Indonesian forests constitute one of the worlds megacentres of biological diversity. However, these forests 10% of the worlds remaining tropical forests, second largest to Brazil are being increasingly degraded, leaving ever fewer natural resources and causing significant ecological damage.
Protected areas are diminishing in conservation value as poorly planned and unsustainable development leads to poaching, encroachment, habitat fragmentation and forest fires.
These problems have been building for years with the rapid and largely unregulated exploitation of forests and other natural resources under the New Order regime. Since the early days of the regime at the end of the 1960s until today, Indonesian forests have been a prominent powerhouse of the countrys economy, after oil and textiles.
Unfortunately, to fill the need for economic growth and alleviating poverty, the government seemingly still sets its development agenda based on forest exploitation, including conversion of forests into plantations.
Forest conversion, which was defined as a continuous process of declining forest functions, has led to man-made monocultures characterised by the almost complete loss of forest ecological functions and socio-economic benefits for local people.
In general, 60% of the conversion of tropical forests in Indonesia is due to the development of oil palm plantations (WWF, 2002). However, only 30% to 40% of forest areas that have been logged were later developed into oil palm plantations in the last decades in Indonesia. This phenomenon has contributed to an alarming rate of deforestation (2.1 million hectares per year according to the Ministry of Forestry, 2003).
Although the countrys earnings from palm oil exports have increased, unfortunately, profits from forest conversion only go to a few people within and outside the country.
Some environmental NGOs have been trying to open a dialogue with the palm oil industry to search for sustainable solutions.
One area that is being carefully looked at is good land use planning that incorporates the need for oil palm development as well as conservation. If we analyse the figures of the areas that have already been opened, 60% to 70% have not been utilised as oil palm plantations.
This means that a huge figure (3 million to 4 million hectares) of abandoned land, wastelands or land with absentee ownership is available to be used at this particular point of time and in the future. Integrated and co-ordinated land use planning at different levels (district to national), in this case, is necessary.
Another important solution being discussed between NGOs and companies is the implementation of several better practices for sustainable palm oil production.