How an EU license may help heal Indonesia's deforestation

Indonesia is one of the biggest carbon emitters due to illegal slash and burn forestry operations. A special program sanctioned by the EU may help turn that around. 

Achmad Ibrahim/AP/File
In this September photo, workers load logs on to a cart for a customer at a timber yard in Jakarta, Indonesia. The European Union has admitted Indonesia to a special licensing system for timber exports it hopes will prevent the illegally felled tropical logs that make up the bulk of the country's wood production from being shipped to the 28-nation bloc. But some environmental and civil society groups are already concerned the licensing system could become a conduit for illegal timber from a country where tropical forests are being cut down at an epic rate.

On Thursday, the European Union announced a partnership with Indonesia, one of the planet's biggest contributors to deforestation, to combat illegal wood harvesting. The southeast Asian nation is the first country that the EU has admitted to a special licensing program for wood trading, whose advocates hope it can help support businesses while preserving the country's vast green spaces as well. 

Businesses that earn certification through the Forest Law Enforcement, Governance and Trade (FLEGT) licensing program will be approved for a "green lane" expediting access to EU markets. One-third of the bloc's tropical timber imports come from Indonesia, according to the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). 

"Indonesia has taken important steps to strengthen forest governance, combat illegal logging, modernize its forest sector, and improve business practices," Robert Simpson, the manager of FAO's FLEGT Program, said in a statement. "In addition to helping to limit the environmental damage caused by illegal logging, demonstrating timber legality opens the door to promoting the sustainable livelihoods of forest communities and increasing access to international wood markets."

Indonesian officials have struggled against illegal practices in the country’s timber trade for years, combatting palm oil and forestry companies' unauthorized burning, which has worsened deforestation – which, worldwide, is itself the second-worst human-caused contributor to carbon emissions. 

Although Indonesia’s vast swaths of forest serve as “the lungs of the planet,” say environmentalists, forestry companies have engaged in slash and burn techniques across the country, contributing to deforestation and air pollution.

“Indonesia had more emissions over the last three months because of the fires than Germany has had in the entire year,” Fred Stolle, a forestry and land-use specialist at the World Resource Institute, told The Christian Science Monitor in December. “It clearly gives a warning to all of us that we need to take this issue seriously.”

A study released last October by an Indonesian anti-corruption commission found that illegal logging in the country between 2003 and 2014 amounted to at least $60 to $80 billion, a number that the commission says is likely about a quarter of the true total.

But the government has promised to cut Indonesia's greenhouse gas emissions, prompting a tougher look at land management policies. For supporters of the FLEGT program, Indonesia's inclusion could be a promising step to help support legal timber practices. 

"Indonesia has taken important steps to strengthen forest governance, combat illegal logging, modernize its forest sector, and improve business practices," Mr. Simpson said. 

Critics of the EU’s decision to grant Indonesia admission to the licensing program, however, say that it might be too soon. Much of the monitoring is limited to the administrative realm, rather than the field, meaning that it can be hard to keep track of what wood is legally sourced. That's a "critical weakness," Christopher Barr, the executive director of Woods & Wayside International, told the Associated Press.

Five other countries have signed Voluntary Partnership Agreements with the European Union and are working towards similar licensing, according to the UN's FAO. 

"Today is the start date, not the finish," Charles-Michel Geurts, the deputy head of the EU mission to Indonesia, told the AP.

This report includes material from the Associated Press. 

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