• Government says tighter controls on peatland permits have been set
• Campaigners warn of rise in greenhouse gas emissions from land
Ian MacKinnon, south-east Asia correspondent
Wednesday 18 February 2009
Indonesia today acknowledged it had quietly lifted a year-long freeze on the use of peat land for palm oil plantations, fuelling fears of a rise in greenhouse gas emissions.
Environmental groups had pressed the government to maintain the ban but Indonesia's agriculture ministry said tighter controls for issuing new permits for growing palm oil on peat land had been set after a study during the past year.
Indonesia is the world's fourteenth largest emitter of carbon dioxide from fossil fuels, according to 2004 figures. However that does not include emissions from deforestation and peat burning. Its extensive peat lands are a globally significant store of carbon.
To grow palm oil, the peat land that must be cleared and drained, releasing millions of tonnes of CO2 into the atmosphere. The oil is a major export product and is used in numerous foods, soaps, washing powders and as a feedstock for biofuels.
Indonesia has withheld permits since December 2007, but will start issuing them immediately under the new tighter restrictions. Indonesia's agriculture ministry estimated only 2m out of the
country's 25m hectares of peat land would now be eligible for palm oil plantation.
But green campaigners are incensed. "We think it's crazy," said Martin Baker, of Greenpeace International in Asia.
The previous regulations had limited the clearance of peat lands to areas in which the peat extended less than three metres below the surface. The new rules would take into consideration not only depth, but also the peat land's maturity and its fertility.
However, Greenpeace estimates that Indonesia's peat land locks in 37.8 billon tonnes of carbon dioxide, with the main locations in Riau, West Sumatra and Jambi provinces.
A report sponsored by the World Bank and Britain's Department for International Development said up to 84% of Indonesia's carbon emissions came from deforestation, forest fires and peat land degradation.
Indonesia is the world's leading palm oil producer and has planted palm estates of 7.1m hectares, with smallholders accounting for about 35 percent. Palm oil generated exports revenue of £7.64bn in 2008.