A number of environmental CSOs believe the EU regulation on deforestation free products can strengthen efforts in forest protection.
On December 6, 2022, the European Union (EU) Parliament and the EU Council have agreed to pass the Regulation on Deforestation Free Products, a move seen by many civic organizations as reviving hope for the current weak protection of forests in Indonesia.
Under this regulation, operators and traders will have to prove that the products are both deforestation-free (produced on land that was not subject to deforestation after 31 December 2020) and legal (compliant with all relevant applicable laws in force in the country of production).
The Indonesian Forum for Environment (WALHI) believes that the EU regulation was timely as forest protection in Indonesia had been weakened in the past years.
Uli Arta Siagian, WALHI’s national executive manager for forest and plantation campaign cites an example: The Regulation in Lieu of Law on Job Creation (Perpu Cipta Kerja) removed the obligation to maintain a minimum forest area of 30 percent and this eliminated any articles that require the government to protect a minimum forest are in a region.
The weakening of a protection instrument is giving rise to concerns that remaining forests would increasingly be converted into monoculture plantations such as oil palm, mines and infrastructure projects.
“Forests are seen from the economic side only, so it’s not considered important to protect the function and purpose of the forest are itself,” Siagian told Ekuatorial on February 11, 2023.
The EU regulation, she addes, requires clear traceability as well as a transparent supply chain for companies exporting commodities into the EU market. It also requires geolocations that would help the identification and mapping of plantations.
Thus, Siagian regarded the esponse of the Indonesian government that rejected this regulation as a reluctance in improving the management of palm oil, in settling land conflicts in the country, and in ensuring that palm oil entering the EU is clear from deforestation and human rights violations.
“The government tends to lobby the EU to ease their requirements, rather that to ensure that Indonesia complies with those requirements,” Siagian said.
For Greenpeace Indonesia, the EU regulation serves as a tool to regulate products that may pose risks to the sustainability of forests, especially palm oil. Comprehensive testing requirements would force businesses to ensure that their products are not linked to deforestation.
Syahrul Fitra, a senior forest campaigner for Greenpeace Indonesia, said that the EU regulation should be encouraging the government to accord more attention to environmental aspects, especially those linked to climate change.
Resistance towards regulations aimed at climate improvement is considered contrary to the spirit of the government, which in a number of global forums, often asks for international support for climate-related programs.
“There lies the problem, it is only seen from the economic side when in fact the costs incurred would be much higher if we have to deal with climate crisis,” Fitra said.
He also believe efforts by both Indonesian and Malaysian governments to lobby the EU as actions that not only did not reflect their commitment to protect forests, biodiversity, and the environment, but reveal their intent to continue to protect deforestation practices.
Through this regulation the EU aims to minimize deforestation across the globe, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and prevent further biodiversity loss.
“The regulation allows the European Union to save at least 32 million tons of carbon per year from the imports of commodities and products included in this regulation,” said Vincent Piket at the office of the EU Delegation in Jakarta on January 31, 2023.
The regulation is expected to be adopted between May and June 2023 and once it’s in force, operators and traders will have 18 months to implement the new rules, starting December 2024. For small and medium scale enterprises, the regulation would only apply starting June 2025.
All operators placing commodities and products in the EU market will have to provide a statement ensuring that a comprehensive test had been conducted which include a validation of documents showing that the products were legal and free of deforestation and can be traced back to the land where they were produced.
The EU has also established a reference system for countries or part of countries according to level of deforestation — low standard and high. Due diligence will be simplified for low-risk countries, but increased scrutiny will be applied on high-risk countries.
“There was no punishment for deforestation in the past. We will look ahead to limit and prevent further deforestation and forest degradation,” Piket added.
The EU guarantees that the regulation is non-discriminating — all countries would be able to continue to sell their commodities in the EU market as long as the operators can prove that their commodities are legal and deforestation-free.
Meanwhile, Indonesia and Malaysia, the world’s top palm oil suppliers, have reservations about the deforestation-free EU regulation and both agreed to protect palm oil from a regulation that they believe is ‘discriminating and unilateral.”
This commitment was expressed during the Palm Oil Industrial Dialogue Between Indonesia and Malaysia held on February 9, 2023, which included a visit to the EUheadquarters in Brussel, Belgium to communicate solutions to and the consequences of that regulation.
Airlangga Hartarto, coordinating minister for the economy, said that the meeting did not discuss any halt in palm oil exports to the EU. “There are no boycotts. I thing we do not need to respond to something that does not exist,” the minister was quoted as saying by the Antara news agency.
For Indonesia, palm oil is a leading industry in the agriculture sector with a production value reaching 46.8 million tons in 2022. A large part of that is being used to meet domestic consumption.
Varying definitions of deforestation
There is an underlying problem with the EU’s anti-deforestation policy, and that is the varying definitions of deforestation used.
The EU uses the definition set by the United Nation Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) – deforestation is the conversion of forests into other land use, regardless whether it is caused by humans or not. This means that the FAO’s version of deforestation also refers to the conversion of land, not just the reduction of forest cover.
An Indonesian Decree of the Minister of Forestry Number 30 of 2009 defines deforestation as a permanent change from a previously forested area into one that had no forests cover because of human activities.
Meanwhile, according to the forestry ministry decree (chapter I article I), deforestation is the permanent change from a forested area to a non-forested area due to human activities
Then there’s another definition. The Indonesian Alliance for Forest Climate, defines deforestation as the permanent one time conversion of a forest cover into a different land cover category. This definition was later chosen for its practicality, for simplifying and for its clarity in identifying and classifying the various classes of land cover.
The common logic of the definition above is that gross deforestation only counts loss without considering the possibility of forest regrowth, and does not consider carbon sequestration from forest regrowth. Net deforestation, on the other hand, takes into account secondary forest regrowth and planting.
A forestry observer, Pramono Dwi Susetyo argues that the EU does not want agroforestry in production forest areas, let alone in protected and conservation forests.
“The EU defines deforestation based on agricultural, plantation and livestock commodities produced and removed from forest areas, regardless of whether they are production forests let alone protected and conservation forests,” he wrote in a column in Agro Indonesia.
In other words, deforestation has occurred when growing space within forest areas is used for agricultural commodities, plantations and livestock.
For Susetyo, who once worked at the Ministry of Environment and Forestry (KLHK), the dynamics and impacts of climate change should be the right momentum to redefine the definition of deforestation in Indonesia.