Environmentalists have hailed a three-year moratorium on new licences for oil palm plantations that has been signed by Indonesian President Joko Widodo, although they feel the prohibition hasn’t gone far enough.

The moratorium aims to freeze the licensing process and stop new land being made available for plantations in the Southeast Asian nation which has suffered severe deforestation in recent decades.

Indonesia is the world’s top producer of the vegetable oil, which is a key ingredient in foods such as chocolate and biscuits and other items, including shampoo, detergent and cosmetic make-up.

Prabianto Mukti Wibowo, a deputy minister at the Coordinating Ministry for Economic Affairs, told AFP: “[The moratorium] is to improve the governance of sustainable palm oil plantations, provide legal certainty, increase the productivity of smallholder palm oil plantations, maintain environmental sustainability and contribute to the reduction in greenhouse gases.”

The signing of the policy comes more than two years after Widodo, or ‘Jokowi’ as he is popularly known, declared he would impose a ban. He made the vow following the 2015 haze crisis, after fires on vast areas of swamp and peatland drained by plantation companies burned for months, covering the country and neighboring states in smoke.

Plantations on Sumatra island, Papua and the Indonesian part of Borneo have expanded in recent years as demand for palm oil has skyrocketed, bringing huge profits to companies and healthy tax revenues for the government.

But the rapid growth has been blamed for the destruction of tropical forests that are home to many endangered species, and forest fires that occur every year during the dry season due to illegal slash-and-burn clearances.

This picture taken in Feb 2017 shows thick smoke spewing from a crude palm oil factory in Kendawangan, West Kalimantan. The palm oil industry has been repeatedly accused over the years of failing to protect workers' rights and tearing down protected forest for plantations, prompting many companies to pledge greater efforts to improve conditions and halt deforestation. Photo: AFP / Adek Berry
This picture taken in February, 2017, shows thick smoke spewing from a crude palm oil factory in Kendawangan, West Kalimantan. The palm oil industry has been repeatedly accused over the years of failing to protect workers’ rights and tearing down protected forest for plantations, prompting many companies to pledge greater efforts to improve conditions and halt deforestation. Photo: AFP / Adek Berry

Over the past two years, the Indonesian Ministry of Environment and Forestry has released several tracts of land from the country’s “forest zone” to oil palm companies. Recently, dozens of square kilometers were handed to PT Sawit Makmur Abadi, a plantation company operating in the Nabire district of Papua province that has been linked to current and former senior police officials, according to Mongabay.

But land released for oil palm cultivation under the current government “pales in comparison to the enormous area that was rezoned during the tenure of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono”, who served from 2004-2014, it said.

The latest move includes an order for relevant central government ministries and regional governments to conduct a massive review of oil -palm licensing data, by the Coordinating Ministry for Economic Affairs, which must report its progress to the president every six months. Corruption in the issuing of licenses for plantations is reportedly rife.

The Indonesian Forum for the Environment (Walhi), the country’s largest environmental NGO, welcomed the moratorium but suggested the president should have signed it much earlier. Walhi said the moratorium should stay in place for 25 years, because “environmental recovery takes a long time.”

Plantations decimating wildlife

One of the world’s leading conservation groups said three months ago that palm-oil production had “decimated” animal and plant life in Malaysia and Indonesia and threatened pristine forests in central Africa and South America.

Habitat loss due to expanding plantations had pushed some of the planet’s most iconic species – orangutans, tigers and some gibbons – to the brink of extinction, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) said in a report.

A certification system designed to ensure sustainability is “far from fulfilling its potential,” it said. “Palm oil is decimating Southeast Asia’s rich diversity of species as it eats into swathes of tropical forest,” lead author Erik Meijaard, head of the IUCN’s Oil Palm Task Force, said.

When Widodo first mentioned the moratorium on new oil palm licences, he also said he would impose a moratorium on new coal mines, but that has yet to be implemented.

An Indonesian worker handling palm oil seeds at a plantation area in Pelalawan, Riau province in Indonesia's Sumatra island. Photo: AFP/Adek Berry
An Indonesian worker handles palm oil seeds at a plantation in Pelalawan, Riau province on Sumatra island. Photo: AFP/ Adek Berry

A moratorium on converting peatland to palm oil plantations was imposed in 2011 to improve land management and reduce fires, but campaigners have said this was sometimes ignored when local governments granted concessions. Poor spatial data and overlapping forestry maps were also a major problem for authorities trying to enforce regulations governing them.

In 2015, the government banned new development on all peatlands after swathes of carbon-rich peat were drained for use as plantations, creating highly flammable areas.

The decision comes as Indonesia and Malaysia battle a move by the European Parliament to ban the use of palm oil in biofuels. It voted earlier this year in favor of a draft law on renewable energy that calls for the use of palm oil in biofuels to be banned from 2030, amid mounting worries about its impact on the environment.

Indonesia and Malaysia look likely to be hit hard, as they are the world’s top exporters of palm oil.

with reporting by Agence France-Presse