The Indonesian government has rejected proposals made by the country’s leading forestry university to reclassify oil palm estates as forests, Mongabay reported on 10 February.

Researchers from the Bogor Institute of Agriculture (IPB) had been pushing to allow palm oil companies to plant in forest areas — something they’re currently prohibited from doing — since 2018, the report said.

The proposal, led by Yanto Santosa, a professor of forestry at IPB who is supportive of the palm oil industry, aims to do that by classifying oil palms as a forest crop, according to the report.

Indonesia’s environment ministry said it had no plans to adopt the proposal as it had its own programme - the social forestry scheme - to encourage local communities to switch from illegal oil palm plantations to more sustainable, and profitable, agroforestry systems, Mongabay wrote.

“Based on regulations, historical value, academic studies, public discourse and practices [on the ground], oil palms are clearly not a forest crop and the government hasn’t had a plan yet to revise those regulations,” Agus Justianto, the director-general of sustainable forest management at the environment ministry, said in a press release.

If it had been accepted by the government, existing plantations would have counted as forest, while the establishment of new ones would be considered reforestation, the report said.

Justianto said the environment ministry recognised that the unfettered and illegal expansion of oil palm plantations into forest areas had created a range of ecological, hydrological, legal and social problems that needed to be resolved. The problems included loss of biodiversity, degradation of the quality of forest ecosystems and increased risk of natural disasters such as landslides.

However, he said the government was now focused on tackling those problems, rather than allowing more oil palms to be planted inside forest areas.

“Considering that forests have ecological functions that are irreplaceable, and oil palm plantations have already had their own spaces to grow, then right now classifying oil palms as a forest crop or for [forest] rehabilitation purposes is not an option,” he said.

The government had tried to reclassify oil palms as forest crops a decade previously, Mongabay wrote, but the proposal was scrapped after a month due to widespread criticism.

In Indonesia, lands are divided into two main categories: “forest area” and “areas for other purposes,” also known as APL.

When an area is zoned as “forest area,” it is usually off-limits to any kind of clearing, according to the report. Some forest areas are earmarked for “productive” activities, which include growing forest crops, selective logging, and agroforestry — but not oil palm cultivation.

However, lack of monitoring and law enforcement had resulted in companies and smallholders establishing oil palm plantations inside forest areas, Mongabay wrote.

According to government estimates, there are 3.37M ha of oil palm plantations currently operating illegally inside forest areas.

A fraction of this - 700,000ha - is farmed by smallholders who manage on average less than 25ha, with the majority of illegal plantations operated on a large-scale by companies, according to Hero Marhaento, a forest conservation researcher from Gadjah Mada University (UGM),

Yanto, the IPB professor who came up with the controversial proposal, said it was aimed at solving the issue of illegal plantations in forest areas. By reclassifying oil palms as a forest crop, he said, all the existing illegal plantations inside forest areas would automatically be legal.

The proposed reclassification would also contribute to government efforts to rehabilitate degraded lands and forests across the country, he said.

According to environment ministry data, there were 14.01M ha of severely degraded lands in Indonesia in 2018.