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?

Rainforest destruction at the Ledo Lestari palm oil plantation. Click image to expand.
An deforested area in Indonesia

On a humid afternoon in Sungai Tohor, a coastal village in Sumatra's Riau province, 50 or so men are packed into a town-hall conference room. They sit in neat rows of blue plastic chairs, many clad in knee-high rubber boots, loose-fitting polo shirts, and baggy pants—the casual uniform of an Indonesian farmer. Women and children peer in through open windows and doors. There's excitement in the air, thanks to a gaggle of visiting journalists and enviros who have come to discuss the fate of the village—and a way of life now under siege.

Over multiple generations, residents of Sungai Tohor have built a thriving trade network that has brought them relative prosperity. Each month, they ship several hundred tons of sago paste—a starchy dietary staple produced from trees they cultivate in the jungle—to Malaysia and Java. The proceeds have enabled them to buy bright new motorbikes, build quaint homes, and maintain a slow-paced lifestyle that prioritizes family and community above all else. Some families can even send their children to college.

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Last year, however, Indonesia's Ministry of Forestry told PT LUM—a supplier for the Singapore-based pulp-and-paper giant APRIL—that it could cut down nearly 26,000 acres of lush rainforest surrounding Sungai Tohor and replace it with acacia trees, used to make paper products. The proposed plantation overlaps with the sago groves and other areas that the villagers use to grow rubber and coconuts.

Among the town-hall speakers is Kaka, a slender, ponytailed man who works as an organizer for the Indonesian environmental group WAHLI. As he explains it, Indonesia is accepting cash from Western governments to protect its rainforests even as it enables outside corporations to destroy them. Back in May, in exchange for $1 billion from Norway, Indonesia's president agreed to place a two-year moratorium on new logging permits. In theory, his administration is also supposed to work closely with locals to develop sustainable forestry practices—such as Sungai Tohor's sago trade. But government officials have yet to address the villagers' formal complaints.

The Norway deal is part of a broader United Nations program with an insufferably wonky title—Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation—that aims to tackle climate change by paying developing countries to preserve their forests. Because the destruction of rainforests and their carbon-rich peat soils releases vast quantities of CO2 into the atmosphere, and because the payoffs seem like a relatively cheap and straightforward fix, REDD is likely to be one of the hottest negotiation items at the current round of climate talks in Cancun, Mexico. Among the major sticking points: What, exactly, constitutes a forest? (Logging interests argue that their plantations should qualify.) And how much say will forest communities like Sungai Tohor have in the process?

Back at the town hall, Nong, a gregarious sago mill owner, stands to speak his piece. "If this company comes in," he says, "the sago groves will be destroyed and we will lose our way of life. Soon they will clear the trees and plant acacia. We will then lose the animals—the deer, the pigs." He looks over at the foreigners. "We ask you to help us to keep our village, our food supply, our livelihoods." He takes his seat amid murmurs of agreement and nodding heads.

The village secretary rises in turn to remind everyone what happened in 2003, when PT LUM received a similar logging concession nearby. The residents "rejected them in a harsh way," vandalizing equipment and setting up security camps to protect areas they claimed as their own. When the government sent in troops to assist the company, the men grew infuriated. They marched to the house of their kepala desa (chief)—who had taken the company's side—and burned it to the ground.

The new kepala desa stands with the villagers.

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Indonesia is an attractive target for international climate-change efforts, because it boasts the third-largest expanse of tropical rainforest on the planet, and one of the most biodiverse—its emerald-green jungles are home to iconic endangered mammals like Sumatran tigers, elephants, rhinos, and orangutans. Some 30 million Indonesians also rely on the forests for subsistence, taking wood to build homes and boats, and animals to eat.

More to the point, Indonesia is the world's third-largest emitter of greenhouse gases, second only to the United States and China. The overwhelming majority—85 percent—of those emissions result directly from the conversion of jungle to agriculture. Since 1990, companies like APRIL and Sinar Mas have cleared nearly 91,000 square miles of mature Indonesian rainforest—an area larger than Minnesota—and planted acacia and a variety of palm whose oil is used in everything from breakfast cereals to cosmetics to biofuels.

Worldwide, this sort of land conversion generates more greenhouse gases than the entire global transportation sector, which is why wealthy nations, including the United States, are now handing over cash to curb the destruction. Much of the $4.5 billion pledged thus far is destined for Indonesia, where President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (Indonesians call him "SBY") has vowed to cut overall emissions 26 percent by 2020—or more, provided the cash keeps coming.

That, however, would constitute a complete turnaround in Indonesia's forest policy. For one thing, SBY recently pledged to increase acacia and palm-oil production even while curbing deforestation, a seemingly contradictory goal; for another, the government has for decades handed out huge logging concessions to firms with close ties to "the military and state elites," says Christopher Barr, a forest policy expert with the U.S.-based consulting firm Woods & Wayside International. He adds that "corruption is widespread at all levels within the sector," and powerful interests "have often displaced rural communities that have managed these resources for generations."

Following the town-hall meeting, I'm whisked away on the back of a moped along a narrow, cracking concrete path—what passes for a road in these parts. I dismount in front of a single-story wood home where I've arranged to chat privately with Kaka and Alfian, the current kepala desa. Or not so privately, as it turns out: Alfian's living room is like an auxiliary town hall, with dozens of villagers coming and going during our conversation—rushing to greet their chief with handshakes and smiles. Alfian, clad in a plaid shirt and neat black slacks, returns the good will, offering each man his hand and attentive gaze.

Even before Kaka got involved, Sungai Tohor had partnered with other villages under threat from paper companies and collected 30,000 signatures on a petition protesting the concessions—which WAHLI helped distribute to regional and federal officials. He hands over a thick stack of paper that includes the signatures, along with arguments detailing why the concessions are illegal and how they will destroy the local economy.

Some 60 percent of the targeted area, Kaka explains, is by law the villagers' customary land. In addition to the sago areas, he says, PT LUM is preparing to clear areas of untouched rainforest that the company and the ministry falsely claim are "degraded." (In a new report, Greenpeace warns of precisely such a ploy by paper and palm oil interests aiming to expand by rebranding their activities as land "rehabilitation.") Already the company has cut a clearing just outside the village boundary, where it has dug several 20-foot-wide canals through the thick peat soils—another legal violation, he adds.

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