JAKARTA (The Jakarta Post/Asia News Network) - Indonesian President Joko "Jokowi" Widodo criticised the lack of progress in reforming the country's forestry sector on Wednesday (Aug 2), calling for better management that benefits both the environment and the economy.
Mr Joko, who studied forestry in his university days, said there had to be "corrective action" to make breakthroughs in the management of forests, a sector he is banking on to support his flagship agrarian reform and social forestry programmes.
"For a long time now, I'm sorry to say, our forest management has been a monotonous routine. There have been no breakthroughs," he said in his remarks during a belated commemoration of Environment Day at the Environment and Forestry Ministry.
Mr Joko also kicked off the ministry's national working meeting, which runs through Friday and gathers ministers, lawmakers and NGOs to discuss issues ranging from forests to climate change.
"We have been doing project-oriented programmes for a long time. I can mention the cases one by one, but if I opened them here, it could cause a furore," the President said.
The harsh appraisal came as the country faces a continuous threat from forest and peatland fires in numerous provinces, which result in haze that causes health problems.
The National Institute of Aeronautics and Space (Lapan) revealed on Sunday that there were 239 hot spots in the country, mostly in West Kalimantan, Aceh and East Nusa Tenggara (NTT).
Activists have blamed the slash-and-burn farming method for the forest and peatland fires, with a prolonged dry season making the fires spread quickly.
The current threat from fires has painted a challenging outlook for the Jokowi administration, which has strived to implement numerous policies on forest and peatland protection since deadly forest fires in 2015, in which 19 people died.
For peatland protection alone, the government has issued six regulations, including the latest one in July, which obliges industrial forest companies to exclude protected peatland from their concessions.
Mr Joko did not go into detail about his definition of "monotonous" forest management, but said there had to be a clear distinction between protected forests and production forests and better management of permit issuance could ease the problem.
"Permit issuance must be correctly managed. Don't easily issue a permit. Stop that. I say, stop that," said Mr Joko in a harsh tone.
The practice of encroaching into national parks cannot be continued, he added, stressing that conservation areas and primary forest must be properly protected.
"Hundreds to thousands of hectares of land (in national parks have been encroached upon). In the future, I will reveal everything in a closed-door forum," Mr Joko said, claiming that given his experience in forestry, he was fully aware of how this practice was carried out.
In Tesso Nilo National Park in Riau, palm oil companies and farmers have been operating illegally in the park and have been blamed for destroying more than half of the park's habitat.
Home to elephants and near-extinct Sumatran tigers, the park has a total area of 81,793 hectares, 54 per cent of which has been converted into settlements and oil palm plantations by firms and small-scale farmers.
The President further stressed that forest management must have a trickle-down effect for locals, especially those living around forests.
Responding to the President's criticism, Environment and Forestry Minister Siti Nurbaya said the practice had been exercised long before she held the job and efforts were being made to tackle the problem.
"We are trying to address the situation," she said, citing as an example that the ministry was running a programme to provide poor households with access to idle land controlled by state-run plantation firm Perhutani for cultivation.
The government has required Perhutani, which is overseen by the Environment and Forestry Ministry, to rearrange its profit-sharing scheme with farmers who work the land.
With the new method, farmers will get 75 per cent of the profit and the firm 25 per cent.
She said Jokowi frequently called on his ministers to "think outside of the box" and not carry on with "business as usual".
At the Environment Day commemoration on Wednesday, the government also presented Kalpataru awards to environmentalists and Adipura awards for green cities and regencies.