BBC Gets On The Anti-Indonesia Bandwagon

In our last blog we revealed the Norwegian Government was funding the BBC and the Gecko Project to take aim at Indonesia’s smallholder farmers.

This week, the BBC appears to have made good for its new donors. Coinciding with the UN climate conference in Glasgow, the media organization has published an unbalanced take-down of the Indonesian sector.

To be clear, the BBC didn’t contact Indonesian farmers who make their livelihoods from palm oil. It didn’t quote Indonesian government officials. It didn’t contact the industry. And, no, RSPO – a certification body – doesn’t count as ‘industry’.

It didn’t point out that deforestation rates in Indonesia are now their lowest on record – a clear sign of the improvements that both the forest moratorium and palm oil moratorium have made under President Jokowi.

It didn’t mention the praise being heaped upon Indonesia by John Kerry, who noted “Indonesia’s tremendous progress in halting deforestation and climate leadership” under President Jokowi.  International organizations and NGOs such as the World Resources Institute and Global Forest Watch have also noted the progress made by the Indonesian Government in reaching levels low of deforestation.

It didn’t expand on the overriding sentiment in Indonesia about the importance of balancing economic, social and environmental concerns across the land use sector. It’s the kind of sentiment that led Jokowi to say of commodity certification (such as palm oil, which the BBC readily dismisses), “Certification must be fair, so that it has an impact on welfare, especially small farmers. Certification must also take into account all aspects of the SDGs, so that forest management is in line with poverty alleviation and community empowerment.”

The omissions are one thing. The selective reporting is another.

Here are the biggest mistakes from BBC piece.

1. “Palm oil has been a major driver of deforestation.”

Yes, palm oil has been responsible for some deforestation. But it needs context. As countless EU and academic studies have noted, the deforestation impacts of livestock for beef are around ten times that of palm oil. Deforestation from soy is double that of palm. Combined, coffee and cocoa are similar to palm. Where’s the BBC piece on any of these harming the climate?

2. “Indonesia is ground zero for land-use change emissions.”

Just so we’re clear, Brazil’s land-use change emissions were larger than Indonesia’s for a good two decades. DRC’s land use change emissions have been higher or on par with Indonesia’s for the past few years. DRC’s emissions have largely been due to wood and fuelwood removals. And it’s also vital to consider per capita LUC emissions. Indonesia is the world’s fourth most populous country. On a per capita basis, its LUC emissions in DRC are three times higher than in Indonesia.

3. “The fires in 2015 made Indonesia the fourth largest greenhouse gas emitter globally, after China, the US and India.”

This claim is contestable: the EU had higher emissions than Indonesia that year, even if the fire figures are included. Again, this is another claim that needs context. As the article states, the 2015 fires were an aberration and prompted significant action. But as stated above, Indonesia is the world’s fourth most populous country; is it any surprise its emissions are high? Its per capita emissions are generally well below that of the EU, for example.

4. “The last five to six years have seen a weak price for crude palm oil so there was not so much appetite for industry expansion.”

Some NGOs have attempted to argue that a weak CPO price – rather than Indonesian policies – have curbed forest clearing for palm oil, citing low futures prices in 2018.  By this rationale, deforestation in 2014 and 2015 – when prices were on the same level – would have been equally low. This indicates a level of ignorance around how farmers actually think, particularly when harvests commence three years from planting. Do we really need to remind that correlation does not equal causation?

5. “Indonesia’s moratorium has expired and not been replaced.”

President Jokowi refuted the claims about how the moratorium is not permanent. Since the Parliament approved the Omnibus ‘Job Creation’ law in 2020, Jokowi stated about the moratorium and Omnibus Law: “I’ve ordered for this to be inserted in the law so that we don’t have to renew it every time it expires … So when (the country’s) leadership changes, there is no change in policy.” Environment Minister Siti Nurbaya Bakar said her office will not process new permit applications.

Moreover, Ruandha Agung Sugardiman, a senior official at Indonesia’s Environment and Forestry Ministry, stated “Even without (the moratorium), the policy laid down by the environment and forestry minister is to continue the ban on new permits for forest clearance for palm oil plantations.”

The BBC may consider that it’s helping deliver sustainable outcomes in publishing this content. But it needs to do better, rather than just repeating anti-palm oil campaign lines, or doing the bidding of a Western donor, or calling for an end to deforestation without offering support for livelihoods.

President Jokowi said one other thing in his speech about funding for developing countries under a climate agreement:

“Commitment must be made through concrete action, real implementation, not rhetoric. Providing assistance does not mean being able to dictate, let alone violate a country’s sovereign rights over its territory. Support should be country-driven, based on the real needs of developing forest owners.”

If the BBC wants to make a difference in Indonesia, it should start with more listening and less talking.