Govt shuns plans to convert more forests

Govt shuns plans to convert more forests

5 February 2009

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Indonesia — The State Ministry for the Environment has instructed local administrations to cancel any plans to convert natural forest areas into commercial sites, claiming floods and landslides could worsen if clearing activities continue. Last week, the Forestry Ministry said it had received an unprecedented number of requests from local administrations for permits to convert remaining forest areas into plantations and other profitable commercial projects.

Soenaryo, an expert from the Forestry Ministry, said his office had been investigating the potential consequences of approving these proposals, and the results were alarming.

The environment ministry said Tuesday local administrations should be focusing on conserving their forest areas if they wanted to protect their people in the long term.

“It is time for local administrations to think in the long term rather than simply focus on the economic benefits of the short term, because the threat of natural disasters will most likely increase with climate change in the future,” said Masnellyarti Hilman, deputy director for nature conservation enhancement and environment degradation control at the environment ministry.  She promised financial incentives for those regencies which agreed to protect their forests.

“We will provide Rp 100 million to each regency that plants `productive’ trees in buffer zones between forests and industrial sites,” she said.

Masnellyarti said poorly protected forest areas, mainly located along rivers nationwide, had caused severe flooding in areas such as Sumatra and Central Java recently.

The ministry recorded at least 23 major floods and six consequent deaths in January alone. The overflow of Deli river in Medan, North Sumatra, inundating the city for several days in an extreme case.

Elsewhere, the Bengawan Solo river has created chaos in several towns across Central and East Java, submerging the provinces in meters of water for the past week.

Masnellyarti said forest areas around this river had continued to dwindle significantly in the past 8 years, from 9.43 percent in 2000 to only 2.42 percent in 2008.

“On the other hand, residential areas along riverbanks have increased sharply, hitting 68 percent of total land area last year compared to 47 percent in 2000,” she said.

While a mass effort to plant trees along the banks of major rivers would provide some relief, it will not come overnight. “Planting efforts will take about five years to have an effect. That is why protecting the existing forests is the best way to reduce natural disasters and tackle the serious threat of water scarcity in regions,” added Masnellyarti.

Soenaryo said the provinces seeking forest conversions include Central Kalimantan, Riau, Sumatra and Papua. They demanded the revision of spatial planning so they could transform forest areas into economic zones. Several local authorities have already approved the conversion of forests into plantations and agricultural areas in some regions without revising their spatial planning laws, Soenaryo added.

Data from the environment ministry shows there are 11 districts in Central Kalimantan prone to landslides and floods.  A study by Indonesia Forest Watch shows that Central Kalimantan saw the fastest rate of conversion of forests into palm oil plantations out of any province in Indonesia. According to data, the rate at which forest areas were being converted into industrial and commercial sites had increased from 1,163 hectares per year in 1991 to 461,992 hectares in 2007.

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