JAKARTA - About a dozen companies and more than 100 people are facing trial for illegal land burning, said Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, who made clear such acts would not be tolerated.
Even though annual deforestation rates have been slashed from 1.2 million ha to as low as 450,000ha since a forest moratorium was issued in 2011 and extended last year, Dr Yudhoyono says more remains to be done.
"There are still many cases of unsustainable land-use practices," he told some 2,000 people at the Forests Asia Summit here.
"In Riau province, Sumatra, despite all preventive measures by the provincial stakeholders over the years, forest fires still occur from time to time," he added.
More than two-thirds of the country's greenhouse gas emissions come from deforestation, peat land fires and degradation.
As Indonesia is the world's third-largest emitter of greenhouse gases, its efforts to reduce emissions are closely watched.
While Dr Yudhoyono is the first Indonesian leader to commit to wide-ranging measures to battle deforestation and to policies to protect the environment, his report card has been mixed.
Critics cite weak implementation of policies in a graft-tainted sector. Also, with only half a year left of Dr Yudhoyono's term, many wonder whether the next president will carry on the measures.
A key problem is the country's decentralisation policy, which has created "new rajas" at provincial and district levels who often demand more money from companies before they will release land for development, said Sinar Mas Forestry executive director for environment Canecio Munoz.
A Human Rights Watch report last June estimated losses of US$7 billion (S$8.7 billion) from weak governance caused by graft, and from activities like illegal logging.
Another sticking point has to do with unclear land tenure, which pits local communities living in the forests against investors given licences to develop the land.
The total amount of conflict area reached some 330,000ha in 2011, says conflict management researcher Ahmad Dhiaulhaq of the Centre for People and Forests. "These conflicts undermine efforts to fight fires," he told The Straits Times.
Fires are sometimes used as a tool to express frustration or to stake a claim.
Agreeing, presidential adviser on climate change Agus Purnomo believes law enforcement must be combined with poverty alleviation measures in order for the anti-deforestation war to be effective.
Still, there are bright spots. Four billion trees have been planted in the last four years to revive forests, Dr Yudhoyono said at the summit.
Echoing forest campaigners' concerns, Mr Agus said: "The point is, are we going to start addressing the problem in the next government or not?"
This article was published on May 6 in The Straits Times.
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