Explainer-How Indonesia's deforestation persists despite moratorium

FILE PHOTO: Protest against deforestation in indigenous Papuans' land, outside the country's Supreme Court in Jakarta

By Bernadette Christina

JAKARTA (Reuters) - Indonesia's Awyu tribe of the Papua region has filed a case to the Supreme Court seeking to cancel permits for palm oil concessions on thousands of hectares of rainforest over which it has ancestral rights.

The world's biggest producer and exporter of palm oil, Indonesia has pledged to clean the image of the multi-billion dollars industry which is often accused by environmentalists of causing widespread deforestation.

Indonesia is home to the world's third-largest tropical rainforest and accounts for 60% the world's supplies of palm oil which is used in food products as well as a fuel.


In an effort to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions, Indonesia stopped issuing permits to clear forests and peatlands in 2011 for 8 years. In 2019, President Joko Widodo made the moratorium permanent in an aim to protect Indonesia's 66 million hectares (254,827 square miles) of forests and peatlands.

The president also imposed a moratorium on permits for new palm oil plantations in 2018, intended to stop deforestation amid backlash from consumers worried about the environmental impact of palm estates replacing rain forests.

The palm oil moratorium expired in 2021, but Jokowi pledged not to issue new permits for palm oil plantations.

In the same year, the government ordered an evaluation of the existing permits, with an aim to revoke permission if concessions are found in areas with forest cover.

Local conservation group Auriga Nusantara in 2022 estimated that around 2.4 million hectares of rain forests were part the total land which was allocated for developing palm oil estates.

Now that Jokowi is leaving office soon, the group is worried that the next administration might not honour the moratorium as it was not drafted into law. "This case in Papua could spread to other areas," said Roni Saputra from the group.


Permits for the "Tanah Merah Project" concessions in Papua were issued between 2011 and 2013, prior to recent efforts to conserve pristine forests. But due to the 2021 evaluation, these permits were revoked in January 2022.

Several companies behind the concessions brought this revocation to the court, launching a legal battle that has now reached the Supreme Court where the Awyu tribe is contesting for the revocation to be upheld.

While the central government in Jakarta remains steadfast that these permits should be cancelled, the Papua provincial government in 2021 granted Indo Asiana Lestari (IAL) permission to cultivate land and build mills, a few months after the palm oil moratorium lapsed.

Papua government representatives were not available to comment on the matter.

Supreme Court judges are expected to decide on the cases jointly this month, a lawyer for the Woro clan of the Awyu tribe told Reuters.


Indonesia's deforestation rate has fallen between 2019 to 2022, according to the latest available data provided by environment ministry.

In the 2021/2022 period, 119,400 hectares of forests were cleared, more than a fifth of the average size of deforested areas between 2013 and 2020.

However, green groups said forest and peatland clearance to make way for plantations, including for palm oil, remained a practice despite a global outcry over environmental damage.

Some 52,000 hectares of forests were converted into plantations between 2022 and 2023, according to data from Nusantara Atlas, an independent organisation tracking deforestation in Indonesia.

The total size of palm plantation has also continued to expand despite the plantation permit moratorium. The total size of Indonesia's palm oil plantations reached 17.3 million hectares in the latest land mapping survey this year, up from 14.32 million hectares in 2018.

Green groups said they fear the government's ambitious biofuel targets may continue to drive expansion in palm oil plantations.

Palm oil producers group GAPKI said Indonesia may need to expand the plantation area as output stagnated while replanting progress remained slow, however such expansion should only be done in degraded areas without clearing forests, the group said.

(Reporting by Bernadette Christina; editing by Naveen Thukral and Miral Fahmy)