Environment Caught in the Extremes

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REDD+ doesn’t mean Indonesia will put a freeze on key industries such as palm oil, forestry and mining. (Agus Andrianto/CIFOR)

This article, written by Agus Purnomo, special adviser on climate change to President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, first appeared in the Jakarta Globe.

“I have observed that not the man who hopes when others despair, but the man who despairs when others hope is admired by a large clan of persons as a sage.” So said John Stuart Mill almost 200 years ago.

What was true then is true now. The sentiment accurately summarizes today’s criticism of the government’s plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Since Indonesia announced its ground-breaking agreement on Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD+) with Norway last May, there has been much despair and little hope from a vast assortment of modern-day “sages.”

As expected, the first group of naysayers has been the business lobby, represented by nongovernmental organizations such as the Virginia-based World Growth. These critics have grabbed headlines through what can most accurately be described as a game of one-upmanship in doomsday scenarios. Most recently World Growth claimed, without much explanation of how it arrived at the claim, that 3.5 million jobs would be lost every year if Indonesia put any limitations whatsoever on its forest-related industries.

However, when you peel away all the gloom and doom of unsubstantiated claims of job losses, revenue losses and slower economic growth, you find that the organization offers no solutions or new ideas. Just because they can’t think of any, business lobbies with a short-term focus argue that there are no alternatives to “business as usual.” It may be captivating because it’s so simple, but it just isn’t true.

The second group of vocal climate change “sages” is somewhat more surprising. The environmental lobby, represented by Greenpeace, started out as a supporter of the agreement but has since become a strong opponent of Indonesia’s REDD+ strategy. The group’s current stance boils down to zero tolerance for any deforestation by logging and agribusiness industries. Mining and palm-oil industries — an important sources of jobs, taxes and export revenues — now feign shock and surprise that REDD+ doesn’t mean an end to all industrial logging and a permanent freeze of Indonesia’s palm oil industry — even though the government has been crystal clear in its intent to continue to grow forestry.

The two groups represent the extreme and opposite ends of the REDD+ debate, but they are united in their despair. Both sides need to realize that REDD+ is not about choosing between economic growth and the environment. REDD+ is about sustainability, allowing Indonesia to continue to grow its economy, enhance its human capital, ensure social equity and at the same time reduce its greenhouse gas emissions. There is no denying that this means breaking with status quo and staking out a new course for managing Indonesia’s natural resources. It does not, however, mean abandoning industries that are vital to Indonesia’s economy.

It’s important to remember that REDD+ is exploring uncharted territory. Indonesia is crossing new frontiers in its efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions through the program. We don’t have all the answers, and we don’t pretend to. What we do know is that we have to think big, plan well and execute smart to achieve strong, sustainable and environmentally friendly economic growth for Indonesia.

As the country develops its REDD+ strategies over the next months and years, the government must welcome vigorous debate. This is an issue that will shape Indonesia’s economic policy for years to come, so it deserves full public scrutiny. However, the debate will only be useful if it is based on facts, and not on an almost doctrinaire belief by either side that its stance is the only viable path.

The extremist positions and unwillingness to compromise are already slowing down REDD+. For the past four months, the process has been side-tracked by overheated rhetoric about what should be included in the two-year moratorium that is part of the Indonesia-Norway agreement. A short-sighted business lobby assumes that the status quo is as good as things will ever get. The environmental lobby unrealistically believes that Indonesia can further develop without making trade-offs among difficult public policy choices. The pressure from both sides leads to delay and stagnation.

A contract is only as good as the people and institutions it binds, and to build real momentum for REDD+ we need buy-in from both sides. The business lobby needs to realize that the days of “business as usual” have come to an end. The environmental lobby needs to realize that REDD+ doesn’t mean Indonesia will put a freeze on key industries such as palm oil, forestry and mining.

The path to sustainability will be long and challenging. There is much to be done.

We need to invest heavily in capacity-building, sound governance, law enforcement and greater transparency. We need to improve the two-way dialogue between the government and forest-based communities. We need to reduce bureaucratic hurdles and allow more efficient use of non-forested land. And we need to ensure that revenue from natural resource exploitation is collected rigorously, managed transparently and spent wisely.

It is time to build a better future for Indonesia and to engage in constructive debate about the best way to get there.

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