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Indonesia Revokes Ending Legality License for Wood Exports

Politics
Indonesia Revokes Ending Legality License for Wood Exports
The Ministry of Trade issued a regulation revoking its decision from February to no longer require Indonesian timber companies to obtain export licenses that certify the wood comes from legal sources. BAY ISMOYO / AFP / Getty Images

By Hans Nicholas Jong

The Indonesian government has backed down from a decision to scrap its timber legality verification process for wood export, amid criticism from activists and the prospect of being shut out of the lucrative European market.


On May 11, the Ministry of Trade issued a regulation revoking its decision from February to no longer require Indonesian timber companies to obtain export licenses that certify the wood comes from legal sources. That earlier decision caught environmental activists, the Ministry of Environment and Forestry, and even timber businesses by surprise, prompting a widespread outcry.

Sulistyawati, the trade ministry's director of forestry product exports, said that with the revocation, the export process would go back to the previous system. She said the revocation was in accordance with a request from the Ministry of Environment and Forestry.

Under the trade ministry's controversial February regulation, which would have taken effect on May 27, exporters would no longer have needed to obtain licenses verifying that their timber and finished wood products come from legal sources. The so-called v-legal ("verified legal") licenses are at the heart of Indonesia's timber legality verification system, or SVLK, which took the country a decade to develop and implement in an effort to tackle illegal logging.

The European Union, one of the key markets for Indonesian timber and finished wood products, recognizes the SVLK as the basis for importing timber from Indonesia into its market. Scrapping the standard would have jeopardized exports to the EU, experts warned. Activists were also quick to criticize the move, saying it would open up the black market for illegally logged timber.

Businesses, meanwhile, were worried the decision would undermine hard-won gains for the reputation of Indonesian timber, which was heavily associated with illegal logging in the past.

A recent poll by Gadjah Mada University showed that nearly half of 137 timber businesses surveyed felt ending the v-legal license requirement for exports would harm their business. Industry groups in key export markets have also raised questions about the policy, including the International Wood Product Association (IWPA) in the United States and the Australian Timber Importers Federation (ATIF).

The Indonesian Furniture Entrepreneurs Association (Asmindo), a trade group, welcomed the government's U-turn and reinstatement of the v-legal license requirement. Robert Wijaya, the deputy head of regulation reviews at Asmindo, said the rationale that the licensing requirement put an onerous burden on exporters was baseless. He said data from the national statistics agency, the BPS, showed Indonesia's furniture exports increasing since the implementation of the SVLK.

In 2019, Indonesia exported $1.95 billion worth of wood furniture, a 14.6% increase from 2018.

"So it's not true that the SVLK is said to be hampering exports," Robert said.

Muhammad Kosar, from the Indonesian Independent Forest Monitoring Network (JPIK), which keeps track of the SVLK's implementation, said the trade ministry's about-face showed the lack of coordination between government institutions. As a result, he said, different government departments have different interpretations of the importance of the system.

Krystof Obidzinski, a timber legality expert at the European Forest Institute, agreed that appreciation of the SVLK and associated export agreement with the EU might have declined in recent few years. Thus it's important to communicate the importance of the SVLK to ministries other than the environment ministry, the main proponent of the system, so that the SVLK isn't jeopardized in the future, he said.

"Communication and understanding of the SVLK outside the environment ministry are very minimal," Obidzinski said. "Maybe that's because [of] staff turnover or other interests. So to increase export and [strengthen] the SVLK, it's important to build bridges with other ministries so that the level [of understanding] can be the same."

Under the Voluntary Partnership Agreement (VPA), signed in 2013, all timber shipped to the EU from Indonesia must be certified under the SVLK, which aims to track the chain of custody of timber products and ensure that timber is harvested in compliance with Indonesian law. The agreement also requires Indonesia to commit to SVLK certification for all timber exports — not just to the EU — as well as timber traded in the domestic market.

That stringent implementation of checks at every stage of the process was the justification for cited by the trade ministry for dispensing with the requirement at the end stage — exports. In making this argument, the ministry adopted the main talking point of the Indonesian Furniture and Craft Association (HIMKI), a trade body that has been at the forefront of the lobbying efforts to drop the SVLK requirement for producers of finished wood items. It argued that if a piece of timber has already been legally certified at the logging stage, then there's no need to continue with legality checks further on down the line, including for exporters.

HIMKI chairman Sunoto denounced the trade ministry's backtracking, insisting the SVLK requirement made it difficult for producers to export their furniture products overseas.

"Two months ago, we were already happy because the SVLK had been cancelled at the downstream level [exporters]," he said. "Now it is resurrected. It's not that we don't agree with the SVLK. HIMKI doesn't agree if the SVLK is implemented at the downstream level."

This argument was echoed by Industry Minister Agus Gumiwang Kartasasmita during a government meeting on May 22. He suggested that the SVLK requirement should only be made mandatory at the logging stage, but not at the downstream level.

To address the concerns over the high cost of SVLK certification, the environment ministry will issue a regulation containing several changes to the system. Under the regulation, it'll be the government who verify SVLK certification, not third-party agencies, according to Bambang Hendroyono, the secretary-general of the environment ministry.

"So in the [planned] ministerial regulation, we will make sure that small-and-medium businesses no longer have problems for export, especially to China and Korea," he said.

Reposted with permission from Mongabay.

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In early October, Britain's Prince William teamed up with conservationist David Attenborough to launch the Earthshot Prize, a new award for environmentalist innovation. The Earthshot brands itself the "most prestigious global environment prize in history."

