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Conflicting Maps Complicate Fight Against Fires, Deforestation in Indonesia

Divergent land ownership claims make it difficult to hold accountable those responsible for igniting blazes, say advocates

Indonesia's annual fires are only getting worse, as last year’s massive event made clear. The fires alone made the country one of the world's biggest emitters of greenhouse gases in 2015, resulting in an estimated 1.6 billion tons of carbon equivalent emissions. Researchers estimate that more than 100,000 people in Indonesia and neighboring countries may have died due to the resulting particulate pollution. Since the largely preventable fires, which were caused by farmers burning forests to clear land and exacerbated by El Niño-related dryness, subsided in October 2015, there have been myriad efforts to try to prevent similar scenarios in future years. Key to the success of all of these efforts, and to the future of Indonesia's forests, may be the One Map initiative.

photo of Indonesia deforestationPhoto by Rainforest Action NetworkFIres in Indonesia, which are often set to clear land for palm oil and timber development, are a major contributor to global emissions. Advocates believe conflicting land ownership maps are contributing to the problem by hampering enforcement efforts.

One Map aims to address what many activists, experts, and private companies see as a central barrier to stopping illegal deforestation and burning in Indonesia: the existence of numerous, conflicting land ownership maps among different levels of government, as well as private sector actors. Conflicting views of ownership make it nearly impossible to hold accountable those igniting blazes across the country. Not to mention that reluctance among some actors to even share their maps with the public leads to gaps in information. 

The One Map initiative aims to rectify these divergent views and fill information gaps in order to provide a foundation for anti-deforestation enforcement efforts across the country. The United States Agency for International Development, the US Forest Service International Programs, and several environmental organizations are contributing to the challenging effort. 

“The Indonesian people have a right to know what is happening on the ground,” said Longgena Ginting, strategy and analysis director with the environmental nonprofit Greenpeace Indonesia, which has been contributing to the One Map initiative, said in a statement. “The government should release the maps it has and name and shame companies that refuse to publish their own maps.”

However, the task of creating a single, accurate map is much easier said than done. Indonesia suffered through decades of poor land management practices due to rampant corruption and a national development policy that focused on resource-driven economic growth. This led to horrific deforestation, even in so-called protected areas, and countless illegal land grabs from indigenous groups. The national government has yet to implement a 2013 Supreme Court decision blocking government actors from selling indigenous-held land and reaffirming the rights of indigenous peoples to manage the lands on which they live. 

Environmentalists know the One Map initiative is a complicated one — they have been working on the effort for years. They came close to success in 2010 when then-President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono's cabinet announced that it would work on releasing One Map. Though the cabinet began the project, six years later there is still no One Map. In the meantime, Indonesia has overtaken Brazil — a country with four times as much forested land — as the world leader in deforestation by total area.

Ideally, One Map would put an end to these overlapping concessions issues and make it clear on whose land fires are being set. It would empower law enforcement, activists, and land-owners themselves to participate in land management activities by making accessible basic information about land rights and responsibilities.

“As we don't know who owns the land, we never get anyone held responsible,” Annisa Rahmawati, forests campaigner with Greenpeace Indonesia, said.

The severity of last year's fires made it clear to many that it was time to stop waiting for the Government to act on the One Map initiative. Earlier this year, Greenpeace Indonesia released its own version of One Map, calledKepo Hutan, which loosely translates to “Curious about Forests.” It is an online, open-source tool that collects forest concession data from various sources — including the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil and companies like Asia Pulp & Paper that have released concession information — and integrates it with satellite data about fires, making it easier to understand where, and on whose land, fires are burning. While it can't be as comprehensive as One Map without access to conflicting Government maps, it is a model that shows the path forward.

“[We wanted to] set an example for the kind of transparency we expect from the government and companies,” Rahmawati said, adding that the tool is already being used by journalists, local activists, and even businesses to monitor what is happening on the ground throughout Indonesia.

The nonprofit World Resources Institute (WRI) is taking a different approach, working at the local level and focusing on the Indonesian province at the center of the deforestation fight: Riau. Located on the island of Sumatra, more than 50 percent of Riau’s forest cover has been lost during the last 30 years, mostly due to the rapid growth of oil palm and paper pulp plantations.

WRI is working to figure out the origins of complex land claim conflicts in the province, and hopes that a bottom-up approach and improved clarity around local land rights will encourage buy-in from all involved parties when it comes to developing solutions. The nonprofit estimates it will take five years to complete the process and release a comprehensive One Map for Riau.

“The thing is, everyone knows that to synchronize maps, you need to go down to the field,” said Nirarta ‘Koni’ Samadhi, the country director for WRI Indonesia. “You cannot do it by sitting at the national level.”

“After five years, what we aspire to achieve is not simply the One Map, per se, but a new system of Government delivery that is [participatory],” Samadhi added.

The many challenges of completing the One Map project are compounded by the urgency of the situation. The map must be accurate in order to be useful, but it must also be done quickly enough to save Indonesia’s precious tropical forests and reduce the country’s emissions. The One Map initiative is ambitious, as it must be, and many agree the sooner it can be done, the better for Indonesians, its haze-breathing neighbors, and the planet.

Nithin Coca
Nithin Coca is a freelance journalist who focuses on environment and economic issues in developing countries, and has specific expertise in Southeast Asia. Nithin's feature and news pieces have appeared in global media outlets including Al Jazeera, Quartz, Atlantic Cities, SciDev.Net, Southeast Asia Globe, The Diplomat, and numerous regional publications in Asia and the United States

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