Today we made history in the protection of Indonesian peatlands. I’ve just got back from a monitoring trip to Sumatra’s devastated peatland forests with Indonesia’s new president Jokowi, where the president witnessed firsthand ongoing peatland and rainforest destruction and took decisive action to stop it. With your support, we have just made a major step forward in the battle to protect forests and the climate.

Indonesian President Joko Widodo Visits Sungai Tohor Community in Riau© Ardiles Rante/Greenpeace

President Jokowi made his visit to support Abdul Manan, a villager from Sungai Tohor, a small community in fire-ravaged Riau province. Manan had petitioned the president to come witness for himself the devastating impacts on the province of decades of forest and peatland destruction by the pulp and palm oil industries.

We knew President Jokowi was serious right away. When bad weather aborted his initial helicopter flight to visit Manan’s village, the president cancelled an invitation to speak at a palm oil company conference in order to stay an extra day in Riau and wait for the weather to clear. By his words and his actions, the president showed his commitment to a new form of government. “We have to get strict with these companies, no more indulgence. Why should we let business make a prize of our natural resources while we stay silent?” he said after his first flight was turned back.

So this morning we were given the all clear. The flight was on. Our flyover included the peatland ecosystem of the Kampar peninsular and Padang Island, where we saw for ourselves evidence of recent clearing and draining by APRIL. APRIL is the only major pulp player still involved in active forest and peatland destruction here – the root cause of the massive fires that plague the region every year, disrupting the lives of millions, compromising wildlife and the stability of the global climate.

Deforestation at APRIL Concession in Riau © Ulet Ifansasti / Greenpeace

When we arrived at a makeshift helipad in Sungai Tohor, the whole community turned out to meet the president. I stood with the local people as President Jokowi rolled up his sleeves, took off his shoes and socks and stepped into the waters of the canal. Taking up a plank and thrusting it into the bottom of the canal to seal the community-built dam, he said he didn’t want to see our nation’s forests disappear for the sake of acacia and palm oil plantations. “And peatlands can’t be underestimated, they must be protected because they constitute a special ecosystem, and it’s not only deep peat that must be protected, but all peat areas,” he said.

How the times are changing, and for the good! Greenpeace activists together with the local community first started building dams here in Riau to stem the devastation of these critical peatlands in 2007 and 2009. Then we were confronted by the police for our actions. It would have been hard for Greenpeace activists to believe that just a few years later the president himself would be taking the same action and promising sweeping changes.

Construction Dam Action in Sumatra 2009 © Greenpeace / John Novis

And changes are certainly critical if Riau’s peatlands are to be restored and permanently protected. These include strengthening and extending a moratorium on new permits on primary forest and peatlands and a review of plantation, forestry and mining leases as part of the national “One Map” approach. Today Jokowi hinted that he would pursue these reforms, but we’ll need to keep up our campaigning and our dialogue with him. He needs to know that this really is what people want. We rely on your support for that.

The final and welcome surprise today came from Jokowi’s newly appointed Minister for Environment and Forestry, who accompanied us to Sungai Tohor. Siti Nurbaya announced that she would revoke the permit of a plantation concession adjacent to Manan’s village that residents have been protesting for years, and return the land to the community in the form of a collectively managed village forest. Today has been a day of celebration not just for the Sungai Tohor community, but for everyone who is part of the Greenpeace community.

But now one thing is certain. The palm oil and pulp companies destroying Indonesia's beautiful forests, along with their powerful allies, won’t take this bold move by the new president lying down. We need to stand with Jokowi so he can keep acting for the common good.

Longgena Ginting is Greenpeace Indonesia’s Country Director.