Innovation in Tropical Forest Conservation: Q&A with Dr. Gabriella Fredriksson
Sun bears with tracking collars. Photo courtesy of Gabriella Fredriksson.
In 1997, Gabriella Fredriksson, then a young PhD student, was studying sun bears in East Kalamantan, Indonesia, when massive forest fires broke out in the park. “It quickly became clear that there was no government agency, NGO, or private company in the area interested in assisting putting out these fires, which were threatening to burn down the entire reserve,” Fredriksson told mongabay.com, adding “but with my three local assistants we managed to hire close to 100 villagers to assist with making fire-breaks. We spent several months putting out these forest fires and eventually managed to salvage half the reserve. Several additional years were spent organizing the extinguishing of another 80-plus coal fires ignited during this fire event. This rude awakening to the periled state of conservation management in Indonesia changed the course of my life.”
By some accounts, Fredriksson has pretty much single-handedly saved two major areas in Kalimantan and Sumatra. Her strategy: staying far away from government authorities and getting conservation management locally supported. And her sheer perseverance in the face of the unsupportive Indonesian government has made her a hero in conservation circles.
Fredriksson researching brown bears. Photo courtesy of Gabriella Fredriksson.
“We established a novel forest management system, with a board of local stakeholders, formalized in a new local regulation (Perda) and set up an implementing agency staffed by non-government people…Rampant illegal logging was halted, and a sustainable financing system funded by the local government was established for this new forest management unit,” says Fredriksson.
The illegal logging was halted by a radical measure, a formalized government program of ‘tree spiking’ in the reserve. “During this program, after prior notification of all villages close to the reserve, a large number of valuable timber trees (>10,000) targeted by illegal loggers, were embedded with large nails that could damage chainsaws, if cut.” The illegal loggers and mafia were “not happy,” but the technique worked.
Though she did eventually finish her PhD in 2012, Fredriksson said, “most of my time in Indonesia has been spent on establishing forest protection management systems and associated education and awareness programs…This local management system has been operational now for more than a decade and the reserve still harbors its rich biodiversity and fulfills its watercatchment functions, though ongoing vigilance is still needed.”
Fredriksson now has eighteen years of practice in conservation research and management. Currently, she is the Project Leader for the Batang Toru Forest Block orangutan conservation program, has developed an Environmental Education Centre and sun bear conservation education facility in East Kalimantan, Indonesia which receives 70,000 visitors annually, coordinates ongoing large mammal surveys and camera trapping efforts in North Sumatra, and oversees camera trapping program in East Kalimantan.
An Interview with Dr. Gabriella Fredriksson
Fredriksson with a bear skull. Photo courtesy of Gabriella Fredriksson.
Mongabay: What is your background? How long have you worked in tropical forest conservation and in what geographies? What is your area of focus?
Dr. Gabriella Fredriksson: I came to Indonesia in 1994 to do research as part of my biology studies. At that time I studied reintroduced orangutans in East Kalimantan. During this fieldwork I came across two sun bears foraging high up in a big Dipterocarp tree, busy breaking into a stingless bees nest. I watched them for some time and was amazed at seeing these bears, smallest of the eight bear species in the world, so agile high up in the tree ripping huge chunks out of the tree to get to the stingless bee honey. Following a short period of fieldwork in Central Africa, I came back to Indonesia in 1997 after finishing my BSc and MSc in biology at the University of Amsterdam, Netherlands. I then started the first field study on sun bear ecology, again in East Kalimantan, in a small lowland protection forest (Hutan Lindung).
The start of my long-term study coincided with a serious El Nino event and not long into my fieldwork huge forest fires broke out. It quickly became clear that there was no government agency, NGO, or private company in the area interested in assisting putting out these fires, which were threatening to burn down the entire reserve, a crucially important water catchment area actually providing all the fresh water for the second largest oil refinery in Indonesia. At that time I was a young student living in the middle of the forest, but with my three local assistants we managed to hire close to 100 villagers to assist with making fire-breaks. We spent several months putting out these forest fires and eventually managed to salvage half the reserve. Several additional years were spent organizing the extinguishing of another 80+ coal fires ignited during this fire event. This rude awakening to the periled state of conservation management in Indonesia changed the course of my life. Whereas I did finish my PhD on sun bears some 15 years later, most of my time in Indonesia has been spent on establishing forest protection management systems and associated education and awareness programs. In 2004, I founded the first environmental education center in East Kalimantan, which now receives more than 70,000 local visitors annually, and since 2006 I have also been working on protection of the Batang Toru forest in North Sumatra. This forest is home to a genetically unique Sumatran orangutan population, mostly residing in lower montane forest allocated for production or conversion. This despite the fact that the remaining primary forest is the last healthy watershed, on incredibly steep terrain, consists of highly erodible soils, and is in an area prone to landslides as part of the Sumatran rift valley.
Mongabay: Can you tell us a bit about your conservation successes in Kalimantan and Sumatra despite an unsupportive government?
Team spiking a tree to deter loggers. Photo courtesy of Gabriella Fredriksson.
Dr. Gabriella Fredriksson: My initial years in Kalimantan were during the final years of the Suharto regime and the dawn of decentralization. During this period of change, I primarily worked with local government and NGOs trying to enlighten them of the importance of managing and protecting the reserve where I was carrying out the bulk of my sun bear research. We had the fortune at that time that the new district/municipal mayor for Balikpapan was a progressive person, who quickly understood the importance of the environmental services provided by the forest. Not only the huge financial importance of the watershed function for the oil industry, but also the value of the forest for biodiversity conservation and environmental education.
