The merging of the environment and forestry ministries is expected to reduce a persistent dichotomy between the ecological and economic values of forest resources.
Since the end of the 1960s, the value of forests as biodiversity pools and life-supporting systems has been overlooked. As a result, Indonesia has permanently lost a big part of its primary forests, while most of the secondary forests are in a degraded state.
Environmental conditions became worse after the onset of the timber industry, as most forests were over-logged and experienced unchecked and rapid conversion driven by short-term economic gains.
There was no exception for forests with fragile ecosystems, such as peat forests, heath forests and those containing outstanding biodiversity and eco-hydrology values. Meanwhile, small-scale rehabilitation and restoration efforts have often been poorly designed and implemented.
The overall result is rampant conflict over land resources, human and wildlife conflicts and more frequent mega environmental disasters such as haze and flooding, which absorb huge amounts of government resources to mitigate the problems.
It is true that the scope of the Environment and Forestry Ministry is broader than forestry issues.
However, in a tropical country, bad forest management is often the major root cause of environmental problems, such as the annual haze problem, drought, flooding, erosion, river pollution, coastal sedimentation or coral reef destruction.
The huge and invaluable environmental services provided by forests have led to inter-connecting environmental degradation and catastrophe when the forests are in a degraded state. As such, the union of the environment and forestry ministries is the right decision, just like killing two birds with one stone.
Better environmental conditions would be achieved by improving natural resource management, which is ideally managed on the basis of watershed, or natural and ecological boundaries. Using the watershed or water-catchment boundary, the relationship and inter-dependency among ecosystem components and the impacts against development are clearly understood.
The problem is that regional development planning in this country is implemented based on administrative rather than watershed areas and ecological boundaries.
As such, the inter-connection problems and impacts among government and sectors on unsustainable natural resource management are not quickly identified.
Watershed management has been well respected by Indonesian foresters since the 1970s, and since the early 1980s the forestry ministry has mainstreamed watershed-management programs. It was partly conducted by developing watershed-management planning documents, monitoring and evaluation of watershed areas, etc.
Unfortunately the program has limited success stories, despite the huge resources investment.
The hundreds of watershed-management planning and implementation documents aim to be guidelines on managing natural resources.
Referring to past experience, a big question remains — whether the documents will be used as guidance for development or just become a silent pile of papers in a box.
The key requirement in operating watershed management is the establishment of mutual trust, benefits and understanding across sectors to reach common goals.
As such, the initiator should have a strong institutional position to direct, coordinate and enforce sustainable development. The inclusion of the environment ministry as the coordinating ministry on natural resources management will hopefully be able to enlighten the watershed-management program.
Most forestry problems are rooted in a lack of communication and coordination with local government and relevant sectors. The complexity of forestry problems made it impossible for the forestry ministry to solve the problems alone, thus the inclusion of the environment ministry will strengthen the mitigation of forestry problems in an integrated manner, as in the cases of a peatland moratorium, forest fires, rampant illegal logging and encroachment, as well as management of protected forests and conservation areas.
Now that the Environment and Forestry Ministry is managing the largest land resource in this country, unfortunately large parts are in a critical and unproductive state, while the access of local communities to state forest areas remains limited — less than 5 percent of total state forest areas.
At present 40 million hectares of state forest land are unproductive and unmanaged. Big tasks and responsibilities await those in charge of these issues such as, among other things, developing communities based on productive landscapes.
This could be done by enhancing local community access to forests by maintaining the original function and status of the forest, such as developing community-based agro-forestry systems in state forests on outer islands.
As large parts of forestry landscapes have in the past been in the form of monoculture for oil palms and industrial forests, and have become degraded land in mining areas, the establishment of community based agro-forestry will play an important role as a future life-supporting system.
Again, the Environment and Forestry Ministry should not work alone; it has to take collaborative and integrated actions, including the involvement of honest NGOs working on sustainable livelihood development especially at the grassroots level.