Jakarta. Home to a huge diversity of flora and fauna, Indonesia has always been in the spotlight when it comes to environmental conservation. And in 2016, Indonesia finally seemed to wake up to the fact it simply has to take on a leading role to protect the planet's dwindling forest reserves.
And it took on the role better than expected, too, unexpectedly managing to reduce the number of forest fires across its archipelago in 2016.
The country has the third largest area of tropical rainforests in the world, and the trauma of the 2015 massive forest fires seemed to have spurred the government into action.
As they say, good things rose from the ashes, and apart from fewer forest fires, 2016 also saw more sanctions for forest arsonists and, finally, a slight hope that real environmental conservation may actually take hold in the country.
Fewer fires, more forests saved
Many praised Indonesia for making much better effort at preventing forest fires in 2016 than it did in 2015.
Most attributed the success to the moratorium on palm oil concessions, which forced palm oil companies to get creative on replanting, as well as adhere to the Indonesian Sustainable Palm Oil certification and the internationally accredited RSPO certification.
Or maybe it was due to a push from an unexpected source: the Indonesian Ulema Council, which issued a fatwa prohibiting Muslims from burning forests.
But the World Resources Institute said the success could have been due to a more natural cause: weather conditions. 2016 was cooler than in the last few years and there were more rains, which naturally resulted in fewer forest fires.
According to WRI data, there were 73 percent fewer fire alerts raised this year than in 2015.
In 2016, the Ministry of Environment and Forestry also won a $76 million civil lawsuit against Sampoerna Strategic Group's agribusiness unit National Sago Prima for partly causing the 2015 massive forest fires.
A study claimed that haze from the 2015 fires severely affected more than 100,000 people, with the World Bank estimating that the environmental losses ran to the tune of more than $16 billion.
The ministry also claimed that more than a million hectares of forest have been recovered this year. The country also scored a Guinness World Record for planting more than 238,000 trees within an hour – good news any way you look at it.
Flag off for FLEGT
Indonesia — often accused of harboring illegal loggers — also witnessed the world’s first FLEGT-licensed timber export from Indonesia to the European Union in November.
The Forest Law Enforcement, Governance and Trade (FLEGT) license allows Indonesia to expedite its timber exports to EU countries. The license guarantees that Indonesia's timber comes from certified sources and that the producers stick rigidly to good forest governance during production.
Indonesia had signed up for the FLEGT to combat illegal logging and prove Indonesia’s serious commitment in environmental conservation.
The decision also provided a competitive edge for Indonesia against other timber-producing countries. Indonesia's FLEGT license was the first to be given out by the EU.
Race to extinction
Global leaders established a worldwide ban on pangolin trade during the 17th Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species (Cites) in South Africa in October. This was excellent news for Indonesia, whose Sunda pangolins are often targeted by poachers.
As the most commonly trafficked mammal in the world, Indonesia saw its population of pangolines decline by 80 percent in the last 20 years, with the shy nocturnal animal commonly being killed and its meat sold as a delicacy in niche markets like China.
No one knows how many pangolins are left in the wild in Indonesia, but if its illegal trade keeps going at the current rate, Indonesia may soon lose another "race to extinction" involving one of its endemic wildlife.
Other animals native to Indonesia still at risk of extinction include the Sumatran rhinos, tigers, elephants and orangutans.
The Bornean cousins of Sumatran orangutan also saw a slump in population, leading the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) to categorize Bornean orangutans as "critically endangered," thanks to rampant habitat degradation and poaching.
Asia's endangered tigers, some of them in Indonesia, also saw a dramatic fall in population numbers as the illegal wildlife trade's appetite for their body parts — which supposedly have magical healing or aphrodisiac properties — shows no sign of abating.
Cited also issued a stronger conservation regulation for the critically endangered helmeted hornbill, shining a limelight on the illegal trade for its "red ivory."
Mount Leuser gets buzz from Hollywood royalty
Though major losses of biodiversity are still happening across the archipelago, thanks to Leonardo DiCaprio’s visit to the Mount Leuser National Park in March, habitat degradation in Indonesia has now become a worldwide cause célèbre.
Illegal logging, overlapping palm oil concessions and poaching are nevertheless still threatening the Mount Leuser ecosystem, known as the only place in the world where rhinos, tigers, elephants and orangutans cohabit.
Footage of the Mount Leuser National Park was included in DiCaprio’s environmental documentary, Before the Flood, which highlighted the impacts of climate change on a global scale.
Despite its newfound fame, though, the national park is still facing a lot of threats, especially after losing a civil lawsuit to include Mount Leuser in Aceh's spatial development plan for 2013-2033.
The loss meant the Aceh government can allow palm oil producers to establish a plantation inside the ecosystem, which will undoubtedly cause even more environmental damage.
Ratifying Paris Agreement, implementing goals
Saving the best for last, the highlight in 2016 for Indonesia on the environmental front was its ratification of the Paris Agreement.
Since Indonesia is already one of the largest carbon emitters in the world, ratifying the Paris Agreement not only showed the country’s seriousness in climate change mitigation, but also its willingness to contribute to world change.
This means the country may now welcome more sustainable development, including green buildings, renewable energy and smart cities.
After ratifying it in 2016, Indonesia will start to implement points in the agreement in 2017, starting reportedly with improving law enforcement in its conservation efforts.