In September last year, Indonesian President Jokowi imposed a moratorium on new oil-palm plantations — a key driver of forest destruction in that mega-biodiversity nation.
Though only partially effective, Jokowi’s initiative was applauded by conservationists and scientists worldwide.
But now, barely six months later, Jokowi is threatening to renege on his much-praised moratorium. Why?
Jokowi’s threat is flat-out scary, given the alarming rate of forest loss in Indonesia and the key role that oil palm plays in deforestation.
From 2001 to 2017, Indonesia lost 24.4 million hectares of forest cover — an area larger than the United Kingdom — making it one of the worst forest-destroyers and greenhouse-gas emitters on Earth.
Borneo, in particular, is the epicenter of oil palm production. Since 2005 oil palm expansion has surpassed logging as the leading cause of Borneo deforestation.
Such rampant forest loss greatly imperils the enormous biodiversity and intensely high concentrations of endangered species in Indonesia.
So why is Jokowi so upset?
The E.U.’s rather bungled experimentation with biofuels started in 2003, in an attempt to reduce their use of fossil fuels and greenhouse-gas emissions. They quickly became the biggest consumer of biofuels in the world.
But the Orangutan in the room is that the E.U. failed to realize just how much deforestation was caused by oil palm, both directly and indirectly (by displacing other land uses, such as rice or corn, that in turn felled yet more forest).
The E.U.’s biofuel spree was initially a bonanza for Indonesia and Malaysia, which together produce over 85 percent of the world’s palm oil. Industrial plantations and smallholders alike expanded already-massive estates into forests and carbon-rich peatlands to take advantage of the situation.
In response, alarmed environmental organizations and scientists warned that the E.U. was actually driving deforestation — producing far more greenhouse gases from forest destruction than they’d save by marginally reducing fossil-fuel use.
Hence, the E.U. now plans to phase out palm oil.
And that has made Indonesia and Malaysia very, very mad.
BLAME FOR THE E.U. TOO
As this saga unfolds, there’s plenty of blame to go around. The E.U.’s new policies are flawed because their palm oil “phase-out” does not in any way stop E.U. importers from buying palm oil from Indonesia – it only stops them from counting it toward their renewable-energy targets.
And if palm oil is certified as deforestation-free — which certain producers are able to do — then it can be freely bought by the E.U. too.
For their part, Indonesia and Malaysia have been playing hardball with the E.U. for many months, engaging in an increasingly shrill and heavy-handed lobbying effort.
It seems they are intent on deforesting, despite rhetoric to the contrary. Their tactics have shifted to promoting smaller and medium-sized producers collectively called “smallholders” — traditionally thought not to cause massive forest loss.
But smallholders now comprise over 50 percent of Indonesia’s palm oil estate, and they are one of the largest deforesters of all.
In fact, helping “smallholders” has become the catch-cry of the Nigeria-based Initiative for Public Policy Analysis, a lobbying group partly supported by climate-skeptics combating efforts to slow global warming.
Malaysia is now spending big money to get the Nigeria group to lobby the E.U. on its behalf. And if ever there was an industry-supported wolf hiding in sheep’s clothing, the Nigeria group is it.
On top of all this, President Jokowi faces a national election just days away, on April 17 — a fight for his political life. To survive he’s tried to appease the powerful palm-oil industry.
Almost overnight, he’s transformed from an environmental good-guy — someone who’s battled destructive wild fires and haze, tried to slow palm oil expansion, and promoted several other eco-smart measures — into a nationalistic mouthpiece for the oil palm industry.
He’s even threatening to give the E.U. the middle finger, instead selling Indonesia’s palm oil to China and India — massive consumers that are happy to buy palm oil regardless of its source or impact on forest destruction — so long as it’s as cheap as possible.
In a true pique of recklessness, Indonesia is even threatening to pull out of the Paris climate accords.
Let’s hope this ‘Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde’ transformation of President Jokowi is temporary — a kind of ephemeral election madness that overtakes many politicians in the heat of battle.
If not, then the world will have a lot to worry about.
President Jokowi’s oil-palm moratorium is far from perfect, with breaches of the current moratorium being reported almost daily.
But for all its faults, the moratorium has indeed slowed the rate of forest loss. It includes not just a freeze on new licences, but also a planned review of oil-palm licencing which, if actually implemented, would catch big and small illegal deforesters alike.
And for all its weaknesses, the E.U. ‘phase-out’ is a step in the right direction so long as it doesn’t open the door to other biofuel crops such as soy — much of which also comes from destroying forests.
So, let’s see whether President Jokowi gets re-elected on April 17. And if he does, let’s hope he leaves his moratorium in place.
And let’s watch Indonesia, Malaysia, and Europe closely — to see whether they pursue sustainable-development policies generally. Or effectively become forest-destroying puppets of their powerful agriculture lobbies.