Yudhoyono’s Green Legacy

By Jeremiah O. Magpile

Indonesian Rainforest. Source: Rainforest Action Network’s flickr photostream, used under a creative commons license

Indonesian president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono is entering the final two years of his 10-year presidency and is clearly making efforts to define his legacy. Throughout his tenure, Indonesia stabilized both its democracy and economy following the chaos of the Asian Financial Crisis and the transition from decades of one-man rule, becoming a rising global and regional power.

If Yudhoyono’s rhetoric is to be believed, he is seeking to make environmental management and sustainability an enduring part of his legacy as well.

Yudhoyono pledged in 2009 to reduce domestic emissions by up to 41 percent by 2020 with international assistance, but his deliverables have been mixed. Indonesia remains the world’s third largest carbon emitter, and its forests are among the world’s fastest disappearing. More than half of Indonesia’s 321 million acres of forest are gone.

If Yudhoyono hopes to solidify his green legacy, his final years in office must highlight the synergistic relationship between the environment on the one hand and political, security, and especially economic concerns on the other. Unfortunately, recent moves toward that goal have been contradictory at best.

As host of the 2013 Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit, Indonesia has made moves to place sustainable development, including management of marine resources, on the agenda even as it proves unable to efficiently managing its own fisheries. Indonesia is also seeking to include palm oil and rubber on APEC’s 2012 list of tariff-reduced green goods, despite those industries contributing to roughly 70 percent of its domestic carbon emissions.

The same contradictory approach is apparent in forestry management. Advances in curbing deforestation have come largely from environmental groups rather than the Indonesian government. For instance, Singapore-based Asia Pulp and Paper’s voluntary February 1 pledge to stop cutting trees in the region marks an impactful move toward forest conservation that could set a long-term standard for others to follow. In contrast, the East Kalimantan government’s recent decision to unilaterally issue a forest cutting moratorium shows Indonesian authorities’ ad hoc and often uncoordinated approach to natural resource management.

These examples highlight the need for Indonesia to reconcile its environmental commitments with, rather than make them secondary to, its economic priorities. That is the country’s only hope of meeting the lofty 2020 targets set by Yudhoyono. Doing so would provide a valuable kickstart to an otherwise anemic international response to climate change, and demonstrate that developing countries have a major role to play.

In this spirit, Yudhoyono in May 2011 issued a two-year moratorium on forest clearing, set to expire this year. The moratorium protects more than 160 million acres of carbon-rich peat lands from being exploited for palm oil production and encourages the expansion of forests on degraded land. The moratorium is supported by a $1 billion fund from Norway under the United Nations-led Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation (REDD+) initiative, which rewards countries for cutting back on the conversion of peat lands.

The program introduces critical governance reforms necessary for better management of Indonesia’s forests, but it is insufficient to reach the country’s 2020 targets. Its implementation also remains stifled by a corrupt forestry sector rife with unclear regulations, overlapping land titles, and competing bureaucracies, and by opposition from influential palm oil, mining, and logging interests. Norway’s delayed disbursement of funds pending measurable carbon reductions and governance reforms also contributes to the poor execution of Indonesia’s REDD+ program—potentially its most impactful forest management initiative.

Yudhoyono, in an effort to address these shortcomings, forged environmental management schemes with the United States under the U.S.-Indonesia Comprehensive Partnership. The Millennium Challenge Corporation, in particular, worked with Indonesia to design a $600 million compact to promote renewable energy, alternative livelihoods, capacity building initiatives, public procurement modernization, and addressing the challenge of malnutrition.

The components are a promising start in attempting to merge sustainability with the economic necessities of those whose livelihoods depend on Indonesia’s forests. Capacity building programs, such as those aimed at revamping public procurement systems, are crucial to strengthening governance and public services necessary to implement forest regulations. The United States, for its part, should continue to support Indonesia’s environmental efforts, but success depends on Jakarta’s ability to incorporate environmental management with broader institutional reform.

Despite its flaws, Yudhoyono’s green agenda is an unprecedented opportunity to show the world that developing countries can have a significant impact on global efforts to tackle climate change. But what the endeavor will require above all is for Yudhoyono to convince his successor in 2015 that a greener economy is central to Indonesia’s long term resilience.

Mr. Jeremiah O. Magpile is a Researcher with the Sumitro Chair for Southeast Asia Studies at CSIS.

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