• Laura Benitez-Ek

Forest Fires, Land Claims and Palm Oil Production: The Fight for Indonesia’s Land Use

Indonesia has one of the most biologically diverse forests in the world. However, the nation has also earned the title of having the fastest deforestation rate in the world [1]. This is largely due to the palm oil agribusinesses that exist in Indonesia today, which have caused a variety of environmental and socioeconomic impacts on the country and its inhabitants.

According to a report by the Republic of Indonesia, there was an increase of 400 MtCO2e emissions from 2000 to 2005. This resulted from changing land use, forest fires and the combustion of fossil fuels [3], [4]. A further inspection, from 2000 to 2010, shows that carbon emissions from palm oil land-use in Indonesia averaged 216-268 million tonnes, contributing to a greater amount of greenhouse gases being released [1]. The clearance and degradation of their habitats has resulted in the endangerment of orangutans, Javan rhinoceros, Sumatran elephants and tigers, some of Indonesia's most widely known species [5]. The treatment of the land also has a large effect on the livelihood of Indigenous peoples who depend on the land, a story we are all too familiar with. The struggle that remains is the government’s ability to balance the restoration of these lands while continuing to develop the palm oil industry, a crucial sector in their economy.

During the control of the Suharto government, large concessions were given to corporations, who in turn transformed the land into palm oil plantations [6]. These agribusinesses employ inappropriate deforestation methods in order to cultivate the land. Slash-and-burn is one of the basic practices for rural farmers where trees are removed followed by the burning of the trees, which acts as fertilizer for the crops [7]. This practice is repeated until there are no more nutrients left in the land, and the farmers move onto another plot of land. Another obstacle that faces this problem is corruption amongst local officials, which raises strong criticism against the Indonesian government and its management of deforestation.

Despite the multitude of consequences that these palm oil plantations have caused, this particular industry can help improve the standard of living in Indonesia. According to a Worth Growth report, the agriculture industry employs 41 percent of the Indonesian population and generates about two-thirds of rural household income [8]. Knowing that the global demand for palm oil is only predicted to increase, it is important to accept that palm oil production is a part of Indonesia's economy and that to impede on its development is disadvantageous to these rural communities.

On the other hand, Indigenous peoples and communities have suffered greatly from their loss of land claims. “Most oil palm plantations overlap on land claimed by indigenous people. There is strong collusion between governments and companies that often ignores the original inhabitants on the land” says Sophie Chao, a Project Officer with Forest Peoples Program (FPP), an NPO that advocates for land rights of tropical forest dwellers [9]. The head of the Sei Dusun village, Abdul Muin, explains that the people of his village were even poorer after the palm oil company took over in 2008 and that “we cannot plant, we cannot drink the water because it is polluted”. The benefits of the agribusiness do not return to the Indigenous communities that it affects.

The bilateral agreement with Norway in 2010 is one of many steps that the Indonesian government has taken to reduce the forest loggings. Indonesia pledged to Norway to decrease deforestation and in return the government will receive 1 billion USD. So far, Indonesia has received 60 million USD as of March 2016 but Norway’s environment minister admitted that “we haven’t seen actual progress in reducing deforestation” [10].

Indonesia has been attempting to withhold its promise by implementing moratoriums to control logging for palm oil. When Joko Widodo was elected as the President of Indonesia in 2014, he declared his position against the current forest operations and stated that “it must be stopped”[11]. His attempts to crack down on the illegal deforestation is proving to be a lot more difficult. Humala Pontas, the head of environmental rehabilitation oversees the applications for forest concession. He explains that “we have no monitoring system” and that it is impossible to know if the companies remain true to the terms of their concessions [10].

The dynamics and distribution of power set to control the deforestation has not been successful. Many reports have been made with regards to the forestry management in Indonesia. A 2014 World Resources Institute (WRI) report, made a number of recommendations, one of them including the participation of the local government and communities [12]. A particular report found that Indigenous Peoples manage forests more sustainably [13]. Under these communities, deforestation rates are 2 to 3 times lower than other managed forests. As a result, these forests act as a carbon sink, decreasing greenhouse gas emissions. Despite the government’s need to first return these land rights, these lands are often found in the hands of outsiders who, regrettably, develop the land and reap the economic benefits.

In a place where fires are created instead of extinguished, a long road is ahead for the nation of Indonesia to control the devastation of their rich forests.


1. Harball, E., Deforestation in Indonesia Is Double the Government's Official Rate. Scientific American, 2014.

2. Agency, A.P., Plight of the Orangutan. 2015, Reuters.

3. Infographic: Palm Oil and Tropical Deforestation. 2016; Available from: http://www.ucsusa.org/global_warming/solutions/stop-deforestation/palm-oil- infographic.html#.WGwYPfkrKUk.

4. Intended Nationally Determined Contribution Republic of Indonesia. p. 1.

5. Indonesia's Rainforestes: Biodiversity and Endangered Species. [cited 2017; Available from: http://www.ran.org/indonesia_s_rainforests_biodiversity_and_endangered_species.

6. Pearce, F., Land injustice at the heart of Indonesia's deforestation dilemma: Discussions at GLF, in Thrive. CGIAR Water, Land and Ecosystems website.

7. South East Asian haze: What is slash-and-burn? BBC News, 2013.

8. The Economic Benefit of Palm Oil to Indonesia. 2011, World Growth. p. 4, 7.

9. Maclean, D., The Fight to Save Indonesia's Forests. The Diplomat, 2014.

10. Henda, B., Despite tough talk, Indonesia's government is struggling to stem deforestation. The Economist, 2016.

11. Mitchell, S., 'It Must Be Stopped': Indonesia's New President Vows to End World's Worst Deforestation. Vice News, 2014.

12. Indonesia's Forest Moratorium: Impacts and Next Steps. 2014, World Resources Institute. p. 11. Mitchell, S., 'It Must Be Stopped': Indonesia's New President Vows to End World's Worst Deforestation. Vice News, 2014.

13. Katie Reytar, P.V., Indigenous Peoples and Local Communities are the World's Secret Weapon in Curbing Climate Change. 2016: World Resources Institute.

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