Indonesia's forestry ministry ends WWF partnership over fire row

JAKARTA (Reuters) - Indonesia’s environment and forestry ministry said on Wednesday it ended a 25-year conservation agreement with the World Wildlife Fund for Nature (WWF) because the group let a forest where it operated burn.

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Bambang Hendroyono, secretary-general at the ministry, accused WWF in a statement to Reuters of allowing some of its concession to burn and also criticized a WWF social media campaign slamming the government over forest fires.

WWF told reporters late on Tuesday that the government had unilaterally ended the deal, which was due to expire in 2023, and that the decision could threaten its efforts to protect endangered wildlife including tigers and rhinos.

Indonesia suffered its worst forest fires last year since 2015, with billowing smoke and haze spread across a huge area including neighboring countries. The World Bank estimated that the fires caused $5.2 billion in damage.

“The WWF Indonesia Foundation deeply regrets the unilateral decision taken by the Ministry of Environment and Forestry to terminate our decades-long agreement,” Kuntoro Mangkusubroto, chairman of WWF Indonesia’s advisory board, said on Tuesday.

The agreement, which was signed in 1998, allowed WWF to enter conservation areas for monitoring work on tigers and rhinos, among other endangered animals.

The burnt forest concession referred to by the ministry was given to WWF by the government for restoration purposes in 2015, according to Elis Nurhayati, a spokeswoman for WWF.

She denied the agency was responsible for the fire on its concession and said the agency apologized if its social media communications had offended the government.

WWF started operating in Indonesia in 1962, according to its website.

Thirty WWF projects with the environment and forestry ministry will be affected by the termination, including one involving the translocation of critically endangered Sumatran rhinos within East Kalimantan.

WWF was also part of a team rescuing endangered Javan rhinos in the Ujung Kulon National Park on Java island.

“The termination is serious,” WWF’s Mangkusubroto said.

WWF is in the process of handing over assets to the government, such as reports and documentation, acting WWF CEO Lukas Adhyakso told reporters late on Tuesday.

Nurhayati said WWF would offer the services of its staff affected by the end of the agreement to the government, “if no new deal were made”.

Reporting by Stanley Widianto; Editing by Ed Davies and David Clarke