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Indonesia, land of forests and volcanoes

Barack Obama may be glad to leave his political troubles in the US behind him next week, when he visits his childhood home of Indonesia. The President is scheduled to fly over the huge Indonesian archipelago and will see at first hand its threatened resources. Indonesia boasts some of the world’s richest and most varied rainforests, but the country also has one of the highest rates of deforestation. The country’s trees are under constant threat from illegal logging and clearing for agricultural or mining concerns.

Tropical rainforests soak up huge quantities of carbon dioxide, acting as an essential barrier to more extreme climate change. During his visit, Mr Obama is likely to announce how millions of dollars pledged by the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) might be used on tree conservation programmes in Indonesia. The MCC is a foreign aid organisation set up by the previous president to combat climate change. A likely MCC grant of 700 million dollars in total comes on top of the 1 billion dollars already offered by Norway under the UN-backed REDD scheme (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation), following a two-year moratorium on commercial deforestation announced by the Indonesian government in May.

REDD was set up to provide money to developing nations in return for them protecting, restoring and sustainably managing significant areas of their rainforests. This earns the developing countries trade credits because by protecting the trees, they are keeping large amounts of carbon dioxide locked away. The US has an interest in counterbalancing its own pollution with carbon offsets in developing countries in order to meet its future emission targets. Indonesia also faces international pressure on its deforestation from countries in the Asian region. Some of Indonesia’s neighbours are unhappy with the smoky haze which regularly smothers their skies from the burning of Indonesia’s trees.

While the country prepares for Mr Obama’s visit, local officials in Java are more concerned with another kind of smoke affecting their region. Mount Merapi has erupted for the fourth time in eight days, spewing clouds of ash and gas 5 kilometres into the sky. It is the largest eruption so far and has forced the authorities to move temporary shelters even further away from the volcano, to a distance of 15 kilometres. Some 70,000 people have been displaced by the eruptions and are living in 75 camps, set to become 77 soon. 9 of the sites are in the city of Yogyakarta, which lies 25 kilometres from the volcano. The remaining camps, home to more than 50,000, are further away in central Java. These sites are now at over-capacity as more people flee the threat from the volcano. One agency report has said there is an “urgent need” for improved living conditions, noting poor rubbish and sanitation facilities in the camps. Nevertheless, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs has praised the quick response of the Indonesian government, saying its early warning system for volcanoes has worked well.

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