20 Desember 2010

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Commitment to environment questionable

Several months after President Susilo Bambang Yudho-yono expressed the country’s commitment to cutting carbon emissions by 26 percent in Copenhagen, the Indonesian and Norwegian governments, in May 2010, signed a US$1 billion deal to reduce deforestation and forest degradation in Indonesia.
In November this year, we and another 192 signatory nations to the Convention on Biological Diversity agreed to save biodiversity.
Also in November, we joined 12 other countries in expressing commitment to protecting tigers from extinction. These commitments seem encouraging for the environment. However, many have cast doubt on our seriousness in implementing these promises.
The lack of government political will to combat rampant corruption, for example, may render environmental protection programs ineffective. After all, this is not the first time we have expressed commitment to the protection of the environment, but our environment continues to deteriorate.
In fact, our laws have mandated the establishment of protected areas, and we have, indeed, designated more than 30 percent of our forest areas as conservation and protection forests. No logging is allowed in these two forest categories.
In addition, we also have marine protected areas. Maritime Affairs and Fisheries Minister Fadel Muhammad said the government targets to protect 20 million hectares of coastal ecosystems and marine areas by 2020 (The Jakarta Post, Nov. 22, 2010). In practice, however, the government has weak political will to protect our natural resources, including our conservation areas.
Illegal logging, illegal fishing, illegal mining, smuggling and other illegal economic activities have resulted in state losses of up to $50 billion per year (The Jakarta Post, Jan. 8, 2009).
Also, for several decades, we have spent billions of rupiah on the reforestation of our degraded forests and the re-greening of our critical lands outside forest areas. During the Megawati Soekarnoputri administration, we revitalized the program into a movement. But our forests continue to be degraded.
A statistical report from the Forestry Ministry mentioned that the rate of deforestation on the seven largest islands in Indonesia in 2000-2005 was 1.09 million hectares annually.
In July this year, the WWF produced an alarming report revealing that between 1985 and 2008/2009, the natural forests of Sumatra island had decreased from 25.3 million hectares (or 58 percent of Sumatra’s land) to 12.8 million hectares (29 percent). Riau province had the biggest loss, from
6.9 million ha to 2.5 million ha. Most of Riau’s forests have been converted into plantations.
The most vulnerable forests are the lowland forests located less than 150 meters above sea level, which are easier to exploit than rugged mountainous forests. Gone is the natural forest type that had the world’s highest biodiversity, replaced largely by oil palm and acacia.
As the government plans to expand oil palm plantations, we can expect massive land clearing to continue. Their habitats are greatly destroyed, and Sumatra’s orangutans, tigers, rhinos and elephants are critically endangered.
The loss of 12.5 million ha of Sumatran forest since 1985 may have caused 7.5 gigatons of CO2 emissions, not including closely associated emissions from peatland degradation.
The Forestry Ministry estimated that every year, 1.1 gigatons of CO2 were emitted because of clearing, draining and burning of Sumatra’s peatlands between 1990 and 2002 (WWF, 2010).
Sumatra is not an exception. Many sad stories are found on other islands. Not only are our terrestrial ecosystems being destroyed but also our aquatic ecosystems. Director General of Marine Resources, Seashore and Small Islands Sudirman Saad said 70 percent of the total 75,000 square kilometers of coral reefs in Indonesia had been damaged.
He attributed the destruction to illegal methods of fishing (The Jakarta Post, Nov. 22, 2010). Much of our mangrove forests have been converted into shrimp ponds or other land-use types that have higher economic value.
Although environmental issues have gotten ample coverage in mainstream media, the economy is still the main concern for the general public and governmental officials. Since many of the environmental services are intangible, the market-driven economy fails to give them value.
With the growing population, the challenge for environmental conservation will be greater next year.
Even if we have a chance to sell carbon, it seems unlikely that carbon trade will be implemented easily and local people will benefit directly from safeguarding the forest.
Several factors contribute to our low appreciation of environmental conservation. First, the general public has rarely been involved in discussions on conservation ethics. It is quite different from religion.
From childhood, we have been exposed to religious teachings.
Every Indonesian, voluntarily or involuntarily, will hear religious discussions. Every major religious issue will get national attention, from ordinary people to the President. Environmental ethics may only be discussed among environmental activists and scientists.
Of course, some local tribes have traditional environmental ethics, but there has never been a massive environmental movement like in the US that forces every body to think about their environmental values.
The second factor is the lack of knowledge. Although every student from elementary to high school gets an ecological course (within biology or natural sciences), they may pass the course without having
a comprehensive understanding of ecological principles, let alone adopting conservation values.
Our education system emphasizes the memorization of facts rather than discussion and experimentation. In developed countries, environmental knowledge and values are taught through practice in school as well in the community.
The third factor is economics. Getting money is the main motivation of most of our daily activities as well as the policy making. Conserving the environment is the last priority because it is perceived as impeding economic benefit.
Poor people will have no choice but to grab what resources are available. But, even rich people may also sacrifice the environment in order to get the maximum financial benefits.
Environmental activists and scientists in Indonesia must work hard to instill conservation values among the general public and government officials.
Apart from education and campaigns, we must also use international pressure to make our government adopt environmentally friendly policy making. In this globalization era, international pressure is effective for getting the government’s response.

The writer is a lecturer at the University of Bengkulu’s School of Forestry and currently writing a book at James Cook University in Queensland, Australia.

Opini The Jakarta Pos 21 Desember 2010