A sawmill in Central Kalimantan, Indonesia, on 3 October 2013. Photo: Alex EllinghausenWhen Indiana Jones’ alter ego blew in to Indonesia last month, his celebrity pulling power ensured a rare audience with the President, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono.
Actor-turned-environmentalist Harrison Ford spent nine days in Indonesia shooting a documentary for US television. He then put to Dr Yudhoyono his horror at the devastation he had seen in Indonesia’s tropical forests. This is a country that, by some estimates, produces more carbon dioxide emissions than any country other than the US and China, the bulk of which come from destroying forest and peatland for timber and palm oil.
Even though the President promised Ford on camera to support one huge, 203,000-hectare forest preservation project, a month later the project is hanging by a thread. Forestry Minister Zulkifli Hasan has, apparently in defiance of his President, suddenly proposed to slash the area in half, threatening its viability.
The failure of the Katingan Peatland Restoration and Conservation Project would threaten Dr Yudhoyono’s international environmental legacy, which he has spent years burnishing at international and regional forums. It would also virtually prove that large-scale forest preservation projects of this kind are impossible to push through Indonesia’s bureaucracy, and the country with some of the world’s largest remaining tropical forests must find another way to stop their destruction.
The Katingan area lies in Central Kalimantan, a province in the Indonesian portion of the island of Borneo. Much of its 203,000 hectares is peatland. Inside the forest it is virtually impossible to walk – you can sink waist deep into organic matter accumulated over thousands of years. The peat is permanently wet and does not decompose, but once drained and burned, it begins to decay, releasing its rich store of carbon into the atmosphere. About 4000 orang-utans – about 7 per cent of the global population – live there, and the forest floor is on average 10 metres deep in organic material.
But the surrounding forest and peatland has been ravaged since the 1970s by successive waves of logging and industrial agriculture.
It is this kind of activity that Dr Yudhoyono has vowed to stop in the name of combating climate change. He has boasted of Indonesia’s ”pioneering role in harnessing forestry to the global effort to address climate change” and has dedicated his presidency ”to deliver enduring results”.
On the ground, though, his words have had little effect. Flying into the river-port town of Sampit, there are hundreds of thousands of hectares covered by palm-oil plantations, and smoke billowing from land being freshly burned to prepare for plantings.
Navigating from the village of Terantang into the Katingan forest by way of canals flowing with red-brown water, kilometre-long rows of logs tied together line the waterway as they float downstream.
Local villagers earn a pittance for cutting these trees down – about 25,000 rupiah ($2.50) per log. It’s illegal, but some find the income irresistible. Dotted along the banks are makeshift sawmills.
Reza Lubis, an ecologist from non-governmental organisation Wetlands, says the loggers act as the advance guard for other land users, who then claim the land under a form of native title and begin to farm it. Villagers clear the logged-over land by burning, using the ash as fertiliser, and dig canals to drain the peat swamp of water.
”This was all forest in the 1970s,” says Yusran, our boat driver, as we power through a blasted and smoking landscape. ”As the population grows, people clear more and more.”
Big industrial companies follow, bringing destruction on a much larger scale, using bulldozers and heavy equipment. Mr Reza says one palm oil conglomerate had already been sniffing around Terantang asking to buy people’s land to consolidate into a plantation. The villagers refused to negotiate. They say they fear the consequences of industrial plantations in the area, and do not want to be employees.
One man determined to offer a different model is Dharsono Hartono, the president director of a company called P.T. Rimba Makmur Utama. His plan to halt the destruction is called a reducing emissions from deforestation and degradation, or REDD, scheme.
Mr Dharsono began the application five years ago and has spent millions already to bring his ecosystem restoration licence to the desk of the Forestry Minister.
If Mr Zulkifli approves it, the remaining forest can start generating carbon credits to sell on the world carbon market. Mr Dharsono expects to prevent 3 million to 7 million tonnes of carbon dioxide per year being emitted.
In return he proposes to help diversify the village economy and protect the locals’ rights, establishing a rattan manufacturing scheme and ecotourism, provide microfinance and agroforestry.
The idea has the support of local communities and the provincial governor, Agustin Teras Narang.
REDD is a deeply problematic concept, not least because of the absence of a viable global carbon market, but it is exactly the kind of project Dr Yudhoyono says Indonesia needs to meet his ambitious emissions-reduction target of 41 per cent by 2020.
The Katingan project is perhaps the last best chance for a commercial scheme in Indonesia. It is the country’s biggest by far, and Mr Dharsono – Indonesian-born, Cornell University-educated and a 10-year veteran of US merchant banking – could not be a better proponent. He has also vowed to do it without bribery or corruption. A year ago the Forestry Ministry declared Mr Dharsono’s company had met all criteria, but since then, Mr Zulkifli has without explanation failed to sign the restoration licence.
Now, suddenly, he has proposed the project’s area be cut in half, saying he worries about the proponent’s ability to ”manage” the full area. Mr Reza said that cut would render it unviable because both sides of the area are ”the same ecosystem”.
The 100,000 hectares the minister is proposing to lop off is also on the side near where many of the local villagers live.
It’s not the first time Mr Zulkifli has intervened to gut a REDD project. Indonesia’s only approved scheme so far, Rimba Raya, suffered agonising delays on his desk and was ultimately cut to a fraction of its original size.
Mr Dharsono says the success or failure of his project will tell whether Indonesia’s President is serious about the environment or is simply making rhetorical flourishes on the world stage.
”If we fail to get this, we’ll never reach the tipping point of making the argument of REDD or sustainability work,” he says.
Terantang villager Desmon believes in REDD, saying the project will have an effect for ”three generations from today”.
But the strain of waiting is showing. ”If the project fails, the people here … will be shocked,” he said. ”I think the people’s trust in government is decreasing.”
The original release of this article first appeared on the website of Hangzhou Night Net.