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'It Must Be Stopped': Indonesia's New President Vows to End the World's Worst Deforestation

Joko Widodo has pledged to halt the illegal clearing for palm oil plantations that is devastating the remote rainforests of Sumatra after responding to a petition to come and see the damage for himself.

by Scott Mitchell
Nov 28 2014, 11:55am

Imagen vía Greenpeace

The worst assault on rainforests anywhere in the world has, for several years, been taking place in Sumatra. But on Wednesday, the tide may have finally turned with a visit from Indonesia's populist new president, Joko Widodo.

Known colloquially as Jokowi, the new Indonesian president has been in the job two months. On Thursday, he travelled to remote Sumatra by helicopter to personally inspect the devastation caused by illegal logging that authorities have turned a blind eye to for 17 years after receiving a petition from the local community.

"It must be stopped, we mustn't allow our tropical rainforest to disappear because of monoculture plantations like oil palm," he told the assembled local media.

Abdul Manan, a villager from Sungai Tohor on the east coast of Sumatra where clearing is at its worst, had started a petition on Change.org to bring the Widodo to see the issue for himself. 28,000 signatures later, and the president of Indonesia was indeed in Manan's town, having flown over charred and cleared rainforest to get there.

In a gesture that local communities and activists could have only dreamed of a few years ago, Widodo then took part in damming up a canal, used by illegal loggers to drain away water and prepare the rainforest and peatland for burning.

Sumatra has overtaken the Amazon as the site of the fastest deforestation anywhere in the world, and 80 percent of it is completely illegal. But the Indonesian government has long let it go on unchecked. As is the case in so many developing countries, fast economic growth has taken precedence over the environment and quality of life for small communities in resource rich areas.

Longgena Ginting, chairman of Greenpeace in Indonesia, told VICE News that the group had in previous years carried out such damming as a campaign action. "Then, the authorities, the police, were stopping us from doing it because they were supporting the clearances. That can give you some idea of how far we've come."

Ginting was one of several activists invited to ride in the president's helicopter and accompany him as he inspected the damage that had been done to the forests.

"He kept saying, as he looked at it, this is what happens when the state is absent, when it is left up to business," said Ginting. "He is a forester himself, so he understands how the forest is managed."

One wonders what the president, a graduate of the Gadjah Mada Forestry School ,made of the way land is cleared near Sungai Tohor is cleared. After illegal loggers drain the peatlands and rain forests of water, they burn it. According to Greenpeace, this year's dry season saw 1,000 different fires burning across 12,000 hectares. The fires are set to clear the forest for palm oil plantations. Indonesia is the world's biggest palm oil producer.

The haze of smog is so thick that for six months of the year many in Sumatra live with it constantly. This year it has been so severe that visibility has been as low as 50 meters and 58,000 locals have been treated for respiratory illnesses and eye or skin conditions.

The scale of the fires is such that smoke regularly crosses the Strait of Malacca to Singapore and Malaysia. Earlier this month smoke from Sumatra was so dense in Singapore that air quality was too poor for outdoor physical activity, according to the Singaporean government.

During the president's visit, he met with Environment and Forestry Minister Siti Nurbaya, acting Riau Governor Arsyadjuliandi Rachman, and Riau police chief Brig. Gen. Dolly Bambang Hermawan, and brought local community activists and environmentalists into the room to present their solutions.

Woro Supartinah, a local activist with the community, said she was happy to have spoken with the delegation.

"Jokowi said to us, to keep him informed, to let him know how things progress," she told VICE News. "That was the best thing, I feel he understands how to take action, he kept speaking about how everyone knew what had to be done. These are not new solutions. It just takes the willpower. Now that he has seen it, I believe he will act."

Widodo announced to gathered reporters: "I have told the minister of environment and forestry to review the licenses of the companies that have converted peatlands into monoculture plantations if they are found damaging the ecosystem."

"Laws around forestry are very weak here because corruption is rife," said Ginting, "A lot of business is done with local authorities and business under the table, so it is important that these things are investigated fully."

The forest fires go to the heart of Widodo's challenge as president. With his populist platform, and policy of collaborating with communities to solve Indonesia's problems, his election has generated great hope among his supporters. His governing style is a departure from the traditional dynamic of Indonesian politics: he has ordered staff to eat local street food at meetings, and last week flew economy to his son's graduation ceremony in Singapore.

But Indonesia's systemic problems will prove difficult to overcome, especially for an outsider with no background in the security forces. Many populist leaders have failed to deliver the action to back up their symbolism. But in Sungai Tohor, there were no cynics.

Follow Scott Mitchell on Twitter: @s_mitchell