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Converting Indonesian forests and peatlands for various agricultural land uses has released huge amounts of greenhouse gases with little economic benefit, according to a new report.

The report, by the World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF), the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) and Indonesian partners, was released last week (21 November).

Data on changes in land use — such as deforestation for oil palm, rubber, coffee and mixed agroforestry — and carbon emissions in the provinces of East Kalimantan, Jambi, and Lampung were collected between 1990 and 2005.

The provinces make up 16 per cent of Indonesia and account for 16 per cent of the country's emissions, so they are considered relatively representative.

Researchers found that less than two per cent of the 400 megatonnes that the provinces emit per year, largely through 'slash and burn' land clearing, yield a clear economic benefit of more than US$15 per tonne of carbon dioxide.

But sustainable economic benefits can be achieved with low carbon emissions, says Sonya Dewi, head of the Spatial Analysis Unit of ICRAF. She said in a press release that high prices for palm oil and rubber means these crops can be profitable and that using land with low original biomass makes their cultivation environmentally feasible.

Greenomics Indonesia executive director, Elfian Effendi, says the government of Indonesia should use the country's potential for reducing emissions to benefit economically.

Indonesia has 36.5 million hectares of prime rainforest and conservation areas, the economic value of which is estimated at US$105–113.7 billion in carbon trading schemes.

The country's 38.7 million hectares of productive timber forest could add another US$111.46–120.74 billion, bringing total economic benefits from Indonesia's function as a carbon sink to US$216.4–234.4 billion.

Effendi also suggests that Indonesia should be compensated for not releasing 7,000 megatonnes of carbon stored in its forest and peatlands. 

Meine van Noordwijk, regional coordinator for the World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF) said that international mechanisms — to be discussed at the upcoming UN Climate Change meeting in Bali— must not only look at forests but all types of land for their potential to reduce emissions.