YOGYAKARTA, INDONESIA (REUTERS) - Indonesia's Environment Minister on Monday (April 23) rebuffed conservationists who want the government to add secondary forests to its moratorium on issuing new licences to use land designated as primary forest.
Announced in May 2011, the first two-year moratorium was applauded as an important step in reducing deforestation and greenhouse gas emissions, and it has been extended three times.
Environmental groups like Greenpeace and the World Resources Institute have urged the government to strengthen and extend the ban to include secondary forests - areas that were cleared, but where woody vegetation has again taken over.
Environment and Forestry Minister Siti Nurbaya Bakar has told the Thomson Reuters Foundation that extending the moratorium to secondary forests could undermine the country's economic development goals.
"We have to think about it, because Indonesia has a huge population and we're still in the progress of developing," she said.
Ms Siti Nurbaya said the government's main priority is assessing which land may be licensed for development, while deciding on the designation of secondary forests may come later.
"Secondary forests is a secondary priority," she said.
Home to the world's third-largest tropical forests, Indonesia is also the biggest palm oil producer. Environmentalists blame much of the forest destruction on land clearance for the crop.
The 2011 moratorium was part of a US$1 billion (S$1.32 billion) deal with the Norwegian government to help Indonesia reduce forest clearing.
By November 2016, the moratorium covered an area of more than 66 million ha.
But deforestation and forest fires continue to blight many parts of the country, while revisions to the moratorium have lacked transparency, according to environmental campaigners.
The exemption of secondary forests and patchy law enforcement have hindered the moratorium's progress, they say.
Forest cover loss in Indonesia remains high, according to the Global Land Analysis and Discovery (GLAD) lab at the University of Maryland.
Peaking in 2012 at 928,000ha, forest cover loss dropped to about 500,000ha in 2013 before increasing in 2014 and 2015 to 796,500ha and 735,000ha, respectively, according to GLAD.
Despite this, last year, Ms Siti Nurbaya called for a permanent moratorium on issuing new licences to use land designated as primary forest and peatland.