04/30/2014 03:08 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Breaking the Law in Indonesia to Save Forests

The future for Indonesia's forests look so bleak, that the day is here, when I beg plantation owners to simply save a bit of forests under their control. Yes, it might be distasteful but considering recent events in Indonesia, it might be the only hope to save any forests.


The announcement of spatial plans for the Indonesian province of West Kalimantan gives a good idea of the environmental destruction that could follow if this plan goes ahead. You will need to use web translations to understand this article which is in Indonesian but briefly, it mentions that "60 percent of West Kalimantan is still forested BUT a whopping 91 percent of the land area appears to have been approved for plantations and mining."

Similar plans are in the works for other areas in Indonesia including the Aceh Spatial Plan which wants to open up the last region on earth where orangutans, tigers, rhinoceros, and elephants are found. There is apparently gold to be found in the area which has foreign miners like Prosperity Mines of Australia and East Asia Minerals of Canada licking their chops.

The odds of stopping any of this is slim. Where forests are protected, there are rampant cases of encroachment even by government officials. Conservation groups in Aceh were especially critical of this case where officials were found guilty of operating plantations inside the Gunung Leuser National Park and received a ridiculous three-month probation as their sentence.

What will fail Indonesia's forests are the same two grim brothers that we see all over the world: politics and profit-driven corporations.

In Indonesia's case, one could throw in lousy mapping as well. Anyone who's interested in orangutans should really read these two reports by Mongabay to understand why orangutan orphans continue to flood rescue centres.

In the first report on West Kalimantan in Indonesia, only 30 percent of the land area has not been licensed to plantations or mines. That is equivalent to about 4.4 million hectares on which the population of West Kalimantan at 4.3 million people, is supposed to live off. Sounds like a decent figure until you realize that of the 4.4 million hectares left for people, 3.7 million hectares of that is "protected forest" meaning no licenses for development should be issued for it. Meanwhile, the local government plans to open up an extra 1.5 million hectares of palm oil plantations.

Confused at where all this land is going to come from?

Most likely the "protected forests" of 3.7 million hectares which in Indonesian seems to imply more "protecting it for my buddy to come buy it" rather than protecting it for conservation's sake.

The second report rams home the fact that the messed up official plans for land use in Indonesia is not exclusive to one province or select corrupt officials but is an overall problem.

NOW, HOLD ON A MINUTE! Before you stop reading this doom and gloom piece. There is HOPE.

Thanks to the relentless pressure applied by activist groups like Greenpeace, companies are bowing to pressure and promising to factor in conservation in their work plans. That linked announcement to Asia Pulp and Paper's commitment to protect one million hectares of forests in Indonesia for conservation is a major show stopper. One million hectares, its worth repeating.

Imagine if other companies that have pledged to no deforestation policies stepped up and delivered the same type of home runs for conservation! The world's biggest producer of palm oil, Wilmar Group has pledged to no deforestation as well and while I have not seen firm action on their part, there have been interesting rumors that they will be developing conservation plans within their plantations as well.

What will test the conservation ambitions of both Asia Pulp and Paper and Wilmar Group, is the Land Use Policy from the Indonesian government. To cut it short, the policy simply states that any company that has approval or license to explore areas for development, must develop it within three years or risk losing their rights to that particular land.

Golden Agri Resources, a palm oil producer which was heavily criticized for the freewheeling clear-cutting ways prior to their pledge to "no deforestation" is facing this exact conundrum. Their pilot project for implementing their new policy is in this plantation in Borneo. The heart of the plantation was clear-cut but following their new commitment, a whole series of new studies were conducted in the area and the final plans for conservation are what you see in their statement.

All that work that went into assessing every patch of forest and brush in this plantation could become a complete waste of time if the Indonesian government denies them the right to leave those forests alone. This in-depth report from Forest Peoples Programme on the same Golden Agri plantation identifies the problem in saying that: "Very large areas set aside for HCV( High Conservation Value ) and HCS( High Carbon Stock ) also put the company in violation of laws prohibiting companies from holding onto idle lands."

Similarly, Cargill, which is the biggest importer of palm oil to North America added this disclaimer to their statement on no deforestation policies: "To implement these policies, we will need buy-in from multiple stakeholders: communities to value and protect High Carbon Stock (HCS) land, governments to implement policies to enable HCS forest conservation and industry players to adopt similar policies."

Key in this statement should be the "government policies" which will not be coming any time soon as the position of the different levels of the Indonesian government seems to be that, if we give you land to plant stuff, plant stuff.

Which brings us to a certification requirement from the Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) where its criteria state that its members must be "in compliance with all local and national laws( Criterion 2.1)"

In the case of Indonesian policies, plantations would have to remove forests in order to comply with local laws!

Hardi Baktianoro from the Centre for Orangutan Protection puts it best to palm oil plantations; what you do may be legal but it's not moral.

In a perfect world, (you have to check out this slick marketing video put out by an Indonesian palm oil company) palm oil plantations would be created where responsible companies could set aside all the forested areas they wanted for conservation. Local communities would be allowed to keep their farm lands and forests on top of that and environmental groups worldwide would applaud the vast landscape of multi-stakeholder conservation in Indonesia.

The current Indonesian regulations and land use policies however, prevent that perfect dream from becoming reality. Until sensible laws are put into place to govern Indonesia's land use policies, I would urge companies like Asia Pulp and Paper and all members of the RSPO to break the law if they have to and save forests in Indonesia.