Indonesia's agric ministry backs province's forest moratorium
* Aim is to improve land concessions and land use
* Province produces two-thirds of Indonesia's coal
* Produces 2 million tonnes of palm oil annually
JAKARTA, Feb 1 (Reuters) - Indonesia's agriculture ministry backs a move by East Kalimantan to impose a forest moratorium in the province, an official said on Friday, in what may signal a softening in the department's opposition to extending the nationwide forest destruction ban.
East Kalimantan imposed a one-year forest moratorium for 2013, citing the need to cut back on land disputes in the palm oil and coal producing province.
"We support East Kalimantan provincial government's measure to impose plantation moratorium for 2013," Gamal Nasir, director general of plantation at the agriculture ministry, told Reuters.
"We support it because the aim of this moratorium is to fix and improve land concessions and land-use for the sake of better management of natural resources in East Kalimantan," he added.
Plantation firms have doubted whether provincial governments have the authority to issue a separate forest moratorium policy.
East Kalimantan produces about two-thirds of Indonesia's coal, while palm plantations cover about 700,000 hectares of East Kalimantan and produce 2 million tonnes of output each year.
Recently ranked fourth among Indonesia's 33 provinces in terms of infrastructure development and quality of life, East Kalimantan sits on about 40 percent of Indonesia's coal reserves or 8.5 billion tonnes.
Palm oil companies such as Astra Agro Lestari, Sime Darby, Sinar Mas and BW Plantation are some of the biggest in Indonesia and will contribute to the 27.5 million tonnes of production forecast for this year.
"Although temporarily it may halt oil palm plantation expansion in East Kalimantan, it could also result in better and improved land use and the expansion stoppage will be temporary for less than one year," Nasir said, referring to the fact that a two-year nationwide ban on clearing forest was up for renewal in May.
Indonesia, home to the world's third-largest expanse of tropical forests, is under international pressure to curb deforestation and destruction of its carbon-rich peatlands.
Southeast Asia's largest economy imposed a two-year moratorium on clearing forest in May 2011 under a $1 billion climate deal with Norway, and the agriculture minister said in late December that he opposed its extension.
In contrast, Indonesia's Forestry Ministry and influential government officials have backed an extension beyond May. (Reporting by Yayat Supriatna; writing by Michael Taylor; editing by James Jukwey)