The Jakarta Post, Jakarta
The government announced Friday a plan to rehabilitate 1.1 million hectares of a 1.4 million-ha slab of land it now admits was badly damaged as a result of a massive peatland project in Central Kalimantan in the 1990s.
"The peatland project was designed to convert forested areas into paddy fields. Though it was not based on any environmental study and has resulted in negative impacts on the environment as well as the regional social structure," the head of the Center of Forestland Use at the Forestry Ministry, Dwi Sudharto, told a media conference Friday.
Between 1996 and 1997, the government initiated the land conversion project by building 187 kilometers of primary water channels, which connected two rivers in that area: the Kahayan and Barito rivers. The project, which resulted in uncontrolled forest fires, produced only 30,000 ha of paddy fields. The government ended the project in 1999.
Early this year, President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono issued a presidential instruction on the rehabilitation of the area.
The eight-point instruction orders 15 departmental and regional offices to provide funds for the land reclamation and reforestation project from the state budget, the regional budget and other untied funding sources.
"The peatland project has threatened several species of rare plants, such as Ramin and Nyatoh, with extinction, while the building of the primary water channel has changed the local waterway system," said Dwi.
He added that logging carried out to clear the peatland forest for rice planting activities had decreased the ability of soil there to absorb water, which caused flooding in the rainy season and fires in the dry season. The 1997 fire in Kalimantan, he said, contributed the highest quantity of carbon ever witnessed anywhere in the world. The project also opened the door for illegal logging in the region, he said.
"In the social sector, the project evicted local communities from their own land, while replacing them with transmigrants who turned out to be incapable of peatland agriculture," he said.
He said the government had decided to return 1.1 million ha of the damaged 1.4 million-ha area to the Forestry Ministry for reforestation. He added that his office is still examining whether the remaining 300,000 ha could be made suitable for agriculture.
The head of the Forestry Ministry Planing Agency, Yetti Rusli, said her office would synchronize the regional spatial plan with the region's forest map together with other related departments.
"We warned the government (of the environmental problem) at that time. If it is possible to use the land effectively for further agriculture, we'll maintain it as such. But if it needs rehabilitation, we'll focus on that," said Yetti.
Dwi said the revision of the provincial spatial plan must reconsider permits issued by the Forestry Ministry, as well as the function of the forest and other areas that had been opened for agriculture, but whose use had never been optimized.
"There is a total of 4.5 million ha of opened land and another 4.7 million ha for plantations for which permits were issued. But only 2 million ha were set aside as land concessions. The synchronization of the spatial plan must also reconsider the existing permits in order to avoid legal problems," said Dwi.