in accusations that the private sector is taking over the government's role. When a company voluntarily decides to pay its labor more than the minimum wage, does that mean that it has taken over the government's role?
When a company voluntarily decides to provide better services at a lower-price, or offer up better products than the government standard, is that intruding upon the role of government?
Again, zero deforestation is an internal voluntary commitment by a few companies to stop deforestation in their supply chain. It has no pretense of imposing it upon an entire industry.
It plans to provide facilities for its (independent) smallholder suppliers to increase their capacity, efficiency, and productivity.
So, can the palm oil industry, especially signatories of the zero deforestation pledge, support sustainability and sustainable development? Yes, it can.
Granted, there are many other things that the palm oil industry needs to do to improve. But a good first step toward sustainability should have been welcomed and supported.
The government should work with the private sector and the community to close any regulatory gaps and eventually improve them.
Indonesia has registered the quickest decline of forests in the world. In 2012-2013, Indonesia lost 0.73 hectares (according to the Ministry of Forestry) or 0.84 hectares (according to BA Margono and other researchers in Nature Climate Change) and released about 143 million tons of carbon dioxide emissions in this process.
More than 77 percent of Indonesians live in and around forests and rely on forestry ecosystems. Increasing their prosperity should include protecting ecosystem services. There is no need for more expansion of land to fulfill the production target of 40 million tons of crude palm oil by 2020. Indonesia only needs to increase its efficiency.
Prices of Indonesia's export commodities ' especially oil, coal, and palm oil ' are remarkably low. Indonesia must innovate.
First, by showing the world that its industries are sustainable and second, by relying less on primary commodities and more on high value-added secondary products, including palm oil products.
Sumatra's forest fires show that only a private-sector planning process can provide a solution. Relying on the government for solutions is a lost cause. Let's start collaborating and find real and permanent solutions.
The writer is an observer of environmental and sustainability issues. He was formerly deputy chair of the REDD+ (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation) Management Agency.
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