April 6, 2018 / 10:46 AM / 15 days ago

Indonesia peatland swap plan questioned over deforestation risk

JAKARTA (Reuters) - An Indonesian plan to curb the commercial use of peatlands, by swapping nearly 1 million hectares of forestry concessions on carbon-rich peat, risks simply displacing environmental destruction to other parts of the archipelago, green groups say.

A helicopter sprays water on a burning forest near Dumai in Riau province, Indonesia, April 5, 2018. Picture taken April 5, 2018. Antara Foto/Aswaddy Hamid/via REUTERS

Indonesia was blamed for one of the worst ever peat and forest fire crises that blanketed much of Southeast Asia in thick haze in 2015, and since then has sought to take back and protect vast tracts of peatlands from corporations.

But environmentalists say a new ‘land swap’ policy - which will affect an area the size of Lebanon - may undermine those efforts if relatively undamaged land is given to companies that in the past have been criticized for unsustainable practices.

An Indonesian environment ministry official said under the deal companies will be evaluated over the course of this year to assess how well they have restored damaged peatland on existing concessions before receiving new land elsewhere.

“For this land swap, we will look for empty land that is non-productive,” said Hilman Nugroho, a senior official at the environment ministry.

An alliance of 10 environmental organizations said in a joint statement this week that the government was not being open about what land would be exchanged.

“We fear that vast areas of natural forest, especially in Kalimantan, Sumatra (island), and Papua will be designated for land swaps and converted into pulpwood plantations in the name of peatland restoration,” the environmental organizations said. Kalimantan is the Indonesian portion of Borneo island.

“The policy will also threaten the livelihoods and cultures of indigenous peoples,” said the statement, which was issued by groups including the World Wildlife Fund Indonesia and Eyes on the Forest.

To estimate where potential land concessions would be given away, the alliance compared satellite imagery of forested area with known government allocations of land suitable for plantations and inactive land.

“With this analysis, we found that 971,900 hectares of potential land swap locations are on natural forest area,” said Syarul Fitra of Auriga, one of the NGOs in the alliance.

The government has not made public the locations of the new concessions that will be given as part of the swap.

An environment ministry document seen by Reuters showed companies set to receive new land include several companies linked to Singapore-based Asia Pulp and Paper (APP).

One of those companies, PT Bumi Mekar Hijau, was in 2016 found guilty by an Indonesian court of illegally setting fires on its concession land in South Sumatra. bit.ly/2IA9NYr

A spokesman for APP declined to comment. Bumi Mekar Hijau could not be reached for comment.

Indonesian President Joko Widodo approved last year a two-year extension to a moratorium on issuing new licences to use land designated as primary forest and peatland.

The country has suffered one of the highest rates of deforestation in the world - often cleared for palm oil and other plantations or pulp and paper mills.

In the last half century more than 74 million hectares of Indonesian rainforest - representing an area twice the size of Germany - have been logged, burned or degraded, according to Greenpeace.

Reporting by Kanupriya Kapoor and Fergus Jensen; Additional reporting by Tabita Diela; Editing by Ed Davies and Gopakumar Warrier

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