Global Forest Watch map showing forest loss in and around Tajung Puting and the Rimba Raya project area.
Just over a year ago, the Indonesian government officially approved the country’s first REDD+ forest carbon conservation project: Rimba Raya, which aims to protect more than 64,000 hectares of peat forest in Central Kalimantan. The approval came after years of delays from the Ministry of Forestry and a substantial reduction in the project’s concession area. It also coincided with a period of plunging demand and prices for carbon credits in the E.U., the world’s largest market. But InfiniteEarth, the firm behind the project, pressed on. Now a year later, Rimba Raya’s is not only still in business, but is scaling up its operations, including developing programs that support livelihoods that depend less on forest destruction and extraction.
Cognizant of the ups and downs of the carbon market, Todd Lemons, Founder of InfinteEARTH, says the project is about more than just selling carbon credits.
“We do not believe that it is responsible for us to facilitate making communities dependent on carbon revenue subsidies, particularly given the uncertainty of carbon markets. To do so would perpetuate the cycle of poverty,” Lemons told Mongabay.com. “Instead, we are focused on using carbon revenues for income diversification programs that will be self-perpetuating in the short-term and be economically sustainable in the long-term. In short, on a local level, we are trying to move communities away from an unsustainable extractive model to a sustainable productive model.”
But that said, carbon will pay a key role in financing the model.
“The use of carbon markets is the only current viable way to pay for successful large-scale forest protection in developing countries under constant pressure for economic growth,” Lemons said. “REDD+ can and is successfully saving forests and Rimba Raya is one that has been saved due to carbon markets, as imperfect as they may be.”
Peat forest in Rimba Raya, which is run by PT Rimba Raya Conservation, a 100 percent Indonesian-owned entity.
Lemons adds that he believes demand could come from industries that have historically driven deforestation through their consumption or production of commodities. He argues that REDD+ credits are a way for companies to help meet their climate commitments while simultaneously supporting forest conservation and forest-dependent communities.
“Corporate support for fully verified, community-focused, REDD projects is one way for these companies to make good on their commitments,” he said. “For companies with large deforestation footprints such as the large palm oil consumers, it’s in their shareholders’ best interest that they begin using the available mechanisms for environmental mitigation.”
“As yet, these mechanisms are not cost prohibitive since there are available assets with which to stock the land banks that will be later used for mitigation banking. Therefore, our outlook for the REDD+ market is overwhelmingly optimistic.”
Deforestation in Indonesia. Courtesy of InfinteEARTH
Rimba Raya is well-positioned if a broader market for REDD+ credits does emerge. The conservation area borders Tanjung Puting National Park, a swathe of peat forest that supports a large population of endangered Bornean orangutans. In fact, Rimba Raya has a partnership agreement with Orangutan Foundation International, a conservation group founded by Birute Galdikas, one of anthropologist Louis Leakey’s famed “Trimates” or “Leakey’s Angels” (Jane Goodall and Dian Fossey were the others). The area surrounding the park is also being fast cleared for oil palm plantations and mining activities, creating an urgency to protect what forest remains. Lemons estimates the effort could reduce carbon dioxide emissions by more than 100 million tons over its 30-year life-span relative to what would happen if the area is left unprotected.
Lemons discussed Rimba Raya, his outlook, and more during a June 2014 interview with Mongabay.com.
AN INTERVIEW WITH TODD LEMONS
InfiniteEARTH founder Todd Lemons with Dr. Birute Galdikas at Camp Leaky, a rehabilitation site for former captive orangutans. Courtesy of InfinteEARTH
Mongabay.com: What were the biggest challenges during the approval process?
Todd Lemons: Convincing Indonesian authorities of the viability of carbon markets.
Mongabay.com: What is Rimba Raya’s approach to reducing deforestation and degradation? What has been the response from local stakeholders?
Todd Lemons: Our approach is to address the underlying causes of deforestation — poverty. It is our aim to change the unsustainable dynamic between the forest-dependent communities and the forest. Historically, this relationship is an extractive one, not a productive one, which is a microcosm of the broader reality that these environmental issues stem from a flawed economic model, not just at the local community level, but on a global level.
We do not believe that it is responsible for us to facilitate making communities dependent on carbon revenue subsidies, particularly given the uncertainty of carbon markets. To do so would perpetuate the cycle of poverty. Instead, we are focused on using carbon revenues for income diversification programs that will be self-perpetuating in the short-term and be economically sustainable in the long-term. In short, on a local level, we are trying to move communities away from an unsustainable extractive model to a sustainable productive model.
This approach mirrors our broader goal of providing a real-world example of how we can change our flawed global economic model, which is also extractive based, to one that promotes a productive landscape and replaces what we consume. Ultimately, we have found that communities do not want to assign the fate of their futures to outsiders, let alone dependent on some arcane source of income such as carbon revenues. They much prefer and understand tangible income diversification opportunities that we are funding as they feel more in control of their own destinies.
The village leaders of Ulak Batu, one of the villages that Rimba Raya works with and receives support from livelihood programs, discuss the REDD project with several investors from Japan during a May 2014 visit. Courtesy of InfinteEARTH
Mongabay.com: How has the project involved local communities? And do they really understand what REDD+ is about?
