By Michael Taylor
KUALA LUMPUR - Swathes of rainforest Indonesia plans to recover from oil palm planters must not instead be handed to the mining and timber sectors nor used for infrastructure, green groups said.
Jakarta last week said it could take back 1.4 million hectares (3.5 million acres) of forests under a ban on clearing land for palm plantations to produce the popular oil.
Gemma Tillack, forest policy director at U.S.-based environmental group Rainforest Action Network, said the move was "a welcome signal at a time when forest fires are destroying rainforests the world over".
"(But) it is critical that lands spared from conversion to oil palm plantations are not reallocated for other destructive uses," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation on Friday.
Home to the world's third-largest tropical forests, Indonesia is also the biggest producer of palm oil, which many green groups say has fuelled forest-clearing for plantations.
Palm oil is the world's most widely used edible oil, found in everything from margarine to soap, but has faced scrutiny in recent years from green activists and consumers, who have blamed its production for forest loss, fires and worker exploitation.
The slash-and-burn practices involved in palm oil production are often blamed for Indonesia's annual forest fires, which cause health-damaging air pollution across the region.
Last year, President Joko Widodo issued a ban on new permits for palm plantations for three years, aiming to protect the Southeast Asian nation's forests and boost yields from existing planted areas.
The order also gave the government the authority to review licenses, and revoke them if an area had yet to be cleared.
Likely bureaucratic delays in taking back the land after last week's announcement could lead to pre-emptive deforestation by developers or undermine efforts by some firms to protect forests in their concessions, said Arie Rompas, a forest campaigner at Greenpeace Indonesia.
Any forest or peatland areas returned to the government should be included in the country's permanent moratorium on new forest clearance, she added.
Discussions about reclaimed land should involve local and indigenous people, environmental organisations, researchers and sustainable businesses, said Herry Purnomo, a scientist at the Center for International Forestry Research in Indonesia.
Whether government ministries have the resources and funds to manage the additional forest areas was another concern, he noted, warning that illegal land-grabbing was a real danger.
"If the government transferred the expropriated lands back to the indigenous owners, there are good prospects that the forests could be conserved," said Marcus Colchester, a senior policy advisor at the Britain-based Forest Peoples Programme.