2 Jun 2011
By Lily Morrissey
Without notice or explanation my guide, Syahrul, from WAHLI, an Indonesian environmental coalition, pulled over our motorbike and dismounted. We were burning under the North Sumatran sun and he’d stopped for no apparent reason beside an open field. Looking around, I asked him why we’d stopped. He turned back and addressed me solemnly, shaking his head to express something between sadness and frustration. “This is national park,” He said. I stared around in astonishment. “This is national park?” I parroted. He nodded, “this is Gunung Leuser.” The field stretched before us, burnt and yellow. It gradually bled into hillsides covered with young oil palms planted in neat rows. A lone, giant blackened tree stump stood on one hill like a tombstone placed in memory of the old rainforest that used to exist there.
In a world where rainforest coverage is shrinking, 10 per cent of what remains can be found in Indonesia. Not only are these forests full of endemic and endangered species, they also store approximately 11,800 megatonnes (Mt) of carbon, both in the trees themselves and within extensive peat swamps that run up to 10 metres deep beneath many areas of forest. Deforestation now contributes to 85 per cent of Indonsia’s carbon emissions, making it the third biggest emitter after the US and China.
Despite this, logging continues in Indonesia at an approximate rate of 1,205,650 hectares per year, driven by the lucrative palm oil and pulp and paper industries, as well as pervasive illegal logging. With so much at stake, the last 10 years have seen Indonesia’s rainforests become a battleground between economic gain and environmental conservation, with local communities and indigenous groups caught somewhere in the middle.
Logged national park in Northern Sumatra
Seeking to solve this dilemma, the United Nations have spent the last several climate talks developing whatappears to be a simple and ingenious solution. It’s called the Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD) program, and it’s basically a framework through which developed countries can pay developing countries to preserve forest in exchange for carbon credits. The idea is to develop an ongoing alternative income for communities who would otherwise be reliant on logging and palm oil, while also funding a variety of conservation programs. To some, it represents the greatest hope for the world’s remaining forests. To others, it is an unmitigated disaster.
Since 2009, when the Indonesian Minister of Forestry signed the “Forestry Regulation P.30/2009 on Procedures for Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation,” the Indonesian government has invested its energy in establishing the country as a laboratory for the REDD scheme. In 2010, the government announced ambitious new targets to reduce emissions to 26 per cent below business-as-usual levels by 2020. REDD featured as a significant component of their plan to reach this target. In cooperation with the UN and bilateral “client” countries – such as Australia, New Zealand and Norway – Indonesia has already established a number of REDD pilot programs in conservation hot spots. And, perhaps most significantly, on May 20 this year, Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono signed an unprecedented decree issuing a two-year moratorium on logging in exchange for $US1 billion from Norway under the REDD program.
But with the REDD scheme still relatively new and controversial, are the international community and the Indonesian government putting all their eggs in one uncertain basket? I met with Teguh Surya in the offices of WAHLI in Jakarta two weeks before the announcement of the moratorium. I asked him if he believed it would be possible to implement a well managed and successful REDD program. He replied, flatly, “no.” According to WAHLI, existing REDD programs in Indonesia, including the Australian program in Jambi province of Sumatra, have already demonstrated the failure of REDD to prevent deforestation and reduce carbon emissions. He was adamant that the REDD scheme fails to recognise several harsh realities of politics in Indonesia and internationally. When I pressed for further explanation, he responded with the following five major criticisms.
Firstly, there is ambiguity in Indonesia over the legal definition of terms such as “forest.” This ambiguity means that under REDD, a palm oil plantation could potentially be given the same value as primary forest in terms of its value as a carbon sink. Secondly, the REDD program amounts to a deal between two central governments. But the reality is that land tenure in Indonesia is often contested between local communities, indigenous groups and four different levels of government. By dealing with central government, foreign donors may inadvertently take power away from local and indigenous communities. Thirdly, there is little evidence to support carbon offsetting as a mechanism for reducing global emissions. Fourth, REDD agreements have limited time frames, while forests need permanent protection. Finally, the REDD process in Indonesia is open to corruption and manipulation as money filters down through all each level of government. Often there is little or none of the original money left by the time it reaches the communities who were intended to be delivered from poverty by the REDD mechanism.
