JAKARTA Indonesian President Joko Widodo has approved a two-year extension to a moratorium on issuing new licenses to use land designated as primary forest and peatland, the environment and forestry minister said on Wednesday.
This is the third extension of the moratorium, which was established in 2011 under the previous administration of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, in an effort to reduce emissions from fires caused by deforestation.
The previous extension expired on May 20 and the latest rollover would give authorities more time to pin down regulations on forest use, environment and forestry minister Siti Nurbaya Bakar said in a text message.
"While we are gathering enough material to decide on licensing and primary forest and peatland governance, the presidential instruction is extended for now," Bakar told Reuters.
By November 2016, the government's forest moratorium covered an area of more than 66 million hectares (163 million acres).
Indonesia is prone to outbreaks of forest fires during dry seasons, often blamed on the draining of peatland forests and land clearance for agriculture.
The resulting choking smoke often blows across to neighboring countries such as Singapore and Malaysia, slashing visibility and causing a health hazard.
There were massive forest fires in 2015, affecting mainly the island of Sumatra and Kalimantan, the Indonesian portion of Borneo island. The World Bank estimated that 2.6 million hectares of land in Indonesia was destroyed at that time, causing $16 billion of damage.
Indonesia is the world's biggest palm oil producer and environmentalists blame much of the forest destruction on land clearance for the crop.
An executive at the Indonesian Palm Oil Association (GAPKI) said he hoped the government would provide more certainty for plantation industries such as palm oil.
"After completing all these (policies), the government has to have a masterplan for national palm oil," Eddy Martono of GAPKI said. "The reality now is Indonesian palm oil has become an economic backbone."
(Reporting by Bernadette Christina Munthe; Writing by Fransiska Nangoy; Editing by Michael Perry)