Over the objections of environmentalists, the Ministry of Agriculture on Monday ended a year-long freeze on clearing peatland for plantations, while at the same time cutting the amount of peatland that can be cleared from 4 million hectares to 2 million hectares, Agriculture Minister Anton Apriyanto said on Tuesday.
The government closed peatlands to plantation agriculture last year in the face of widespread protests by environmentalists, who have urged that the freeze be maintained. The Indonesia Palm Oil Producers Association, which represents 250 plantations, rejected the moratorium last year and had continued to oppose it.
"We think it's a crazy proposal,' Martin Baker, communications manager at Greenpeace International in Asia, told Reuters in reaction to the government's new edict.
Indonesia's rainforests are one of the world's largest storehouses of carbon dioxide, the major component of greenhouse gases, which are considered responsible for global warming. Greenpeace estimates that Indonesia's peat forests hold nearly 38 billion tons. The country is estimated to be the world's third-largest producer of carbon dioxide after the United States and China.
Nonetheless, Anton on Tuesday said the new regulations had been issued on Monday and were already effective. The ministry, he said, has considerably stiffened the criteria under which peatlands can be cleared. Previous regulations, issued in 1990, had limited the clearance of peatland to areas of less than three meters in depth. The new regulations, Anton said, not only took depth into consideration, but also other circumstances such as the maturity of the peatland and its fertility.
Most of Indonesia's peatlands are located in Riau, West Sumatra and Jambi Provinces, the minister said.
"Companies can only establish plantations on mature or semi-mature peatlands,' Anton said, while acknowledging that the implementation of the new regulation would be difficult. The ministry, he said, would increase monitoring and control. There are 18.3 million hectares of peatland across Indonesia. The regulations governing land use have been widely ignored, with millions of hectares of land being cleared and burned annually.
Bachtiar Karim, president director of palm-oil producer PT Musim Mas, said that his company was not currently considering clearing peatland for plantation use because of the greater expense involved.
Crude palm oil is Indonesia's most important commodity, with the nation being the world's biggest producer, having surpassed Malaysia. In 2008, the country exported CPO worth $10.7 billion, giving rise to the payment of Rp 13 trillion in export duties.
The country has 7.1 million hectares of palm plantations belonging to smallholders and private firms, which employ more than 5 million people.