Can rich nations pay Indonesia to protect its rainforests?

A journalistic collaboration on climate change.
Dec. 7 2010 6:35 PM

Indonesia's Billion-Dollar Climate Experiment

Can rich nations pay a corruption-riddled government to protect its rainforests?

(Continued from Page 1)

The canals, Kaka explains, are meant to drain the peat—acacias prefer dry soil—and to create a waterway that can be used to transport cut trees to the pulping mill. As the soil dries, so too will the sago trees, which thrive in the moist soil. "There's already a drop in the water table," Alfian says, based on his last excursion into the forest.

Kaka and Alfian suspect that PT LUM bribed government officials to secure the concession—this, they believe, is why the Ministry of Forestry has yet to review their petition. I ask the men whether, in the absence of a federal review of the permits, the villagers are prepared to confront the company as they did back in 2003. They turn toward one another, eyes wide. "We're going to try to make sure that doesn't happen," Alfian responds. "We don't want to use anarchistic or violent methods. We want to use democratic means."

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After leaving Alfian's, I go visit some sago mills on the village outskirts, where man-made structures give way to a lush wall of Sumatran rainforest. The harvested logs are floated here from deep in the forest by way of a slow-moving river that runs adjacent to the row of mills. 
I watch a man strip dry brown bark from the logs with slow, deliberate heaves of an ax. Another worker, a cigarette dangling from his lips, chops the stripped logs into wedges, which are then fed into a pulping machine—its motor chuffing like a riverboat stuck in mud. The pulpy ivory-colored mass pours out of a rubber hose at the base of the machine and into a long rectangular pool where the starch is separated from the wood fibers. Next to the bath, dozens of sacks of sago paste stand upright and ready to ship. Surrounding each mill are piles of bark to be burned for fuel or used to make floors or fences.

Over at his mill, Nong, who is 66 but could pass for mid-40s, becomes animated when he talks about the setup. Rather than simply harvesting logs for prosperous mill owners, the farmers grow, process, and sell the paste themselves—paying mill owners a small sum for use of their machinery. "That way," Nong says, "even families with only a few logs are still able to produce their own sago."

Now that their economy is under threat, villagers are warily looking to the Norway pact for a strategic opening. The petition Kaka showed me plays up the role of forests and peatlands in mitigating climate change, and some farmers told me they were developing proposals for how REDD funds could be used to improve sago production. "We will support the government's program," Alfian explains, "but only if it goes to saving the forests."

That remains to be seen, of course. In late October, Wandojo Siswanto, formerly a top climate-change negotiator and architect of the Norway pact, was arrested and charged with accepting a $10,000 bribe to grant a company's no-bid contract with the forest ministry. Siswanto told reporters that he was simply obeying ministry orders, a claim the government denied.

The buck now stops with Kuntoro Mangkusubroto, an SBY confidant whom the president has put in charge of implementing the Norway deal. Kuntoro enjoys a clean reputation, having supervised a $7 billion donor fund as head of post-tsunami reconstruction in hard-hit Aceh province. "We are now fighting very hard to have a country with high integrity," Kuntoro told me. With "REDD and reconstruction in Aceh, we've proven that when it comes to starting from zero, we can design something different than what we had before."

His definition of success is simple: lower emissions. But when I asked whether the government would reconsider concessions such as the one near Sungai Tohor, Kuntoro turned vague. "It all depends on where the concession is," he said. "We are going to limit development on peat land; there are a number of factors that we have to consider before making a decision to review or not to review." He would not elaborate.

PT LUM has yet to start clearing around Sungai Tohor in earnest. But unless the government does step in, there's nothing to stop it from doing so. The company has doled out work to villagers here and there, but nothing that would make up for loss of their sago. Standing in the clearing alongside one of PT LUM's canals, farmer Numun Daya grips his machete. "It was 1903 that my ancestors first opened land here. When I think of that time, I think of the hardship for them," he says. "We have lost 13 areas of sago, and there is only a tiny bit of work from the logging company. We still have six more sago areas in danger.

"With those fields," the farmer adds, "we have a future."

This piece was reported as part of the  Climate Desk collaboration. The writer also received support from the Investigative Fund at the Nation Institute.

Robert S. Eshelman is an independent journalist. His articles have appeared in Abu Dhabi's the National, In These Times and on TomDispatch.com.

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