The absence of a universally-accepted definition on forest and deforestation has made Indonesia, one of the world’s largest lungs with its forest cover of some 162 million hectares in perpetual disagreement with its accusers over the rate of deforestation on its shores.

Indonesia is one of the countries that have the largest forest area, however, the definition of forest is still debatable

The definition of what a forest entails can substantially impact the estimate of deforestation and forest destruction as well as in estimating the real culprit behind deforestation.

The International Panel on Climate Change/IPCC is recommending that all countries should report on the loss of their forest cover and also glasshouse gas emission using internationally-recognized definitions, such as that of the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). However, countries, including Indonesia, usually prefer to stick to their own national definitions.

Indonesia follows two forest definitions. One as stipulated in Forestry Ministry Regulation Number P.14 of 2004 while the other is contained in Law number 41 of 1999 on Forestry.

The ministerial regulation defines forest as land with a surface of at least 0.25 hectare possessing a tree crown coverage of at least 30 percent and trees that can grow to reach a height of five meters when logged.

The law that began to take effect in 2000, classifies forests into three separate categories – conservation forests, protected forests and production forests.

According to the national definition held by the forestry ministry, monoculture plantations are counted as forest while palm oil plantation is not, as the definition of a tree is said not to be met by the crop.

The absence of a universal definition is also found when it concerns deforestation in Indonesia. The current definition refers to the Forestry Minister Regulation number P30 of 2009 that specifies it as a permanent conversion, because of human activities, from the forested area into areas with no forest function.

This formulation has led to differences in the calculation of the deforestation rate, between Indonesia and other parties. The Internationally-accepted rates see the conversion of forest into industrial timber estates (HTI) as an act of deforestation while the definition of the environment and forestry ministry does not include that as deforestation.

In relations to this, Minister of the Environment and Forests, Siti Nurbaya said that the government is trying to redefine what a forest is and what deforestation is too, by involving experts.

“This position has become very important for Indonesia while moving into an advanced nation. Deforestation should no longer become a burdening image but part of an agenda, or seen as a problem that is solvable,” she said as quoted by Mongabay.

Indonesia itself is not yet in total agreement on what is defined as a forest.

Soelthon Gussetya, Executive Director of Forest Watch Indonesia is of the view that the definition of forest as contained in the regulation of the forestry ministry was not fully accurate because it reduced the meaning of forest itself.

“So, for us in FWI, we see that approaching forest data using those definitions, reduces the forest which is not only dominated by trees,” he told the Palm Scribe, adding that so far, FWI was using the definition as stated in the law.

Meanwhile, Kosar, the National Coordinator of the Independent Forest Monitoring Network (JPIK) said he also used the definition of forest as in the law but added that for him, the problem was not in the definition but rather on the on-site supervision on the use of forest areas.

“According to me, we should get trapped into whether a definition is suitable to its socio-ecological environment or not. This is because, as we all know, the rules are actually quite good but it is the implementation which is weak.”

Kosar said he also believed the government must involve communities more in supervision the usage of forests, as well as open access to the data and information on forests to the public.

Using its own forest and deforestation definition the Ministry of Environment and Forest said that Indonesia had actually seen that deforestation had slowed down in the 2016-2017 period when compared to the previous period.

Soelthon Gussetya, commenting on that, reiterated his opinion that there were different deforestation rates, depending on the region. “It could be that deforestation is slowing down in West Indonesia but not in East or Central Indonesia. Even though as a whole, the deforestation rate is dropping.”

He also believed that North Maluku and East Kalimantan are the provinces with the highest deforestation rates in 2016. He puts deforestation that year in North Maluku at 52,000 hectares while for East Kalimantan the figure stood at 157,000 hectares. FWI published the date in an article on land clearing for industrial timber estate.

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