News analysis

No consistency in Jakarta's green push

Conflicting statements show dilemma that world's largest palm oil producer is facing

An aerial view of a forest fire burning near the village of Bokor, Meranti Islands regency, Riau province, Sumatra, Indonesia in this March 15, 2016, file photo taken by Antara Foto. PHOTO: REUTERS

Indonesia wants its palm oil sector to go green in order to stay competitive in international markets, but the authorities struggle to find a consistent voice in enforcing the policy.

The dilemma facing the world's largest palm oil producer is made apparent in the conflicting statements from President Joko Widodo and his underlings this week.

On Thursday, Mr Joko declared plans for a moratorium on new concessions for oil palm plantations, arguing that yields from existing cropland could be doubled with better seeds.

While a date has yet to be set, the moratorium would spell an end to expansion by palm oil companies.

"We have to be brave to do that, we have to be concrete, real," he said. The move has been lauded as bold and visionary by experts and green groups, but it is neither surprising nor new.

After all, Mr Joko banned licences for peatland concessions last October after people started dying from respiratory illnesses during the peak of the transboundary haze crisis caused by raging forest fires.

His latest move would not have raised eyebrows had the Agriculture Ministry not gone to town this week mulling over whether it should disband a historic "zero deforestation" pact signed by major palm oil companies over cartel allegations.

The 2014 Indonesia Palm Oil Pledge, or Ipop, commits palm oil firms to make their supply chains more sustainable, but officials claim that small-time farmers are being squeezed out as they are unable to meet high standards, hence easing the way for the signatories to form and operate a cartel.

While the allegations are being investigated, the call for disbandment begs the question of whether the government is serious about promoting environmentally friendly and sustainable forestry practices, or whether it is paying only lip service.

While experts and green groups say there are valid concerns that raising sustainability standards might have an adverse economic impact on the industry and smallholders, and pose a threat to local laws and national sovereignty, it appears like Jakarta is taking "one step forward and two steps back".

"If managed well, it can benefit both the bottom line and the environment - government officials should be embracing this approach, not beating it down," said Eco-Business founder Jessica Cheam, a former environment journalist and long-time observer of sustainable practices in the region.

Fragmented governance is a challenge in the palm oil sector. Critics point to the lack of harmony, tussles between ministries, conflicting interests of local politicians and investors, and weak law enforcement.

One thing, however, is certain: There needs to be clarity on objectives and transparency regarding the rhetoric on the ground, said University of Indonesia environmental analyst Tarsoen Waryono.

He added there is no doubt that Mr Joko and his government have the same vision and mission, and are serious about protecting the forests and environment.

"Their communication to the public, however, is not always clear or in sync with one another and Jokowi tends to throw new ideas without preparing his ministries," said Mr Tarsoen, referring to the President by his popular moniker.

"Policies cannot be changed overnight, but as all that is being sorted out, someone must take control to avoid confusion."

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 16, 2016, with the headline No consistency in Jakarta's green push. Subscribe