International criticism of Indonesia's massive biofuel development program will not affect the project, which is expected to turn the country into one of the biggest biofuel producers in the world, says an official.
The director of the Energy and Mineral Resources Ministry's research and development unit, Nenny Sri Utami, said in Jakarta on Monday that the plan to turn more than five million hectares over to growing the feedstock for the biofuel plants would go ahead as planned.
Nenny, who is also a member of the government biofuel development committee, said that allegations being made by some international non-governmental organizations to the effect that the program would endanger the environment were groundless.
A 2006 presidential decree on the development of the biofuel sector states that only idle or critical land can be used for the development of biofuel-feedstock plantations. Feedstock is produced by, among other plants, oil palms, sugarcane and jatropha.
As part of the project, the government has allocated 5.25 million hectares of idle land for the growing of the basic feedstock for bioethanol and biodiesel production.
About 1.5 million hectares will be allocated for oil palms, 1.5 million hectares for jatropha, 0.75 million hectares for sugarcane and about 1.5 million hectares for cassava.
Under the program, Indonesia is expected to be able to produce the basic components for biofuel production, including fatty acid methyl esters (FAME) and about 3.95 million tons of ethynol a year by 2010. At this production level, Indonesia would be one of the world's biggest biofuel producers.
To date, the Forestry Ministry has set aside a total of 5.06 million hectares in 13 provinces to be used for such plantations.
"Looking at the list, we can see that none of these areas are located in protected forests," Deka Mardiko of the Forestry Ministry told The Jakarta Post on Monday.
"We are working together with the National Land Agency, Agriculture Ministry and Home Ministry to check whether the areas are located in forests or not," Deka said. "If anyone is caught clearing land in a protected area, even if he wants to grow biofuel feedstock, he will be charged with illegal logging."
The Forestry Ministry's director of renewable energy, Ratna Ariati, said she understood the concerns of the international NGO's over the biofuel program.
"They are not only afraid of the environmental consequences arising from land clearance for biofuel-feedstock plantations, but also that production will disrupt food supplies as many of the plants that provide biofuel feedstock are also edible," Ratna said.
The International Herald Tribune says that scientists around the world are taking a second look at what biofuel really has to offer, with many questioning the environmental feasibility of the current system used for developing green energy.
In an article published last January, the Herald Tribune said that rising demand for palm oil in Europe had brought about the razing of huge tracts of Southeast Asian rain forest and the overuse of chemical fertilizer there. Not only that, the space for the expanding palm plantations was often created by draining and burning peatland, which sent huge amounts of carbon emissions into the atmosphere.
One NGO that is concerned with environmental issues, Friends of the Earth, estimates that 87 percent of the deforestation in Malaysia between 1985 and 2000 was caused by new oil-palm plantations, while in Indonesia, the amount of land devoted to oil palm has increased by 118 percent in the past eight years.
One study says that the draining of the peatland used for biofuel plantations in Indonesia releases 600 million tons of carbon into the atmosphere a year and that fires contribute an additional 1,400 million tons annually. According to the researchers, the total, 2000 million tons, is equivalent to 8 percent of all global emissions caused annually by burning fossil fuels.
In response, Ratna said that the government would strictly abide by the basic principles of environmental protection.
"We are doing it for the sake of the environment. It would be nonsense if we were to destroy the forests in the process," Ratna said.