Equitable efforts to save the world’s forests: Don’t put the burden on the poor (commentary)

Commentary by Yani Saloh,
Assistant Special Staff to the President of Republic Indonesia for Climate Change
November 18, 2013

Peatforest in Indonesian Borneo
Peatforest in Indonesian Borneo. All photos by Rhett A. Butler

That President Yudhoyono’s green legacy may be in peril has been put in the spotlight by the recent visit to Indonesia of Harrison Ford, a Hollywood megastar-turned-environmentalist. Ford was in Indonesia last month filming ‘Years of Living Dangerously’, a series about climate change. His trip to Central Kalimantan and Riau, was described by Michael Bachelard of Sydney Morning Herald as bearing witness to the devastation of Indonesia’s tropical forests.

The visit highlighted two issues: illegal encroachment in Tesso Nilo National Park and a still unissued ecosystem restoration concession (ERC) permit requested by Rimba Makmur Utama, a private company operating in Katingan, Central Kalimantan. These cases were challenging President Yudhoyono’s commitment to protect the country’s forests .

Expensive lessons learned for REDD+

As Indonesia strives to operationalize REDD+, a system whereby the international community will pay for reductions in the rate of deforestation, the above cases highlight very real difficulties in reducing forest loss and managing the carbon rich forests that avoid the cut.

REDD+ demands free and prior informed consent of the people whose land is used, and equitable sharing of the payments received for not cutting trees. However these local people often have few choices of livelihood and have insufficient resources to invest in legal and sustainable development. So they harvest trees. Therefore, one of the key goals of conservation and ecosystem restoration must be to support the sustainable development of local communities in and around the ERC permit area. In this way the communities will become an asset to the conservation and restoration projects, rather than a threat.

During the last 3 years many valuable but costly lessons have been learned through efforts to create viable results in the difficult to define field of avoided deforestation, forest and peatland conservation and restoration. Great efforts have been made by the Indonesian government, through the Ministry of Forestry, involving private sector and NGOs. However, it has become clear that conservation and restoration is not easy.

Rainforest in Sumatra.

Avoiding deforestation and restoring forest and peat areas is a new paradigm that stakeholders need to get acquainted with. This is experimental in nature and it is logical that some mistakes will be made.

We learn from situations where things have gone wrong. The first ecosystem restoration concession was established in 2005 and is managed by Restorasi Ekosistem Konservasi Indonesia (REKI). The area is now suffering from encroachment of illegal loggers and illegal oil palm plantations development. REKI was also accused by NGOs of ignoring the community's rights to their customary territories. Furthermore, the area is threatened by a planned 51-kilometer road that will cross the restoration area for the transport of coal.

Another lesson comes from Tesso Nilo National Park, which was originally designated with an area of 38,576 ha in 2004 and in 2009 expanded to cover 83,068 ha. Tesso Nilo is managed through a collaboration of the Ministry of Forestry (MoF) and WWF with the joint goal of protecting the national park’s biodiversity. The project is supported by funding from several foreign donors. However, Tesso Nilo is now suffering from encroachment, illegal logging and illegal settlers who have been clearing parts of the national park for small-scale oil palm.

Landsat image analysis shows that over the past decade 46,960 ha of Tesso Nilo has disappeared. According to a recent report by Greenpeace, one of the world’s biggest palm oil companies is sourcing from illegal plantations inside the national park.

Illegal sawmill in the Katingan peat restoration project area.

The Tesso Nilo experience demonstrates that the collaboration between MoF and WWF was not strong enough to prevent substantial encroachment into the national park. It appears that law enforcement in designated conservation and restoration areas is still not given the priority it deserves both by the central and local government.

The concession permit holders for logging, timber plantations and ERCs are responsible for the areas given to them and must obey the rules. They are required to abide by the law of the land; including preventing and fighting fires, safeguarding their area from illegal logging practices and conversion of land use.

However arresting and bringing illegal loggers and other perpetrators to court is the responsibility of law enforcers, such as the police, district attorney and forest rangers.

Such law enforcement duties need to be strengthened through a ‘local welfare’ approach - to ensure long-term win-win solutions in implementing sustainable development. Local communities and other local stakeholders need to be kept fully informed and appropriately involved in the protection of the areas.

Deforestation for palm oil production in Central Kalimantan, Indonesian Borneo.

Getting the facts right

Learning from the rampant deforestation in the examples above, MoF is especially concerned about the capacity of concession holders to effectively protect their concessions and to conduct activities for poverty alleviation.

The Government of Indonesia therefore has every justification to require a company like RMU to show clear commitment and plans to demonstrate their capacity to manage and protect an area of 203,570 ha, before granting such a concession. While the company has no proven history of managing forests and peatland areas, MoF is in the process of granting their request for the concession though at a reduced size based on lessons learned from other similar situations. From the MoF side, it is only prudent to take a stepwise approach by granting a manageable size of a large ecosystem to interested parties and review the performance of the concessionaires regularly.

After all, the responsibility to reduce the rate of deforestation rests with the government. This responsibility cannot be passed on to a private company or an NGO.

Illegal logging in West Kalimantan.

Comparing President Yudhoyono’s commitment to protect Indonesia’s forest and peat land with RMU’s request for a 203,500 ha restoration permit, as Ford has done, is unfair. 63 million ha of primary forest and peat land are now legally protected under President Yudhoyono’s Moratorium Policy, which has prevented the release of a huge amount of greenhouse gasses . Several policies to compliment the moratorium policy have also been applied.

Rather than putting pressure on the Indonesian government through international media or by advocacy of Hollywood actors, it would be better for RMU to demonstrate its capital and human resources adequacy to manage the peat land ecosystem that they have in their sight.

Protecting forest and peat land is not cheap. Learning from above cases, it requires an integrated approach based on sound social, economic and ecological understanding. It requires the highest level of transparency and must be embedded in good governance. That means improving the coordination between central and local government. Creating positive economic incentives for local communities and other stakeholders is also crucial.

“It will be fair and equitable if the whole world is contributing to the efforts of countries that sincerely want to protect and preserve their forests,” says President Yudhoyono.

It would be a step in the right direction if developed countries put their money where improvement to conserve forest conservation are still possible, than putting the burden of saving the planet on the poor. One of the examples is to support developing countries in creating payment-upon-performance programs that will directly benefit local communities. We all stand to benefit from collaboration in mitigating climate change.

Rainforest in West Papua, Indonesian New Guinea.

Yani Saloh is the Assistant Special Staff to the President of Republic of Indonesia for Climate Change

Commentary by Yani Saloh,
Assistant Special Staff to the President of Republic Indonesia for Climate Change (November 18, 2013).

Equitable efforts to save the world’s forests: Don’t put the burden on the poor (commentary).