The quilt of uncertainty; Indonesia’s land planning…

Since I started working in Borneo, I’ve become more and more interested in the land management laws and land use in Indonesia. I recently got the chance to write about some recent , important developments concerning Indonesia’s forests at work – read on for a post which touches the frayed corner of the massive quilt of uncertainty that is Indonesia’s current land planning situation…

“Possibly THE big story recently in terms of Indonesia and deforestation/palm oil/all other ingredients mixed in that hot pot of forest decreasing , has been that last week, Indonesia’s President, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, extended the moratorium on new forest concessions for a further two years. The extension is good news, despite some flaws in the agreement and the fact that President did not strengthen the regulations within the moratorium.

The two-year extension came about via a US$1 billion Indonesia-Norway REDD deal, over a total area of over 65 million hectares. The moratorium (in theory at least) now with the extension protects an additional 14.5 million hectares of forest for 

another two years.

During these negotiations, national laws and environmental guidelines obviously govern agreements, including mandates to protect the Leuser Ecosystem. 

Much of this extension relates to the very recent developments in Aceh. There has been a huge media and online public outrage and outreach about the Aceh area and their Government. The Chairman of the Aceh Parliament’s spatial planning committee, Mr Anwar, announced a proposed plan earlier this year, which would reduce the total forest cover of Aceh from 68% to 45%, destroying more than 1.2 million hectares, including the entire area known as Tripa, and other currently protected areas inside of the Leuser Ecosystem. This ecosystem is a National Strategic Area for its Environmental Protection Function that is protected by National Spatial Planning Law and Government Regulation. 

This US$1 billion was given to support Indonesia in addressing issues of rapid deforestation and peatland degradation. Apparently, an area equivalent to 300 soccer fields is cleared every hour. The UN Environmental Programme predicts that 98% of Indonesia’s forest area could be destroyed by 2022. For a more detailed report of the extension, see here.

The social outcry has been extensive with the now well known AVAAZ petition receiving over 1 million votes. Multiple petitions were made (some now with over 30,000 votes), along with the proposal receiving much social media and blogging attention (see here). Rudi Putra, the Indonesian conservation manager explains in the petition’s appeal that Aceh has one of the highest levels of biodiversity in the Asia Pacific region and includes a UNESCO World Heritage site.

The forest of Sabangau in the distance compared to
the habitat left (foreground) after a massive fire,
which cleared the area around 50 years ago.
Sedge swamp remains…

This week there have more developments. It is interesting to note that in the past ten days, Indonesia’s top REDD+ official confirmed there is not a plan to open a total of 1.2 million hectares of protected forest in Sumatra’s Aceh Province. The team from REDD+ have looked at the hectares , and reported that the area that would have been protected under Governor Irwandi’s proposed plan amounted to 2.75 million hectares (855,000 hectares), but last year Governor Zaini proposed a new spatial plan that would reduce Aceh’s protected forest area to 1.79 million hectares, or just over 100,000 hectares.

In a statement released last Sunday (19th), Kuntoro Mangkusubroto, head of the REDD+ Task Force and the President’s Delivery Unit for Development, Monitoring & Oversight (UKP-PPP), said that the 1.2 million hectare figure comes from the difference between a plan proposed, but never implemented, by former governor Yusuf Irwandi and the new spatial plan drafted by current governor, Zaini Abdullah. See the full interview here

Soon to be released is a UNDP forestry governance report about Indonesia, which rates Aceh as the most poorly managed in terms of protection, regulation, planning and participation of REDD+.

The important, environmental point is that Aceh has a LOT of forest cover left, in fact the most extensive forest cover left in Sumatra. Much has deforested for pulp and paper plantations, oil palm estates, and agriculture since 1990, the total amounting to a loss of 36% of its total forest cover pre-1990. The new spatial plan (even if not extending deforestation by the full 1.2million hectares) would increase the risk of environmental degradation and exploitation. It would open large areas of land to mining and granting concessions. Road construction could easily cut through areas of continuous forest, turning them into smaller, isolated patches. This would increase the edge effects within the habitat and increase the potential (and ease!) of further deforestation.

Total forest covered by oil palm plantations in Indonesia and Malaysia.
Figure from report here. Figure made by Mongabay.

This habitat is becoming increasingly compromised due to inconsistencies in the spatial mapping of plans for currently forested areas. There was a decentralization into local governments in the late ’90s which have since been producing their own maps. Despite the National Government having the final say, many maps and people obviously complicates things. There are now over 40 years of divergent maps to assimilate.


It seems the Aceh Government are under the impression they have a certain amount of autonomy, giving them increased authority bending national forest protection laws. As ever, groups talking about such large scale and important topics have to take things one-careful-step at a time. This is especially true within Indonesian culture, meaning disagreeing parties avoid confronting problems head on, sometimes slowing resolutions, and very much the case as the National Government is talks to Aceh. 

It is suggested that, ideally, “all government agencies [should] essentially work from the same baseline data.” says Graham Usher, Landscape Protection Specialist from the Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Project. “[Progress must be made,] particularly with the public perception that maps are public documents and should be transparent.”

Suggestions come for a progressive future and continued forest protection from the World Resources Institute

  1. Greenhouse Gas Emissions must be evaluated during times when permits are drafted and agreed upon. This mainly doesn’t occur at the moment due to the authorities issuing permits for forest use whilst not having the tools to evaluate the likely greenhouse gas emissions.
  2. Production and sharing of technical guidance at the local level. There is a lot of evidence to support a lack of understanding and knowledge within local communities of the key land types and size of areas involved. Ensuring a basic level of understanding at the district level is a imperative next step to increase agreements’ actually working and guidelines being followed.
  3. It is vital that all people working within relevant working groups encourage and apply better monitoring and enforcement. Equally it needs to be widely known who is responsible for both the monitoring and the enforcement.

It is obvious that the story is far from over and that many plans are yet to have environmentally friendly guidelines. The moratorium, helping regulations over the next two years, is a very positive stepping stone. We will have to wait and see how much it increases the quality of forest management and reduces associated emissions.” 

Thea Powell for OuTrop

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