Indonesia's forests should not be sacrificed in growth drive

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 05 July, 2014, 4:01am
UPDATED : Saturday, 05 July, 2014, 5:26am

Indonesia's two presidential candidates have pledged that economic growth will be a priority should voters give them the nod in Wednesday's election. Environmentalists fear the outgoing government's policy to cut carbon emissions that are causing climate change will be disregarded in the rush to lure foreign investment, boost commodity exports and build infrastructure. A recent report showing the nation had overtaken Brazil for the world's highest rate of rainforest destruction highlights the challenge. But while higher GDP is necessary to improve the lives of the country's 240 million people, so, too, is forest protection.

The economy, clean governance, foreign relations and labour were the focus of the first three televised debates between former general Prabowo Subianto and Joko Widodo, the governor of Jakarta. Only today, in the fourth, will the environment be mentioned. With the buoyant growth of recent years moderating in the face of declining prices for the country's major commodity exports, that is understandable. The candidate most likely to win over voters is the one considered best able to deliver the 7 per cent growth needed to power southeast Asia's biggest economy forward.

Yet global efforts to bring weather and climate extremes to heel depend on Indonesia's cooperation. It is the world's third biggest emitter of greenhouse gases after the US and China, and 85 per cent comes from the degradation and loss of rainforests and peatland. The rush for pulp, paper and palm oil, coupled with illegal logging, corruption and poorly enforced policies, is also threatening species, water catchments, rainfall, soil stability and communities that depend on forests for survival.

Outgoing president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono pledged in 2009 to reduce emissions by 26 per cent by 2020. A 2011 moratorium on new logging and palm oil plantation permits was extended last year under a US$1 billion deal with Norway. No matter what growth strategy the election winner adopts, environmental policies have to be kept in place. To succeed, though, there has to be better protection for forests.