Insights and Analysis

Indonesia’s Forests Disappearing at Record Rates

February 25, 2015

By Tessa Toumbourou

In early November, less than one month after Indonesian President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo’s inauguration, Siti Nurbaya Bakar, the newly installed Environment and Forestry minister, announced that the government would extend an existing moratorium on the issuance of new permits for logging in primary forests in an effort to halt deforestation. While environmentalists and concerned citizens alike certainly welcomed this news, the road ahead to improving forest and land governance in Indonesia is steep.

Deforestation in Indonesia

A 2014 study published in the journal of Nature Climate Change revealed that Indonesia had been under-reporting how much primary forest it was clearing, and that the country suffers the world’s highest rates of forest loss. Photo/Armin Hari

A 2014 study published in the journal of Nature Climate Change revealed that Indonesia had been under-reporting how much primary forest it was clearing, and that the country suffers the world’s highest rates of forest loss – an average of 840,000 hectares per year. New maps of the remaining forest cover in Indonesia’s most heavily forested provinces released in December 2014 by our partner, Forest Watch Indonesia, paint a bleak picture. Green patches that indicate forest areas are overlaid with already issued concession permits, a sign of the fast-paced expansion of palm oil and timber plantations and mining concessions across the country.

Since taking office, the Jokowi administration has acknowledged the pressing need for improvements to forest and land governance, starting with the extension of the moratorium. But a long history of poor governance has allowed for the over-allocation of concession permits, including for areas that restrict clearing, despite the moratorium on issuing new licenses to convert primary natural forests and peatlands introduced by former President Yodhoyono. A review of permits in the district of Kepatang in West Kalimantan, conducted by The Asia Foundation’s partner organization SAMPAN in 2013, revealed that 3,254,521 hectares of concessions have been issued when only 3,158,800 hectares of land even exists. That means that 103 percent of the total Ketapang land area has been allocated permits, indicating overlapping permits. This concession expansion is not unique to Ketapang – 78 percent of Kalimantan’s total land area is now owned by concession (or permit) holders who are predominantly palm oil, timber, and mining companies.

Some important efforts toward improving government accountability in the land use sector were initiated in 2014. The Anti-Corruption Commission (KPK) launched a crackdown on mining permits to enforce related laws and to rectify state revenue loss. In a sweeping review of 12 provinces where the most mining permits have been issued, the KPK partnered with the Supreme Audit Agency and other agencies to check that companies have valid tax identity numbers and pay their full tax obligations, and to ensure that concession areas don’t overlap with other land claims or protected forest areas or violate other environmental laws. District governments and NGOs were involved in the process, and a large number of permits were cancelled or temporarily frozen to allow for a permit review to take place.

Improving forest and land governance is considered key to addressing deforestation and peatland degradation, yet working out priorities within this large and multi-faceted problem can be a challenge for civil society organizations. To provide greater evidence around deforestation, The Asia Foundation’s environmental governance program in Indonesia, SETAPAK, recently conducted a study bringing together a panel of international and Indonesian-based forest and land governance experts to identify drivers of deforestation and peatland degradation as well as the subsequent interventions most likely to improve forest and land governance in Indonesia. The panelists reached a majority agreement over three main indirect drivers: unclear land tenure and uncertain land classification, business and political interests that influence policy-making and regulations, and ineffective land use planning. We just released the findings from this research in a new report, “Improving Indonesia’s Forest and Land Governance.”

When asked to prescribe interventions to respond to these issues, there was strong support for community-level approaches to forest management, including securing community forest tenure through clarifying land claims and integrating local land tenure into spatial planning. These findings align with other studies – including by CIFOR and Rights and Resources – that indicate when local communities have security of tenure over the forests on which they depend, biodiversity resources are conserved, and livelihoods are secured.

Gazetting forests (a term that describes the process for determining and marking boundaries of forests in a consultative manner) was also considered a priority for clarifying land boundaries and determining which areas should be village, community, and state forest zone. The Indonesian government claims to have gazetted more than half of the forest zone in the last two years, following a Constitutional Court decision requiring that this process take place before a forest can be legally defined as state forest. However, many NGOs are concerned that these efforts have actually taken place without community involvement. The gazettement process defines the status of forested areas to determine what is and isn’t state forest. Without being involved in the gazettement process, adat (customary) and local communities’ risk their ancestral forests being considered as state forest and hence not being formally recognized, resulting in possible criminalization of livelihoods and the potential for their land being licensed for industrial use without their consent.

Our study also concluded that business and political interests heavily influence policy-making and regulations and affect forest and land governance. A wide range of actors benefit from deforestation, ranging from those who profit from investments in land-based industrial activities to those who receive revenues, bribes, or other favors outside of the law. Until recently, decentralization of authority for allocating permits for plantation and mining activities has become a source of revenue for corrupt government figures. A law introduced in October 2014 potentially removes authority for issuing permits from district governments, recentralizing power to provincial and central governments. Although not yet implemented, these changes may bring improvements in civil society oversight of the permit issuing process. Governance work requires understandings of the relationships and interests that influence decisions related to forest and land use, for which political economy analysis provides a useful tool.

Much work is required by all stakeholders – NGOs, donors, civil society, government, and the private sector – to ensure that the Jokowi administration’s commitments result in a slowing of deforestation and peatland destruction. In designing interventions to support improved forest and land governance, experts recommend prioritizing community-level management approaches, and considering the variety of vested interests that may resist improvements to forest and land governance.

The Asia Foundation’s SETAPAK program promotes good forest and land governance as fundamental to reducing greenhouse gas emissions and ensuring that the benefits of natural resources are distributed sustainably and equitably.

Tessa Toumbourou is a researcher for The Asia Foundation’s SETAPAK program, and can be reached at [email protected]. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual author and not those of The Asia Foundation.


  1. In the 1970s as a student I learned that primary forest = old growth natural forest with no or little human disturbance.Logged forest = natural forest form which trees have been cut down and removed by people on a commercial scale. Secondary forest = forest that has grown up without human inluence after people have cut down natural forest (for farms). Plantations = trees planted in rows by people after forest has been cut down. Since then, various alternative definitions have come into use. The paper by Margono et al uses “primary forest” to include all logged forest and probably some secondary forests. The paper is great, but use of the word primary in this context is highly misleading. I think there is time to go back to a more rational use of terms for forests. It would be better to use the term “natural” where Margono et al use “primary”.

  2. I’m feeling deeply heartbroken and sorry for Indonesia. It’s one beautiful country because of trees and sad to say that people lack education … Cutting down trees and burn wood to feed the open mouths … Sad to say that human is destroying what was once a beautiful nature !!

About our blog, InAsia

InAsia is a bi-weekly in-depth, in-country resource for readers who want to stay abreast of significant events and issues shaping Asia’s development, hosted by The Asia Foundation. Drawing on the first-hand insight of renowned experts, InAsia delivers concentrated analysis on issues affecting each region of Asia, as well as Foundation-produced reports and polls.

InAsia is posted and distributed every other Wednesday evening, Pacific Time. If you have any questions, please send an email to [email protected].


For questions about InAsia, or for our cross-post and re-use policy, please send an email to [email protected].

The Asia Foundation
465 California St., 9th Floor
San Francisco, CA 94104

The Latest Across Asia


September 13, 2023

2023 Leaders on the Frontlines

Join us in San Francisco on October 12, 2023, to honor Niwat Roykaew.