JAKARTA (REUTERS) - Indonesia, with the world's third biggest rainforest area, reduced the rate of deforestation by 75 per cent last year by controlling forest fires more effectively and limiting clearing of woodland, the Environment Ministry said.
Global environmental group Greenpeace was sceptical, saying the deforestation rate most likely dropped in 2020 due to a slowdown in economic activity during the coronavirus pandemic as well as unusually wet weather.
Deforestation in 2020 was estimated at around 115,500 hectares, down from around 462,500 hectares in 2019, Environment and Forestry Ministry senior official Ruandha Agung Sugardiman told reporters on Wednesday.
"Various efforts undertaken by the Environment and Forestry Ministry have brought a significant result," he said, citing policies such as a moratorium on primary forest clearing and improved forest fire management, including cloud seeding.
Indonesia is prone to annual forest fires which the government says are often started intentionally by farmers as a cheap land-clearance method even though flames can spread uncontrollably, particularly during the dry season.
Greenpeace challenged the ministry's view of the factors that had eased deforestation.
"To claim that forest fire control, agrarian reform and law enforcement in the forestry sector were the main contributors, I think is a bit premature," Greenpeace Indonesia country director Leonardo Simanjuntak told Reuters.
Law enforcement to crack down on forest fire perpetrators was also lacking, Greenpeace said.
Citing the ministry's 2020 deforestation figure, Greenpeace campaigner Kiki Taufik said: "I think 115,500 hectares, twice the size of Jakarta, is still quite large considering it was during the pandemic when the government told people to stay home."
Fires in 2019 caused damage and economic losses amounting to at least US$5.2 billion (S$6.92 billion), equal to 0.5 per ent of Indonesia's gross domestic product, the World Bank said.
Deforestation control is part of the largest South-east Asian country's commitments in the global Paris accord to combat climate change. The Jakarta government aims to limit deforestation to between 325,000 and 450,000 hectares per year to avoid any serious dent to economic development.