While not as entirely dismissive of the potential of REDD, my enquiries among other local conservation groups in such as Yayasan Ekosistem Lestari (YEL) found similar critiques of the program. Debate over the value of carbon offsetting aside, the consensus seemed to be that internal politics and a legacy of corruption in the management of forests dating back to the Suharto era had been overlooked in the development of the international agreements. For example, from 1993 to 1997 the country’s reforestation fund lost $5.2 billion through mismanagement and fraud, according to an audit by Ernst and Young. Provision also needs to be made for education, enforcement, monitoring, anti-corruption measures and for the institutional restructuring that REDD requires. Without adequate resources for education and policing on the ground level, untended land and protected areas alike become a target for illegal logging and REDD conservation programs fold.
By way of illustration, I heard from one environmental worker, who declines to be named, that locals in some REDD projects in Jambi province had actually thought carbon was a resource, like coal, and by signing up for REDD they would be paid to extract it. When money was not immediately forthcoming from central government they were naturally annoyed and now want nothing to do with the scheme. The palm oil companies, meanwhile, pay up front for the delivery of oil nuts.
Palm oil trucks
Just like its jungles, the dark situation of logging in Indonesia becomes more tangled the further you go into it. Trying to follow each path of enquiry into corruption, industry, policy and poverty you can become easily lost. Lingering in the background of this confusing political maze is the palm oil industry. The reality is that this is a sector whose influence in Indonesian politics remains akin to the influence of the mining and fossil fuel industries in Australia.
The recent logging moratorium serves as an appropriate example. The decree was subject to huge amounts of lobbying in the five months that its release was delayed. A Malaysian planter with assets in Indonesia, who declined to be identified, told Reuters after the moratorium was released, “There was lots of pressure on the Indonesian government from the palm oil industry about this ban since we bring in significant investments. Today’s final details show that agreeable concessions have been made.” In contrast, the feedback from environmental groups on the decree was less cheerful. Paul Winn of Greenpeace Australia-Pacific told Reuters “This is a bitter disappointment… 75 per cent of the forests purportedly protected by this moratorium are already protected under existing Indonesian law, and the numerous exemptions further erode any environmental benefits.”
Unsurprisingly, like many development programs, when REDD is held up to scrutiny its many flaws are made obvious. This doesn’t mean that it is incapable of helping to protect Indonesia’s forests. REDD is just a sprout in terms of international programs and it still has a chance to grow into something worth saving.
When I asked Teguh one month ago what he thought Indonesia needed to preserve it’s forests, he told me that they really need a moratorium on logging. Last Thursday, President Yudhoyono signed the decree issuing a moratorium, under the REDD program. While the decree has been critiqued as inadequate, it does also have some support. Daniel Murdiyarso, a scientist at the Indonesia-based forest research institute, CIFOR, told Mongabay last Friday, “This will see a large area of natural forest protected from being cleared and it will help preserve the country’s carbon-rich peatlands.” Similarly, Bustar Maitar from Greenpeace has conceded that the moratorium represents “an important political shift towards protecting our forests.” Several years ago, however, this would have been unthinkable.
In addition to encouraging a more eco-friendly political climate, REDD supporters claim that the scheme can help to push through institutional and governance reform that is needed for conservation efforts to be successful. Part of the REDD agreement with Norway, for example, will involve the development of a “degraded lands” database. Environmental groups, such as WAHLI, advocate the use of “degraded” lands for the expansion of palm oil as a substitute for expansion into forested areas. Degraded land is land which has been deforested but which is not utilised, for various reasons.
Confusion over tenure and the rights of local communities, many of whom are actually using degraded land for smallholder farming, has made degraded land unattractive to industry, so far. Agus Purnomo, Special Staff to the President of Republic Indonesia for Climate Change stated recently that the database will “allow expansion of agriculture and timber plantations as well as provide legal certainty for the businessman in expanding their business while avoiding deforestation.” Furthermore, the presidential instructions attached to the moratorium streamlines policy by delegating coordination and monitoring responsibilities to one agency, the President’s REDD Plus Taskforce.
