Ahead of summit, Indonesia plants 79 million trees to boost its green credentials

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The Independent Online

Indonesia has embarked on a grand scheme to plant 79 million trees in an attempt to boost its green credentials ahead of a United Nations climate change summit it is hosting in Bali next week.

President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, who was photographed this week planting saplings with government ministers, declared that "illegal logging is our biggest enemy" and added: "We will show Indonesia's strong commitment and action to preserve the environment and save our planet."

Environmentalists, however, were unimpressed. In recent years, Indonesia has been destroying its forests at a faster rate than any other country. As a consequence, it has the dubious distinction of being the world's third-biggest producer of greenhouse gases, behind the US and China.

As for its commitment to cracking down on illegal logging, which is a massive problem in Indonesia, one of the nation's most notorious timber barons, Adelin Lis, recently walked free from court in the city of Medan and promptly fled, possibly abroad, to avoid further charges.

Mr Lis was captured and put on trial after a six-month international manhunt. His acquittal confounded many observers, including the police, who said it was their strongest case ever against an illegal logging operation. Few cases even get to court, and those usually end in acquittals. Bribery and corruption are rife within the Indonesian legal system.

Mr Lis's release followed an extraordinary intervention by the Forestry Minister, Malam Kaban, who claimed in a letter to the court that the activities of Mr Lis's companies were not a crime but "an administrative violation". Mr Lis, who was charged with destroying 58,000 hectares of virgin forest on the island of Sumatra, avoided a multi-million-dollar fine and 10 years in jail. Mr Kaban has repeatedly resisted tighter regulation of the forestry industry. President Yudhoyono even appealed to him publicly this week, saying: "Mr Kaban, please look after Indonesia's forests."

According to some estimates, Indonesia loses an area of forest the size of Switzerland every year, or the equivalent of a football pitch every 10 seconds. Much of it is cleared to make way for lucrative palm oil plantations. Forest fires, land clearing and the degradation of carbon-rich peatlands are blamed for the country's alarming volume of greenhouse gas emissions.

Indonesia, which has 10 per cent of the world's remaining tropical rainforests, has called on rich nations to give it financial assistance to preserve them. The Environment Minister, Rachmat Witoelar, has said it needs $6bn a year. The country is also keen for the Bali talks to adopt a scheme that would enable it to earn an estimated $13bn for conserving its forests, under a carbon trading scheme.

Globally, deforestation is said to contribute one fifth of all CO2 emissions more than the world's cars, trucks, trains and aircraft combined. Indonesia's most heavily-logged areas are in North Sumatra province, Kalimantan on the island of Borneo and in Papua province.