How to save Indonesia's life-supporting forests

How to save Indonesia's life-supporting forests

Indonesia - 01 December, 2015

Jakarta Post, 23 November 2015 - Once again, catastrophic forest and land fires in Indonesia have become a hot issue in the national and international press. Haze from Sumatra to Papua has been creating massive problems in Indonesia and in its neighbouring countries.

While billions of US dollars have been spent to mitigate the calamity, it was proven that the only effective way of curbing these disasters was natural rainfall. Rainfall has once again acted as the solution to the haze problem.

However, during other seasons of the year, rainfall creates massive problems. The consistently predictable disasters that occur during the dry and wet seasons have exhausted the Indonesian government. It is becoming more difficult for the government to develop the nation and make its people prosperous.

Pristine tropical rainforest is normally only possible to be set alight during extreme dry seasons because tropical rainforests are the wettest terrestrial ecosystem in the world. Peat forest ecosystems comprise 80 to 90 percent water. Rivers originating from forested catchment areas can maintain their stream flow during long dry seasons.

Tropical forest is known as the best soil cover for maintaining mineral soil integrity against highly kinetic tropical rain. Due to its multilayer cover, tropical forests can infiltrate rain water reaching the forest floor.

Tropical forests can stimulate water recharge processes and control soil erosion, sedimentation, landslides and flood hazards. Furthermore, forests act as homes for biodiversity, carbon stock and sequestration and for the production of commodities to support the livelihood of local people living in and around the forest. Due to its multi-ecosystem function, forests in the tropics are often referred to as “life supporting systems”.

The fire, haze and flood disasters that occur regularly in Indonesia are symptoms of poor natural resource governance, especially forest governance. The only way to curb these annual and predictable disasters is by improving forest and natural resource governance.

One might ask: Is this impossible? The answer is no as long as natural forests are seen as commodities and the forestry sector is treated in the same way as other sectors that contribute to state revenues.
It is the time to redefine the role of the Indonesian forestry sector. The forestry sector must be seen as one that contributes to national development. Often, economic contributions are simply translated into cash contributions in terms of Rupiah or US dollars, while intangible benefits that work to prevent economic and opportunity loss, public service failure and health problems resulting from environmental disasters, are often neglected.

The forestry sector should not only be judged solely by the cash contribution it makes to the state budget. The forestry sector should focus on protecting forests as an environmental safeguard or natural form of infrastructure against fire, haze, flood, landslides and other manmade disasters. While fulfilling all of these functions, forests can also support sustainable livelihoods for people living within and around the forest.

We are in a state of crisis. Time is running out and there is no more time to play games. The commitment to protecting the remaining forest ecosystems in Indonesia should be rooted in an honest and sincere spirit. It’s not just about improving the nation’s image or gaining international recognition. Saving the forest is no longer a choice. It is a necessity. We absolutely must save the country’s natural resources for the life and prosperity of current and future generations.

Three actions need to take place.

First, the Environment and Forestry Ministry needs to revise the realm of state forest areas that reflects real and actual forest cover. It is unrealistic when the ministry still claims that state forest areas cover 128.3 million hectares. In 2013, Forest Watch Indonesia reported that out of 128.3 million ha, only 82 million Ha were actually covered with forest. The ministry should focus on the remaining 82 million ha. It is unreasonable to claim that forests cover more than 70 percent of the country’s terrestrial area. First, it does not correspond to reality and second, it will expand the responsibility of the ministrybeyond its capabilities.

During fire and haze disaster, the ministry was always the only ministry held responsible for tackling the problem. The underlining causes meanwhile, are multi-faceted. To help combat this problem, the ministry should remove non-forested landscapes from state forest areas. By limiting the size of state forests to areas that still hold forest cover, the tasks and responsibilities of the ministry will be much reduced. It is hoped that with this reduction in workload, the quality of forest governance can be enhanced. The key duty of the ministry is to safeguard the remaining forested landscapes.

Second, all primary forests and peatlands presently under moratorium (Presidential Instruction No. 8/2015) should be turned into conservation areas.

Third, the ministry should transform the existing cultural system operating in the country by returning the working areas of most of its officials to the field. Foresters should be back in the forest. The focus of their work should be on restoring the degraded forest and safeguarding the remaining forests as life-supporting systems.

Edi Purwanto and Soren Moestrup


Edi Purwanto is Tropenbos International Indonesia program director and Soren Moestrup is a senior adviser at department of geosciences and natural resource management, forest, nature and biomass at the University of Copenhagen.