There is also hope that the moratorium will provide an opportunity for government and stakeholders to work on mechanisms for forest protection. “The two‐year suspension gives time to improve agricultural productivity, solve land tenure issues related to overlapping concessions and the rights of local communities, strengthen enforcement of sustainable logging and mining practices, reduce illegal logging and decrease the clearing of land through fires,” said Kuntoro Mangkusubroto, head of the President’s delivery unit for Development Monitoring and Oversight and Chair of the REDD+ Taskforce, in a recent statement. Companies such as SMART Palm Oil and Asian Pulp and Paper have also suggested they will use the opportunity to revise unsustainable practises.
According to the UN, the REDD program is primarily an “effort to create a financial value for the carbon stored in forests,” and it is perhaps in this capacity that it can be the most valuable in assisting conservation efforts. As Dr Kuntoro Mangkusubroto, chief of Indonesia’s REDD Plus taskforce recently stated, “The shift in paradigm to underscore that forests are worth more standing, along with strong law enforcement and a high transparency process as a tool to turn the tide of the history of corruption, are clear ways to save the forests.”
Norway’s “One Billion Dollar Pledge” has set a precedent in Indonesian and global politics by contributing to that shift and proving that compensated forest protection is a reality in international politics. Critics of carbon trading argue that assigning a market value to forests merely perpetuates the problem by ignoring the intrinsic or biodiversity value of forests. But in Indonesia, the lack of a middle class means that those with political clout are usually involved in resource extraction, so trying to put a value on forests that doesn’t involve cash is pretty difficult, politically. Furthermore, they are the ones with the resources and capacity to get real results – even if it is simply by slowing down or halting their own operations. In this context, companies need to be brought on board if conservation is to succeed. Showing them the money is a sure way to get their attention.
In the same week that I’d been cruising round illegal logging sites in Gunung Leuser National Park, a meeting was being held three hours south in Medan. Kusnadi Oldani, deputy secretary of YEL, attended the meeting alongside representatives from other environmental groups, national parks staff, military, police, politicians and industry figures. Kusnadi later told me what went on.
The Guest of honor was Mr Dorori, the general director of Forestry Protection and Nature Conservation who had come from Jakarta to talk with North Sumatran chief of National Parks, Andi Basrul. The aim of the meeting was to come up with a new strategy for protecting the national park; and they did. If all goes to plan – and that is a big if – next year the military and the national parks body will start killing illegal palm oil plantations in Gunung Leuser or taking the fruit. Local government will then employ locals to plant trees as a substitute income. I asked Kusnadi why the government in Jakarta went to all the trouble of sending Mr Dorori out to Medan to develop local strategy. He laughed and said simply, “Jakarta is getting serious.”
In March last year, Australia announced plants to launch a $A30 Million REDD program in Sumatra in cooperation with the UN and the Indonesian government. The agreement is scheduled to start becoming a reality this year. Whether or not that program will have positive impact will depend on how many of the issues listed above are addressed between now and then. By choosing a stringent set of conditions like the ones imposed by Norway, Australia could further contribute to the important cultural shift already occurring. Or even further, why not regulate the import of or reduce demand for unsustainable palm oil products at home, instead of focusing solely on the responsibilities of supplier countries. We’re the ones buying the stuff after all.
If we’re serious, then we need to ensure that our REDD program is designed around local community needs and is accompanied by adequate resourcing, monitoring, education and enforcement if we’re to avoid the mistakes made in previous REDD programs such as the so far unsuccessful one we began in Jambi Province in 2009. As Teguh reminded me when I discussed the Australian agreement with him, “It’s your money. You Australians should be asking where it’s going.” If the Government in Jakarta is getting serious, then we need to start considering in more depth how we can encourage them in that from Canberra. REDD can potentially help us to help them, provided we get serious about it too.