Opinion

When enemies become allies,
forests and inhabitants
benefit

Erik Meijaard, Jakarta

When people talk about forest conservation in Indonesia, their discussion is based on a simple equation: forests plus logging equals devastation and the loss of biodiversity. The timber companies have long been considered the number one enemy of the conservation movement, and for good reason. But is it in our best interests for that to continue?

Granted, no one can deny that the timber industry's activities have led to massive forest degradation and loss, and in many places this continues. Biodiversity suffers whenever forests are cleared. The species found in grasslands and plantations are in no way comparable to those found in primary or lightly disturbed rain forest.

In general, timber concessions rarely follow the plethora of forest management guidelines prescribed in government laws and regulations. Logging opens up forests, attracting other operators that illegally harvest even more timber, in turn leaving forests vulnerable to fire. The legacy of decades of ""bad"" logging in Kalimantan and Sumatra has left, in many places, a degraded landscape. But not all areas were logged heavily, and ""good"" forest still remains in timber concessions to this day.

The most relevant way to judge logging is to ask firstly, how drastically logging changes forests; and secondly, how it affects wildlife. Recent work shows that well-managed forestry concessions can actually benefit wildlife conservation tremendously. Sustainably managed production forests, for example, can provide and maintain valuable habitat for many species that would otherwise disappear if the forest was lost altogether. The key issue is effective management.

The truth is that without some form of recognized management, whether it be by local communities or large enterprises, most of the accessible forests in Kalimantan and Sumatra will be claimed by someone. The timber will be removed illegally and the forest slowly converted to either agriculture or plantations or, worse, burned and then left as barren grassland. And it appears that it makes little difference whether these forests have protected status or not. In fact, in some parts of Kalimantan, forests disappear more rapidly from within the protected areas than outside of them.

But how do you ensure that forestry concessions are well managed? One mechanism is to encourage independent forest certification. Four natural forest concessions in Indonesia have obtained forest management certificates from the internationally recognized Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) -- three of them within the last year alone: PT Diamond Raya Timber, PT Erna Djuliawati, PT Sumalindo Lestari Jaya Unit II and PT Intracawood Manufacturing.

But getting certified is a multi-year process that requires significant management improvements. Concessionaires must improve management systems, adopt low-impact logging techniques, prove that their timber is both legally harvested and that it can be traced back to its source. They also must have credible environmental management systems in place, including setting aside or specifically managing forests that have high conservation values.

Such values are based on their importance for species and landscape conservation, water management, and socio-cultural needs. The concession has the obligation to ensure that these values are maintained, and annual independent monitoring should ensure that this obligation is met.

The question, for anyone who knows the industry, is why concessions would voluntarily invest significant sums of money in trying to achieve certification when there is little incentive for them to do so -- and more disincentives than you could possibly imagine.

But keep in mind that under current business conditions, concessionaires deal with social conflict, security problems, power struggles between different levels of government, conflicting laws and regulations, illegal logging and other forms of encroachment, overlapping land use issues, weak law enforcement, extortion, and of course, not forgetting the ever-present KKN (corruption, collusion and nepotism) on the side.

As a result, the cost of doing business is now higher than ever before. And it is not just the big players that are being squeezed; local communities are also feeling the pinch. One FSC certified community forest in Sulawesi, for example, has had to pay over Rp 50,000 (US$5.55) per cubic meter just to obtain transport documents for wood grown on their own land.

Still, one thing is clear. Those companies that have gone down the certification path have done their math. They know how much they invested, but they also know that once they have cleared the certification hurdle, an entirely new market awaits them.

Companies on the front end of the certification wave can expect to receive a significant premium price on their certified timber. In Malaysia, certified logs are sold at forest edge auctions to international buyers at US$275 per cubic meter, or almost three times the normal market price. Additional tangible financial benefits also exist such as increases in share price. For example, PT. Sumalindo Lestari Jaya Tbk saw a 300 percent increase in its share value one year following certification of its unit II concession in East Kalimantan. The increase in share price can be attributed in part to the credibility the FSC certificate has conferred to the company.

Implementing widespread forest certification processes will require changes at the government level, however.

So far, forest and wildlife conservation appears limited to protected area management, at least according to the government.

Managing the currently protected areas of Indonesia is unlikely to be enough to maintain viable forest and ecosystem services; the total protected area is simply too small. And adding more protected areas to the management tasks of the already overstretched nature conservation department will not lead to more effective management either. Local community and private sector management of forests outside the official protected area system is therefore crucial to the future success of wildlife conservation in Indonesia.

The time has never been better to work with government to drive change, but it must happen now. Recent certification successes in Kalimantan posted by by PT Sumalindo Lestari Jaya, PT Erna Djuliawati and PT Intracawood Manufacturing and collaborative management between PT Sumalindo Lestari Jaya Unit IV together with local communities and local government show that these approaches can provide an answer to the problem of Indonesia's disappearing forests and wildlife.

Within such a new conservation framework, sustainable production forestry can provide the required infrastructure, funding, personnel, and long-term commitment for effective management.

The writer works as senior forest ecologist at The Nature Conservancy. He can be reached at emeijaard@tnc.org

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