Obama’s Meeting with Jokowi Yields Disappointing Results for Forest and Peatland Protection

October 27, 2015

Last Friday, I wrote about how President Obama should hail Indonesian President Joko (“Jokowi”) Widodo’s dramatic announcement last week to halt further development of peatlands and to initiate a major program to restore peatlands that have already been disturbed. While the Joint Statement out of the meeting does mention peatland, the US response to Jokowi’s potentially game-changing new course of action appears to fall short.

Smoke in Malaysia from Indonesian forests fires

“Haze” in Malaysia from Indonesian forests fires, October 1, 2015. Naz Amir via flickr

In the backdrop to the meeting were the fires still raging across the Indonesian archipelago and creating a public health emergency, with thick smoke causing respiratory distress among millions of people. The severity of the crisis is such that the Jokowi has decided to return to Indonesia early and go straight to fire-affected areas, skipping a planned visit to California. The fires are also producing a spike in the emissions that cause climate change as large as the annual emissions from an industrialized country such as Japan.

Here’s the relevant passage from yesterday’s Joint Statement following the bilateral meeting:

The two Presidents affirmed the importance of preservation of peat lands and other high-carbon landscapes. President Obama welcomed President Widodo’s recent policy actions to combat and prevent forest fires and associated health, environmental, and economic impacts, including President Widodo’s May 2015 decision to extend the moratorium on new development licenses in primary forests and peatlands, and President Widodo expressed appreciation for the U.S. offer to assist in this regard. Both Presidents are committed to sustainable forest management, including through private-sector initiatives.

Is the glass half full or half empty?

Three reasons to be happy about the Joint Statement:

  1. It’s probably the first time the word “peat” has been included in such a statement from a US president, so at least the issue is on the agenda. Analyses of the prospective bilateral from a leading DC think tank and a Jakarta newspaper both managed to ignore the peat fires altogether.
  2. President Obama welcomed President Widodo’s actions on peat, and apparently offered support, just as I had urged in my previous blog.
  3. The reference to “private-sector initiatives” might be diplomatic code for corporate commitments to get deforestation and peatland conversion out of commodity supply chains. These commitments have recently been criticized by some Indonesian government officials as threatening to Indonesia’s sovereignty and smallholders, so even such an oblique reference could be interpreted as a positive signal.

Three reasons to be dissatisfied with the Joint Statement:

  1. The reference to President Widodo’s May 2015 decision to extend the moratorium on new development licenses is now out of date. Jokowi’s announcement last Friday effectively extended the moratorium to cover all peatlands, regardless of licensing status, a courageous act certain to engender pushback from the industries affected. In his speech, the Indonesian president specified that during the ongoing review of concessions on peatland, “those that have not yet been opened may not be opened.” If implemented, the expanded moratorium and peatland restoration initiative would be a very big deal, so it’s odd that they remain unmentioned.
  2. The US “offer to assist” comes without any specifics. Separately, the Jakarta Post quoted Robert Blake, US ambassador to Indonesia, announcing a $2.75 million contribution to suppress, mitigate, and prevent forest fires, a number far incommensurate with the problem and with US interests in solving it.
  3. Compared to other issues covered in the Joint Statement, the text for this one seems less specific, and is not one of the four (related to maritime, defense, energy, and aviation) that merited its own separate arrangement or agreement.

Here’s hoping that the exchange summarized in the Joint Statement is just the first step in a partnership between the two countries that will grow rapidly to address the underlying causes of the fires. In the meantime, those of us seeking to raise the profile of Indonesia’s forests and peatlands among the foreign policy establishment have a lot of work to do. As a solution to both domestic development challenges and global climate change, international cooperation to protect forests and peatlands is not getting the attention it deserves.


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