- The Harapan lowland rainforest in Sumatra, one of only 36 global biodiversity hotspots, could be lost to oil palm plantations within the next five years.
- The Danish government, which since 2011 has funded efforts to restore the forest and keep out encroaching farmers, will cease its funding at the end of this year. No other sources of funding are in sight to fill the gap.
- The Danish ambassador to Indonesia says local authorities need to take on more of the responsibility of protecting the forest.
- He says relying on donor funding is unsustainable over the long term, and has called for greater emphasis on developing ecotourism and trade in non-timber forest products.
JAKARTA — Its name in Indonesian means “hope,” but there seems to be little of that remaining for the Harapan rainforest, a tropical woodland oasis in an ever-expanding desert of oil palm plantations in Sumatra.
The Harapan rainforest is one of the last remaining expanses of lowland forest left on the island and could disappear in five years, swallowed up by encroaching palm plantations, after losing the main source of funding still keeping it on the map.
Its demise would mean the loss of one of just 36 IUCN-recognized global biodiversity hotspots, and the end of a key habitat for nine globally threatened species, including Sumatran tigers, with a population of around 400, and Storm’s storks, the rarest of all storks, with fewer than 500 left in the wild.
Since 2011, the Danish government has been the main funder keeping the Harapan rainforest alive, providing technical assistance and financial support to the tune of $12.7 million. The money is channeled through the NGO Burung Indonesia, the local affiliate of BirdLife International, to REKI, a private company established to manage the forest. Much of the funding is spent on patrolling the forest to prevent illegal encroachment by palm farmers.
But the Danish government will cease its support at the end of this year, and there’s no other source of funding in sight to fill the gap. Rasmus Abildgaard Kristensen, the Danish ambassador to Indonesia, says the decision to end the funding has nothing to do with the project itself.
“This has to do with the general slowly phasing out [of] Danish development assistance to Indonesia,” he says. “The traditional development assistance is unfortunately being slowly being phased out, as many other countries are doing. Of course, Indonesia is becoming wealthier and you’re developing. And so at some point in time, this” — the end of financial assistance — “will have to come.”
With just a few months to go until the money dries up, Kristensen says no new donors have been found for the Harapan rainforest, and that leaves him concerned about the future of the forest.
“To be honest, I’m worried,” he says. “I’m very worried that unless we find another international donor to come in, and unless you keep paying for patrolling [to prevent encroachment], this [forest] will be gone in five years.”
Between 1985 and 1997, the islands of Sumatra, Sulawesi and Kalimantan, the Indonesian portion of Borneo, lost 60 percent of their lowland forest, a region rivaling the Amazon for sheer abundance of species. Lowland rainforests have disappeared particularly fast because they are most accessible for logging, plantation and mining development. As a result, they are regarded as among the most threatened forests in the world.
Given the rates of degradation and conversion, it was predicted that the lowland forests of Sumatra would be wiped out by 2005.
Harapan beat the odds, and 13 years after its predicted expiry date still spans 769 square kilometers (300 square miles), representing 40 percent of the remaining global habitat of this particular forest type. But in that time it’s lost a quarter of its area, largely to the relentless creep of oil palm estates.
When Denmark started funding the restoration of Harapan seven years ago, Kristensen says, there were “another three to four” similar expanses of lowland forest in the region. “Now they’re gone. They’ve all turned into palm oil, so this is the only one left,” he says.
What spared Harapan from being fully razed for plantations was its status as an ecosystem restoration concession, or ERC. The Indonesian government defines ERCs as former state-run logging concessions that private companies can license for restoration. The idea is to prevent these degraded logging sites from being permanently converted to palm plantations or smallholder farmland, by restoring them to their previous forested state.
Harapan became the first licensed ERC in Indonesia in 2008. Since then, 16 ERC licenses have been issued for a combined area of 6,230 square kilometers (2,400 square miles), representing 35 percent of the total land that the government intends to license as ERCs.
The ERC experiment, never tested before in Indonesia, has been an expensive one for the Harapan rainforest. The licenses required — the forest straddles the two jurisdictions of Jambi and South Sumatra provinces, hence two licenses — cost REKI (and by extension the Danish government) more than $1 million.
On top of that, REKI is also liable for land and business taxes, just as it would be if it were running an actual logging concession — but without the lucrative income to be made from cutting and selling trees.
