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A preacher to the faithful hobbits

Publication Date : 19-06-2012


It is commonly said that Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s sensibility is taken to with rolling eyes and a deep sigh. Listening to him is almost like listening to a whining grandmother.

His style was not much different when he delivered his sustainable growth “manifesto” on Wednesday ahead of his schedule to host a forum at Rio+20. In his speech, he tried to convince that Indonesia was ready to submit to global energy austerity and was on its way to fighting climate change.

He highlighted sustainable forestry as an alternative development path that Indonesia had chosen to conserve energy as well as to cope with climate change and population challenges.

"We passed a law that would permanently conserve 35 per cent of our tropical rain forests. We have also issued a moratorium on new permits on primary natural forests and peat lands to improve our forest and peat land management system," the President said.

But his "new way" sounds like a dogma when only three months ago he failed to propose a subsidy cut to control fossil fuel consumption at the House of Representatives. A call for the wise use of energy was the closest he could ever get to promoting the cause.

Indonesia has implemented a halt to new forest-clearing permits but the map that defines the forest protection is problematic as it overlaps with the existing primary forest areas that have been protected under the law, making the real protection under the moratorium no more than 18 million hectares, according to an estimate. And the amount of the protected areas has kept declining since last year.

The bitter truth is that parts of those defined as primary forests are already barren and degraded due to illegal logging. It is estimated that there are 32 million hectares of bare forests under this definition, which are currently degradable because of the government’s inaction on imposing a new status on these areas.

Economic growth and sustainability used to be a double-edged sword, substituting each other instead of being complimentary. In the materialistic world we live in, it is true that to wish that life goes on without taking from nature is like wishing for immortality.

In Britain, the industrial revolution in the 18th century left a very bad taste in the mouth, which echoed English professor J.R.R. Tolkien, who expressed his concern for endangered nature in his epic book The Lord of the Rings. He showed how Saruman, the corrupt wizard, devastated ancient forests to build his army in an attempt to conquer the Shire, the village of the hobbits, and change their peaceful way of living.

The rise of Indonesia over the past decade has been no different. Supported by the growing prominence of palm oil producers and mining companies, prosperity has come at the cost of rain forests.

The delicate nature of this country is a strong reason why the government should implement strong forest governance to ensure sustainability. The current insensitive expansion of industry has taken its toll on the declining number of Sumatran tigers, orangutans in Kalimantan and elephants in Sumatra. The conversion of mangroves and peat lands, which store more carbon than regular forests, makes the country one of the largest emitters of pollution due to forest fires.

Paternalistic attitudes and wishful thinking are nothing but a lullaby to the rapid rate of deforestation.

There is no use in claiming to conserve the forests while remaining soft on illegal logging activities. Many cases of illegal logging have been reported to the government, but only a few make it to trial and see convictions.

It is no good calling for wiser energy consumption when the government does not take bold action to find alternatives. It is a great irony to know that the country is the world’s largest palm oil producer, but it has yet to develop a biofuel industry. To import more fuels, the renewable ones, is an even greater irony.

To phase out subsidies without providing tangible alternatives would only mean increasing the pressure on citizens.

Minimum incentives in the biofuel industry make it more expensive than heavily subsidised fossil fuels. This is not a case specific to Indonesia. In Brazil and the US, the two largest producers of bioethanol, it took decades of transformation to shift to a biofuel-based energy ecosystem.

The government should start to take real action in these areas instead of making empty calls for wiser consumption, which may only work for the faithful hobbits.

To win his cause, President Yudhoyono should lead like some of the characters in Tolkien’s renowned story: Aragorn, a human king who knows the forest as his second home, or the wise Gandalf, the white wizard who fights back against the destructive acts of Saruman.


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