The world-famous wildlife broadcaster and his royal sidekick appear to have played an active role in the prize's inception, and media coverage has focused largely on them as the faces of the campaign.

But the pair are only the frontmen of a much larger movement which has been in development for several years. In addition to a panel of experts who will decide on the winners, the prize's formation took advice from the World Wildlife Fund, Greenpeace and the Jack Ma Foundation.

With more and more global attention on the climate crisis, celebrity endorsement of environmental causes has become more common. But why do environmental causes recruit famous faces for their campaigns? And what difference can it make?

'Count Me In'

"We need celebrities to reach those people who we cannot reach ourselves," says Sarah Marchildon from the United Nations Climate Change secretariat (UNFCCC) in Bonn, Germany.

Marchildon is a proponent of the use of celebrities to raise awareness of environmental causes. In addition to promoting a selection of climate ambassadors who represent the UN on sustainability issues, Marchildon's team has produced videos with well-known narrators from the entertainment world: among them, Morgan Freeman and Mark Ruffalo.

"We choose celebrities who have a lifestyle where they are already talking about these issues," Marchildon explains.

"Sometimes they reach out to us themselves, as David Attenborough did recently. And then they can promote the videos on their own social channels which reach more people than we do — for example, if they have 20 million followers and we have 750,000."

Environmental groups focused on their own domestic markets are also taking this approach. One Germany-based organization that uses celebrities in campaigns is the German Zero NGO. Set up in 2019, it advocates for a climate-neutral Germany by 2035.

German Zero produced a video in March 2020 introducing the campaign with "66 celebrities" that supported the campaign, among them Deutschland 83 actor Jonas Nay and former professional footballer Andre Schürrle. They solicit support as well as financial contributions from viewers.

"Count me in," they say, pointing toward the camera. "You too?"

"We are incredibly grateful for the VIPs in our videos," says German Zero spokeswoman Eva-Maria McCormack.

Assessing Success Is Complex

But quantifying the effectiveness of celebrity endorsement of campaigns is not a straightforward process.

"In order to measure effectiveness, first of all you need to define what is meant by success," says Alegria Olmedo, a researcher at the Zoology Department at the University of Oxford.

Olmedo is the author of a study looking at a range of campaigns concerning pangolin consumption, fronted by local and Western celebrities, in Vietnam and China. But she says her biggest stumbling block was knowing how to measure a campaign's success.

"You need a clear theory of change," explains Olmedo. "Have the celebrities actually helped in achieving the campaign's goals? And how do you quantify these goals? Maybe it is increased donations or higher engagement with a cause."

A popular campaign in China in recent years saw famous chefs Zhao Danian and Shu Yi pledge to abstain from cooking endangered wildlife. While the pledge achieved widespread recognition, both Olmedo and Marchildon say it's difficult to know whether it made any difference to people's actions.

"In life we see a thousand messages every day, and it is very hard to pinpoint whether one campaign has actually made a difference in people's behavior," she explains.

Awareness Is Not Enough

Many campaigns that feature celebrities focus on raising awareness rather than on concrete action — which, for researcher Olmedo, raises a further problem in identifying effectiveness.

"Reach should never be a success outcome," she says. "Many campaigns say they reached a certain number of people on social media. But there has been a lot of research that shows that simply giving people information does not mean they are actually going to remember it or act upon it."

But anecdotal evidence from campaigns may suggest reach can make an active difference.

"Our VIP video is by far the most watched on our social media channels," McCormack from German Zero says. "People respond to it very directly. A lot of volunteers of all ages heard about us through that video."

However, some marketing studies have shown that celebrity endorsement of a cause or product can distract from the issue itself, as people only remember the person, not the content of what they were saying.

Choosing the Right Celebrity

Celebrity choice is also very important. Campaigns that use famous faces are often aiming to appeal to members of the public who do not necessarily follow green issues.

For certain campaigns with clear target audiences, choosing a climate scientist or well-known environmentalist rather than a celebrity could be more appealing — Attenborough is a classic example. For others, images and videos involving cute animals may be more likely to get a message heard than attaching a famous face.

"We choose celebrities who have a lifestyle where they are already talking about these issues," says Marchildon from the UN. "You need figures with credibility."

McCormack cites the example of Katharine Hayhoe, an environmental scientist who is also an evangelical Christian. In the southern United States, Hayhoe has become a celebrity in her own right, appealing to an audience that might not normally be interested in the messages of climate scientists.

But as soon as you get a celebrity involved, campaigns also put themselves at risk of the whims of that celebrity. Prince William and younger members of the royal family have come under fire in recent years for alleged hypocrisy for their backing of environmental campaigns while simultaneously using private jets to fly around the world.

But Does It Really Work?

While environmental campaigns hope that endorsement from well-known figures can boost a campaign, there is little research to back this up.

"The biggest finding [from my study] was that we were unable to produce any evidence that shows that celebrity endorsement of environmental causes makes any difference," says Olmedo.

This will come as a blow to many campaigns that have invested time and effort into relationships with celebrity ambassadors. But for many, the personal message that many celebrities offer in videos like that produced by German Zero and campaigns like the Earthshot Prize are what counts.

The research may not prove this conclusively — but if the public believes a person they respect deeply personally cares about an important issue, they are perhaps more likely to care too.

"I personally believe in the power this can have," says Marchildon. "And if having a celebrity involved can get a single 16-year-old future leader thinking about environmentalist issues — that is enough."

Reposted with permission from DW.

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