JAKARTA (Reuters) - Indonesia's forestry minister on Wednesday said he had revoked the land use permits for 23 mining and other firms operating in forested areas and may crack down further, indicating a tougher stance on environmental protection.
Forestry Minister Zulkifli Hasan, 48, also told Reuters in an interview there were no plans to allow geothermal projects in protected forest areas, contradicting recent comments by other government officials on a key energy policy.
Indonesia is under international pressure to do more to save its huge tracts of tropical forest, which act as carbon sinks and help reduce the amount of greenhouse gas emissions that cause global warming.
Hasan said that he had already revoked the land use permits of 23 companies caught breaching the land permit rules and that he would not hesitate to revoke more in future.
"Not just the small companies, but the big ones too," he said. "For example, if you are given a permit to mine here but you mine over there, your permit will be revoked. We are currently conducting an investigation into this."
A Department of Forestry document obtained by Reuters showed several mining, forestry and other firms were among those affected.
The minister said geothermal production -- a key part of the government's energy policy -- was not allowed in protected forests and he did not see this changing soon, contradicting recent statements by officials in his ministry and by the economic coordinating minister.
"It's true that the majority of geothermal opportunities are in conservation areas, in mountains. We are yet to produce a regulation" allowing geothermal developers to enter those areas, he said. "If, later on, the law changes, I will allow it but until now it is completely not allowed."
However, a forestry official said the government is still discussing ways to accommodate geothermal activities projects in protected forests.
"We are still studying geothermal activities. It is not easy because we have the law that bans such activities," said Darori, the ministry's director general of forest protection and nature conservation.
Indonesia has established two crash programmes to increase power generation by 10,000 megawatts (MW) in a bid to resolve chronic power shortages and frequent blackouts in the country.
The first programme, which is due to be 40 percent complete by the middle of next year, relies on coal-fired power stations, while a second programme, due to start this year, has 3,900 MW of power slated to come from geothermal sources.
Indonesia stands to gain billions from a U.N-backed scheme called reduced emissions from deforestation and degradation (REDD), under which polluters can earn tradable carbon credits by paying developing nations not to chop down their trees.
Hasan said failed global climate talks in Copenhagen last year and problems passing carbon trading laws in the United States and Australia had not dented his commitment to REDD.
Forest fires that cause haze over Southeast Asia are mainly the responsibility of other government departments, he said.
"At least 70 percent of forest and peat fires occur outside of forestry areas," he said. "To tackle this in a more integrated way, a presidential decree on controlling forest fires has been drafted and is awaiting the president's signature," he said.