More Than Haze to Contend With When the Earth Burns

More Than Haze to Contend With When the Earth Burns

13 April 2014

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Indonesia — Leading up to Earth Day on April 22, the Riau haze has become one of major the environmental topics under discussion.

In recent years, Riau has come under the international media spotlight at least once a year due to the major fires there, set to clear land for agriculture. In June last year, President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono even felt the need to publicly apologize to neighboring countries for the haze generated by the fires — while overlooking the fact that residents of Riau were the worst affected by the smoke.

The irresponsible act of slash-and-burn clearing for farmland can be attributed to the outdated thinking that the forest is considered more valuable when it is cut, and not when it remains standing, functioning as the lungs of the Earth.

In a report by Nigel Sizer from the World Resources Institute, Global Forest Watch found 3,101 hot spots in Sumatra this year. A remarkable 87 percent of the fires were in Riau, and half of them came from concessions held by pulpwood, oil palm and logging companies. Some of the largest fires were found on fully developed plantations that had committed to eliminating fire from their practices.

At a glance, Riau is one of the richest provinces in the country. It is minting money through oil and gas, mining, forestry, plantations and manufacturing. About a third of Indonesia’s oil production, as well as two of the largest pulp and paper companies, come from Riau. But the province is a microcosm of natural resource management gone awry.

The depletion of forest resources in Riau has been overwhelmingly. Forest Statistics states that Riau lost about 191,000 hectares of forests in 2009 and 2010, the most in the country. Not only is the significance of its forests decreasing, but it is also home to some of the poorest people in the country.

An understanding that there should be new, innovative ways to address deforestation already exists at the global level. The collective effort to reduce emissions is called REDD+, which stands for Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation in Developing Countries. It was coined by Costa Rica and Papua New Guinea in the context of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), and has been fully acknowledged as a climate change mitigation action at the UNFCCC conference in Bali in 2007.

REDD+ promotes positive incentives to developing countries willing and able to reduce emissions of climate change-inducing greenhouse gases from deforestation and degradation of forests. It is a whole new perspective in creating a sustainable environment for both civil society and business communities, and 129 countries are working together to get the model done. Providing values to standing forests that is higher than cut is indeed an innovative way. This way, economic incentives alone may be able to prevent forests from being cut.

“REDD+ is a new paradigm that allows people to address the issue at hand innovatively,” says Heru Prasetyo, the chairman of Indonesia’s REDD+ Management Agency.

“We are establishing a time-sensitive list of actions in the near term, which includes prevention and mitigation of forest fires,” says Willy Sabandar, the deputy chairman designate for operations at the REDD+ Management Agency.

Prevention and mitigation of fires is urgent since the worst of this year’s fires are thought to be yet to come in the dry season. Other actions include the landmark Constitutional Court ruling recognizing indigenous land rights and establishment of baseline of deforestation.

What role does Indonesia play in this matter? A pioneer, if we can really deliver on our commitments. As the home of the world’s largest forest destruction, Indonesia is a very important REDD+ country. The world produces 35 billion tons of carbon dioxide, and Indonesia is the largest contributor of land-based emissions.

In 2009, Yudhoyono announced Indonesia’s commitment to limit greenhouse gas emissions unilaterally at 26 percent under its otherwise business-as-usual scenario, or 41 percent with foreign cooperation, by 2020. This decision impressed many countries. Norway was among the first country to offer cooperation. A Letter of Intent that lays out a three-phase plan to achieve the emissions reduction target was signed in May 2010. The pledge also comes with a $1 billion performance-based payment. In the same month, a presidential regulation on a moratorium of new permits for new land use change in primary forests was issued.

The following September, the Presidential Task Force on REDD+ was established. It is mandated to carry out national strategies. The strategy is supported by five “pillars,” namely legal reform, institutional development, paradigm shift and awareness raising, stakeholder engagement, and strategic programs to implement REDD+ initiatives to directly reduce forest destruction and the resulting emissions.

To address the urgency of the Riau haze, as well as other climate-related problems, the president established REDD+ Management Agency in September last year.

“Some of the most urgent items on the agenda include legal review of permits, and enforcement of existing laws,” says Heru. The full implementation of REDD+ includes preparedness for the monitoring, reporting, and verification of emissions reductions, and preparedness for payment upon performance starting in early 2017.

To ensure that REDD+ is successful, and our forests are protected, law enforcement needs to be strengthened. But what can we do as citizens? First, we can exercise our power as consumers. We should only consume forest-friendly products. Be very aware that the production of palm oil, wood and paper may harm the forest. We must only use products from companies that submit to sustainable production practices. Only consume eco-labeled products. And for most consumer products, there are standards that show their practices. For example, there is the Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil to demonstrate sustainability practices in the palm oil industry.

In the wake of the presidential changeover later this year, it may be useful to ensure that the next president should submit to the REDD+ agenda.

Earlier this year, nearly 50,000 people in Riau had respiratory problems and flocked to nearby hospitals. We don’t need to join a rally to show our support. By being disciplined and eco-conscious consumers, we can help prevent Riau from burning again.

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