How Is Indonesian President Jokowi Doing on Environmental Issues?

In 2014, Joko Widodo became Indonesia’s first head of state to emerge from neither the political elite nor the military. The election of the former furniture salesman to the nation’s highest office represented a break from its authoritarian past, and Jokowi, as he is known, was expected to enact major reforms. He promised to eradicate corruption, overhaul the bureaucracy, upgrade the infrastructure, facilitate investment, boost economic growth, lead a “mental revolution” and resolve past human rights violations. And more.

Last year, it was the environment that served up what will perhaps be remembered as the defining challenge of Jokowi’s presidency. The devastating forest and peatland fires of 2015 burned an area the size of Macedonia, sickened half a million people, pumped an incredible amount of carbon into the atmosphere and, according to the World Bank, cost the country $16 billion. The underlying cause: the draining and drying of Indonesia’s vast peat swamp zones for agricultural production, which has occurred since colonial times but ramped up in recent decades with the spread of palm oil and timber plantations.

Indonesian palm oils environmental impact

Jokowi responded to the disaster with some of his most drastic measures. He declared a moratorium on peatland conversion, and then banned new palm oil permits, despite protests from the powerful forestry lobby. He formed a dedicated agency to restore damaged peatlands, a Herculean task given the competing and often renegade vested interests at play almost everywhere you look in Indonesia. He moved to prosecute companies for causing the fires, waging high-profile lawsuits to extract compensation from allegedly errant firms. Whether Jokowi can succeed where every one of his modern-day predecessors has failed remains to be seen. But last October at the height of the crisis, with the air above Palangkaraya city a noxious yellow, he offered a yardstick with which to measure his efforts. “You will see results soon and in three years we will have solved this,” Jokowi told the BBC. One must admire his optimism.

It wasn’t only the fires that Jokowi pledged to address on the environment. He vowed to turn Indonesia into a maritime power. He promised to improve the lots of farmers and indigenous peoples. He committed to lead Indonesia into a new era of clean energy, with a plan that calls for less petroleum, but more coal and biofuels - much of which is produced by the same palm oil industry whose breakneck expansion has driven the annual haze. Jokowi has had to walk some fine lines and will have to tread many more. Mongabay continues to monitor his progress.

Palm oil’s environmental impact
In the wake of last year’s haze crisis, Jokowi took advantage of his mandate to rein in the palm oil sector by declaring a freeze on new plantation permits. His administration subsequently rejected proposals from 61 companies to grow oil palm in the forest zone, sparing an area almost as big as Puerto Rico from conversion. The forestry ministry is now reviewing existing licenses, and officials say more permits could be revoked.

Senior administration officials continued to disparage the Indonesia Palm Oil Pledge (IPOP), a pact between several of the largest palm oil companies to purge their supply chains of deforestation, peatland conversion and human rights abuses, as an affront to Indonesian sovereignty and an attack on small farmers. The government’s anti-monopoly agency said it would investigate suspected cartel practices by IPOP signatories. Meanwhile, the agriculture ministry tried to foil an attempt by the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) to improve transparency in the industry by forbidding growers from sharing their own concession maps. Administration officials appeared to be divided in their view of these external mechanisms, with some speaking out in favor of them, and others against.

To assert greater control over the sector, Indonesia and Malaysia formed the Council of Palm Oil Producing Countries, which will introduce its own sustainability guidelines and try to control prices. Indonesia endeavored to raise the production of existing plantations through the introduction of better seeds and plantation techniques, especially among smallholders.


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