Over the next several years we established a novel forest management system, with a board of local stakeholders, formalized in a new local regulation (Perda) and set up an implementing agency staffed by non-government people. Rampant illegal logging was halted, and a sustainable financing system funded by the local government was established for this new forest management unit.
The illegal logging, which had been impossible to halt through the more ‘normal’ ways of informing and compensating the Forestry Department to do their job and arrest violators, was finally stopped through a formalized local government program of ‘tree spiking’ in the reserve. During this program, after prior notification of all villages close to the reserve, a large number of valuable timber trees (>10,000) targeted by illegal loggers, were embedded with large nails that could damage chainsaws, if cut. This program was carried out by ‘nature lover’ groups (pecinta alam) assisted by soldiers, as the illegal logging mafia was not happy to see that serious action was being taken to halt their illegal activities.
Permanent patrol teams were established with joint teams of local villagers, army and police representatives, fire management trainings were given, patrol posts were built around the borders, local environmental school curricula was developed by local NGOs in collaboration with the Department of Education and schools started visiting the forest where special educational trails were developed. This local management system has been operational now for more than a decade and the reserve still harbors its rich biodiversity and fulfills its watercatchment functions, though ongoing vigilance is still needed.
This seems to be a rare example where decentralization has led to better forest management at a local level (and where the local government was supportive) but unfortunately this approach has not been applied (yet) in many other places outside of East Kalimantan. The logic that decentralization of certain forest management aspects to district level could lead to better forest management, as cause and effect of protecting local resources would be felt more directly, did not take off as many had hoped for. Corruption and short term gain has prevailed, or become worse, in many districts.
Mongabay: Are you personally involved in any projects or research that represent emerging innovation in tropical forest conservation?
Fredriksson poses with local patrol team. Photo courtesy of Gabriella Fredriksson.
Dr. Gabriella Fredriksson: I am not sure if innovation is the right word, but I think that few conservation organizations are putting a long-term efforts into working with local governments at district level in Indonesia to get (new) forest areas protected, to provide these governments with various training programs so that they better understand the environmental services provided by remaining forest areas, and to set up forest management systems where local government and stakeholders take the lead for the protection of the resources and environmental services they rely on.
Since 2006 I have been working in North Sumatra, this time focusing on a larger primary forest area, the Batang Toru forest in Tapanuli, most of it allocated for logging and/or conversion, home to the southernmost Sumatran orangutan population. This population is genetically unique, closer related to west Bornean orangutans than the orangutans north in the Leuser Ecosystem. Despite many statements from the Indonesian government and the current president that they are fully committed to safeguarding these last orangutan populations, we have yet to see this translate into reality, whether from central, provincial or district governments.
These remaining forests play a vital role to the local economy. We carried out a large socio-economic survey around this forest interviewing close to 3,000 people. Most of these people want to see better forest protection and understand the basic environmental functions that these forests provide. They use the water flowing from these forests for their daily use, for cooking, drinking, washing, their irrigation etc. But there is a significant gap between what people want and what the government does in Indonesia. We still have a long way to go though some progress has been made, and I am hopeful that through persistence and educating the local government this unique forest will become protected and well managed at district and provincial level.
Mongabay: What’s the next big thing in forest conservation? What approaches or ideas are emerging? What will be the catalyst for the next big breakthrough?
Dr. Gabriella Fredriksson: I think the next big thing that should be developed in Indonesia is a system where the annual funding allocated by central government to individual districts is, in part, based on their environmental performance. Indicators can be developed for these in a variety of ways and for a variety of criteria. For example, districts that need to keep a larger percentage of their forest protected as their district boundary encompasses the upper parts of watersheds necessary to provide water and prevent flooding for downstream districts get a specific annual budget allocation based on their performance in keeping that forest intact. Nowadays it is easy to monitor through various remote sensing techniques, which can be done by independent monitoring agencies. Districts that have allowed peat areas to be burned and have caused an excess of carbon emissions get a cut in their funds. Districts that have high biodiversity values that need to be conserved get higher budget allocations based on that. As money rules…I think this might very quickly lead to better forest conservation and environmental management in general.
Most of the remaining forest areas in Sumatra and Kalimantan all regulate important environmental functions, especially watershed protection, but also protection from landslides, erosion, maintaining soil fertility etc. Most of these areas should already be protected if Indonesia would apply its own laws and scoring system for which areas need to be allocated as protection forest to avoid disasters. It would actually be a huge ‘innovation’ if Indonesian government would start to apply their own environmental and forestry laws!
Possibly an increase in serious disasters, directly felt by local districts, landslides that wash away whole villages, water shortages, floods, etc. will catalyze a push for better environmental protection. Indonesia is a rich country, and I am not convinced that foreign financial aid is needed for this.
Mongabay: What do you see as the biggest development or developments over the past decade in tropical forest conservation?
Dr. Gabriella Fredriksson: Unfortunately I do not see many developments that have yielded much improved forest protection in Indonesia.
Mongabay: What isn’t working in conservation but is still receiving unwarranted levels of support?
Dr. Gabriella Fredriksson: The ‘ecosystem restoration’ concept where certain affluent NGOs have paid significant sums for discarded concession areas/licenses but have been left with all management responsibilities, but not the authority for implementing law enforcement, has not led to many additional hectares under protection. In my view, it should have been the other way around, where the Indonesian Government seeks capable partners to help them restore forest areas that have been (illegally) over-logged and where the government would provide the funding and assistance to partner organizations restore these areas. Maybe it would be better if a new legal system is developed in Indonesia where conservation organizations can buy remaining primary forest areas (as in South America) and safeguard them for eternity, rather than restoring logged-over areas for potential future logging.
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