“So the whole area is treated like a private company running a logging concession, which means they have to pay tax, building tax, land tax, and they also have to pay for license fees,” Kristensen says. “And this is not a small amount we’re talking about. The license fee alone is a million U.S. dollars, and the tax is enormous.”
He says the fiscal and regulatory framework for the Harapan rainforest needs to be changed to relieve REKI of a tax burden that treats it like an extractive company.
“But here we’re talking about something [whose] purpose is the exact opposite, which is to conserve and protect and not make money on it,” Kristensen said. “So at the same time, you can’t tax it. I think that’s a little strange and that’s something that has to be resolved over time.”
The project donors hire personnel to patrol for encroachers and poachers and monitor for fires. But they also have to shell out to the local police and military for law-enforcement efforts toward that end — something Kristensen says should be paid for by the state.
“I know that this is not easy and I fully understand that, but you could argue that this is the local government’s responsibility to at least patrol the forest,” he says. “I think the key is to look at the budget and make sure that the Harapan rainforest is not burdened with expenses that actually should be paid by someone else. Here, we’re talking about the police and the military. This should be the government’s responsibility and not a thing that NGO should pay for.”
All these costs add up. From 2011 to 2016, the bill for protecting the Harapan rainforest averaged $1.66 million a year, before dipping to $1.48 million in 2017.
Fire in the forest
Teguh spends her days in the Harapan forest hunting for softshell turtles and gathering rattan and dammar gum.
“We still search for food in the forest. There are still animals that we eat, such as fish. We also eat fruits and tubers,” she says.
Teguh, 39, is a member of the Batin Sembilan indigenous group, who number around 1,000 and lead a semi-nomadic life inside the Harapan forest. But the outside world eating away at the forest has also had an impact on the Batin Sembilan.
“In the past, we rarely got sick,” Teguh says. “If one of us ever got sick, we believed it was caused by the devil. But now we often fall ill because there’s often haze here. This haze is caused by the encroachers, who burn the forest every dry season.”
Slash-and-burn forest clearing has long been a hallmark of Indonesia’s palm oil industry, paving the way for vast estates of palm monoculture on land once brimming with biodiversity. The burning and resultant haze were particularly severe in 2015, the year Teguh says her entire family fell sick.
“Our eyes were burning and our throats were sore,” she recalls.
Even when the forest isn’t burning, the fires leave their mark. Like many indigenous forest communities around the world, the Batin Sembilan have a rich encyclopedic knowledge of medicinal plants, but the scorched earth yields nothing.
“Now it takes us four to five hours to look for medicinal herbs, because they only grow in forests that still have good [tree] cover and have never been burned,” Teguh says. “For forests that have been burned, there are fewer medicinal herbs.”
For Teguh, the forest she has known her whole life is on the verge of disappearing. Already there’s a palm plantation being established across from her home, while the forest on the opposite side is routinely targeted for land grabs and resource extraction.
“We’ve been trying to handle these encroachers together with REKI but to no avail,” Teguh says. “What usually happens is that REKI will try to persuade these encroachers to get out of the forest, only for them to go back again when REKI is gone. And these encroachers come in hordes, not just one or two people.”
What makes it particularly difficult to stop outsiders from penetrating into the Harapan forest is the fact that the area used to be a logging concession, with a legacy of multiple access roads and entry points.
“There are more than 30 access points [into the forest], such as rivers and roads,” says Mangarah Silalahi, a stakeholder engagement specialist with Burung Indonesia.
Compounding the situation is the sheer number of people already living there.
“More than 10,000 people live in the Harapan rainforest area, with most of them coming after 2010, after we got the restoration permit,” Mangarah says. “There are 20 new migrant villages here and seven villages surrounding the rainforest. These migrants need land and they buy land inside the Harapan rainforest.”
Mangarah says the battle over land inside Harapan is a microcosm of what’s happening in other forests across Indonesia.
“The conflict inside the Harapan rainforest involves a lot of parties, from indigenous communities to NGOs to the government and private companies,” he says. “They’re also linked to many aspects, including social and political. That’s why we need an approach that’s unusual and innovative, with collaboration between many parties.”
Clashes have broken out between the Batin Sembilan and those they consider encroachers. The most recent incident was on Oct. 15, and involved a group of suspected illegal loggers from the Sungai Bahar settlement armed with bladed weapons.
REKI spokesman Jhoni Rizal says the Sungai Bahar group are known encroachers who have repeatedly been warned and kicked out of the Harapan rainforest. “But they fought back and thus a clash was inevitable that ended up in a brawl,” he said as quoted by local media.