Todd Lemons: The Rimba Raya project and its staff have consulted local communities right from the start. We now have nine villages totaling more than 2,000 households who are directly consulted and recipients of financial benefits. Many meetings were held with every village for over 4 years prior to Rimba Raya receiving its license from the Ministry of Forestry.
Not only does the strict Climate, Community and Biodiversity standard require the community members to be properly informed and have some understanding of the project prior to being approved by CCB Alliance. The Indonesian government also requires “socialization” meetings where the project and its potential impact are explained and the floor is opened up to the members of the communities to ask questions and have them answered. We regularly visit the villages and we have staff who are based in the area.
Members of the local communities clearly understand the Rimba Raya REDD+ project prevents the forest from being cleared and turned into a palm oil plantation. They also clearly understand that they will receive benefits from the project.
First, and most important, they continue to use the forest as they have for many years for fishing, gathering rattan and other products. Secondly, other benefits include employment, health and education. Other long-term benefit projects are planned.
The crucial take-away here is that Rimba Raya is designed to be an integral part of, and to improve, their long-term livelihoods. Every villager needs to be a stakeholder in the forest’s future, a guardian if you will, just as local communities have been for millennia.
InfinteEARTH, has always believed a REDD project’s primary purpose is to secure the forest for sustainable use by people and wildlife and that a healthy relationship with the forest should be encouraged so that generations to come can sustainably use the forest. The use of carbon markets is the only current viable way to pay for successful large-scale forest protection in developing countries under constant pressure for economic growth.
And the local communities understand this. They are at ground-zero of forest protection and fully understand the urgent need to take forest protection seriously. Pak Syarian, the head of Ulak Batu village whom I have also met with many times, accurately understands that “selling carbon…. means forest conservation”. REDD+ can and is successfully saving forests and Rimba Raya is one that has been saved due to carbon markets, as imperfect as they may be.
Logging in Indonesia. Courtesy of InfinteEARTH
Mongabay.com: What do you see as the biggest challenges for the project going forward?
Todd Lemons: The viability of carbon markets. Governments have failed to agree on a global plan 20 COPs in a row (COPs are high-level annual UN climate meetings). Even in our case, with an intense focus on palm oil related deforestation, and with dozens of consumer-facing Fortune 500 brand companies making very public and very aggressive commitments to “no-deforestation” palm oil, we have yet to see one company make a real step towards meeting those commitments. Corporate support for fully verified, community-focused, REDD projects is one way for these companies to make good on their commitments.
Mongabay.com: More broadly, what’s your outlook on the market for REDD+ credits?
Todd Lemons: This is not a political or philosophical issue, though it seems to be debated endlessly and, while climate change may still be debated in some isolated circles, deforestation and the resulting consequences are easily and irrefutably quantified. This is an issue that will demand to be dealt with. It’s in our best interest we deal with it now, rather than later.
For companies with large deforestation footprints such as the large palm oil consumers, it’s in their shareholders’ best interest that they begin using the available mechanisms for environmental mitigation (replacing what they displace or destroy). As yet, these mechanisms are not cost prohibitive since there are available assets with which to stock the land banks that will be later used for mitigation banking. Therefore, our outlook for the REDD+ market is overwhelmingly optimistic. The question is when and at what cost? The cost of delay to the environment and the future generations of this small planet and the cost of delay to resource-dependent companies is equally significant.
Orangutans near the project site. Courtesy of InfinteEARTH
Mongabay.com: What are your views on the value of compliance markets for REDD+?
Todd Lemons: Some commentators are bearish on the price of carbon in a compliance market based on the current market conditions in the European emissions trading scheme, which is currently uncertain post-Kyoto. I’m a little more optimistic and this is based in part on current prices in the California emissions trading scheme which we believe is probably a good model for other regional markets to follow.
The price of carbon in the California market is currently about US$11.80 and is unlikely to trade at the low prices currently seen in Europe. But once a Kyoto replacement is in place, the price of carbon in Europe is likely to increase. Other national compliance markets might also be in place that will accept REDD credits.
Swamp forest. Courtesy of InfinteEARTH
Mongabay.com: What’s your outlook for reducing deforestation in Indonesia beyond the Rimba Raya project area?
Todd Lemons: Of course we would like to replicate Rimba Raya. However, our primary goal was to provide an economically viable alternative land-use model to the government and peoples of Indonesia. We have no moral mandate to ask Indonesia to forgo its opportunity to develop or exploit its natural resources unless we can provide a better path forward.
Our first goal was to pave the way by delivering the world’s first REDD methodology so that others could follow. We’ve accomplished that. Our second goal was to design and execute the highest quality REDD project that produced exceptional benefits for all stakeholders, including the environment, endangered wildlife (particularly the endangered orangutan), local communities, the government and peoples of Indonesia and our investors.
We’ve begun to realize that goal. Orangutans have already received tangible, quantifiable benefits. Seeds have been planted (literally and figuratively) so that local communities will be able to harvest the fruits of REDD even if or when we are gone. Fees and taxes have been paid to the Indonesian government – on a level playing field as other potential land-uses including timber, palm oil and mining. Being able to consistently meet the full scope of these goals will depend our our ability to develop markets for REDD credits, beyond the carbon markets if necessary. Our focus now is on developing the depth of those markets so that they can absorb additional supply from new projects.