Our narrow canoe slices through the dark, turgid waters of the Mahakam River, fed by the silt laden run-off from an upstream logging operation.
As we turn northwest and head up the Segah River, the water is clear and the stony bottom is visible; four hornbills rise from the towering rainforest canopy.
This densely forested watershed is actively protected by four Gaai and Punan Dayak villages that have monitored forests and logging roads in recent years to deter illegal loggers, palm oil concessionaires, and mining companies.
As in many parts of Indonesia, forest-dependent communities are often the most ardent advocates of forest conservation and critical allies in achieving the nation’s goal to reduce carbon emissions into the atmosphere.
Berau regency retains some of the best natural forests in Kalimantan, Indonesia. As recently as 1993, Dayak hunters reported seeing Borneo rhinoceros in nearby forests and orangutans still build their nests in the rainforest canopy.
While the lower and middle watersheds of the Segah and Kelay Rivers that flow past the district capital of Tanjung Redeb have experienced increased industrial and illegal logging in recent decades, the upper watersheds remain covered in old growth rainforest.
The establishment of the Berau Forest Carbon Program, a government-led district level REDD (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation) initiative is an attempt to slow deforestation and degradation trends by creating incentives for local stakeholders to adopt forest conservation and restoration measures.
Whether this REDD program can generate sufficient financial incentives for sustainable management of forests to compete with potential revenues from massive palm oil plantations and coal surface mining, remains to be seen.
Currently, around 52 percent of the district’s 2.2 million hectares has been allocated for timber and mining enterprises, and palm oil estates.
The government of Norway’s US$1 billion agreement with the government of Indonesia seeks to reduce forest conversion and contain national drivers of deforestation, yet to mitigate local drivers such as illegal logging, unplanned agricultural expansion, land speculation, and forest fires local communities are arguably the most strategic partners.
Some of the strongest support for forest conservation comes from local Dayak villages. Many of Berau’s Gaai and Punan Dayak families continue to be engaged in hunting and gathering, while practicing rainfed agriculture along the Segah and Kelay rivers.
A century ago it took nearly a month to reach the upper watershed villages by small boats (ketinting).
Today, the 175-kilometer trip from Tanjung Redeb can be made in four hours on logging roads that have opened the interior forests to palm oil, logging, and mining companies.
Forest dependent communities, including the Gaai and Punan Dayak in Segah and Kelay want to retain the forests in their areas. Legally recognizing the resource rights of forest-dependent communities is a problem since authority over state forest land allocation is largely under the jurisdiction of the national Forestry Ministry in Jakarta.
In recent years the Ministry has issued a number of policies that grant access rights and economic benefits to local communities over state forest lands.
In early 2010 the Ministry placed community forestry schemes at the center of its reforestation plans proposing that 500,000 hectares per year will be licensed under a variety of community forestry agreements each year until 2020 for a total of 5.5 million hectares.
While the approval processes will need to be streamlined if these targets are to be achieved, the national government is showing increasing policy support for involving communities in forest restoration and management and linking them to national REDD strategies.
According to AMAN (the Indigenous Peoples Alliance of the Archipelago), indigenous communities are de facto managers of 10 to 15 million hectares of forests throughout the country. REDD presents an opportunity to recover indigenous rights over land and forests. An effective partnership between forest- dependent communities and local and national government could present an effective strategy for reducing the emission of greenhouse gases.
The Nature Conservancy and Community Forestry International believe national and local REDD initiatives can best succeed through the active engagement of Indigenous Peoples and local communities. Recognizing community forest rights will reduce social conflicts and better empower forest communities to protect and restore the nation’s forest ecosystems for future generations.
Indigenous communities are de facto managers of 10 to 15 million hectares of forests throughout the country.
Mark Poffenberger is executive director of Community Forestry International and Jill Blockhus is senior policy advisor of The Nature Conservancy (TNC). TNC is a nonprofit conservation organization working around the world to protect ecologically important lands and waters for nature and people. www.nature.org.