The fight prompted a backlash from the Sungai Bahar residents, hundreds of whom stormed into REKI’s facility, accusing company employees of instigating the clash.
Teguh says that without stronger intervention by the government and REKI to stop the encroachers, the Batin Sembilan may take matters into their own hands.
“There haven’t been any casualties yet. But if our patience wears thin, then there might be casualties. Because the forest in my backyard has been encroached on as well,” she says.
REKI identifies two types of encroachers: ordinary villagers who enter the Harapan rainforest to take what they need, and those backed by powerful interests to clear land and plant oil palms.
The former are easier to engage with, says Adam Aziz, who, as head of stakeholder partnership at REKI, is the company’s point man for managing conflicts.
“When they enter the forest for their daily needs, it’s relatively easy to negotiate and work with them,” he says. “What’s difficult is negotiating with the ones who are backed by those who have capital.”
The latter are usually farmers from outside the forest area who are mobilized by businesspeople to establish palm plantations inside the forest. Adam says he’s identified some of the people he suspects are behind the encroachment, and submitted their names to the Ministry of Environment and Forestry.
“There are local councilors as well” who are involved, he says. “These are mass and structured encroachment [efforts].” He declines to give any names.
Kristensen, the Danish ambassador, says he initially thought the migrant farmers were poor people who came into the Harapan rainforest in search of land to farm.
“Actually, most of them are not,” he says. “There’s someone behind them, because planting [oil] palm is not cheap. It requires big upfront investment. It’s not something poor people can afford. So unless you have a company or some rich people behind that can actually finance it, it’ll not happen.”
Adam says one such powerful individual is eyeing the eastern part of the Harapan rainforest for a 50-square-kilometer (19-square-mile) palm plantation and Islamic boarding school. He adds he’s uncovered a forged ministerial letter purportedly allowing the clearing of that amount of land in the forest. “We’ve identified the parties who want to do that,” Adam says, but again declines to give a name.
As the funding from Denmark draws to an end this year, it’s important that other donor entities step up to sustain the restoration efforts for the Harapan rainforest, says Per Rasmussen, the national program adviser from the Danish government’s Environmental Support Program (ESP).
“We’re currently pushing Germany to contribute [financially] after the end of the Danish government’s financial support,” he says.
Kristensen says that while there might be other parties interested in helping the effort, they’d like to see the Indonesian government play a bigger role in protecting the forest.
“If they were to come in, of course they want to see local authorities taking more responsibilities,” he says.
He adds that potential donors might be discouraged from funding the project after seeing how it’s continued to struggle to come up with a sustainable solution to prevent encroachment, despite sums already poured in by Denmark.
“For me personally I’d say the money is not wasted because the forest is still there,” Kristensen says. “But of course, another donor will say ‘yeah, you keep funding it and there’s never going to be a real solution inside,’ and that’s true and that’s part of the difficulty. So what I really hope is that the local authorities will take more responsibility so that donors will be more interested in coming in.”
In the long run, he says, the survival of the Harapan rainforest must be decoupled from donor funding. “I encourage all to find [a] solution relatively fast. We can’t expect donors to foot the bill anymore,” Kristensen says.
REKI has explored this path by investing in small-scale community-based agroforestry and non-timber forest products.
“There’s also some small rubber production,” Kristensen says. “I’m actually amazed myself [at] how many small products that you can extract from the forest. And the good thing about that is that can help to provide greater livelihoods for the indigenous communities in the forest.”
But he says these won’t be enough to cover all the expenses.
“It can provide the local communities with some livelihoods but it can’t foot the bill. We’re talking about millions of dollars just to run the operation, and you can never [cover the cost] with these products,” Kristensen says.
Another potential source of income is ecotourism, but access to the forest will need to be vastly improved.
“I’ve been there a number of times and it’s a fantastic forest,” Kristensen says. “There are between 20 and 30 tigers, or about 10 percent of tigers in Sumatra just in this forest. But it’s still not an easy place to do tourism. It takes about four to five hours’ drive from Jambi province on bad roads before you reach the forest.”
Even then, scaling up ecotourism to generate the kind of revenue that the Harapan project needs is impossible, Kristensen says.
“We can probably attract a few tourists, those who like to watch birds and so on,” he says. “But it’s never going to be at a scale where it brings significant income.”
Banner image: A Sumatran tiger yawning. Image by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay.