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Jakarta Post

Over the REDD+ rainbow

  • Peter Howson

    The Jakarta Post

Wellington   /   Thu, August 15, 2013   /  10:33 am

I have in my hands two biscuit jars. They look at first glance very fancy indeed, with their gold trim and pretty pictures of Fish Eagles. I am one of approximately 20,000 Kotawaringin Barat (KoBar), Central Kalimantan residents with this pair of biscuit jars '€” a thank you from one of Indonesia'€™s largest palm oil pioneers, celebrating his 54th birthday recently.

The jars are a message to local KoBar communities: '€œyou'€™re better off because of palm oil'€. Palm oil expansion in Kalimantan is however, one of the biggest threats to fish eagles, and the region'€™s still rich biodiversity generally. Without wanting to appear ungrateful, this plastic gold imitation feels a bit insincere.

Today, 17 percent of the total land area of Kalimantan has a palm oil concession attached to it. That'€™s the island of Bali, 21 times over! And what'€™s wrong with that? A recent report by Melbourne-based industry strategists, World Growth, suggests that palm oil cultivation is a significant contributor to the economies of producing countries, where it employs a large proportion of the workforce, provides key export earnings, and helps reduce poverty among small landholders.

Although palm oil proponents like World Growth routinely exaggerate the employment generated by the crop (the Indonesian Palm Oil Board also claims that plantations employ five people per hectare), field data indicates that an established plantation uses approximately one worker per 10 hectares of land (Tunku-Mohd-Nazim-Yakob, 2011).

In reality, large-scale palm oil cultivation not only fails to reduce poverty, it actively generates it. Indonesian plantations have proved bad news for forest dependent communities: their land is needed, but their labor is not.

KoBar residents can testify '€” the people whose land is taken-over are seldom employed there, and a life with dignity is far from guaranteed while living in such abundant pools of superfluous labor. To soak up the issue, the department of forestry has set itself a target of 1,600,000 hectares of community forest land (HKm) by 2016. But, with a current nation-wide shortfall of 850,000 ha (53 percent), this target is unlikely to be met.

So why, despite government commitments, are Indonesia'€™s forests, communities and the rich biodiversity which they support, consistently losing out to big palm oil? The United Rainbow of Kotawaringin Barat, a KoBar community co-operative, thinks REDD+ (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation) is the solution.

REDD+ is emerging as a central policy instrument to slow land-use related carbon emissions and, according to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), '€œis promoting pro-poor development, protection of human rights, improved forest governance and improved land tenure security'€.

The REDD+ mechanism is diversely manifested, but usually involves the private-sector and big non-government organizations, like WWF or the Nature Conservancy, steering the process with market-based approaches to conservation. The idea is simple, but the road to securing HKm and REDD+ permits is a Super Mario land of payoffs and pot holes. And despite over 16-long months of game playing, Rainbow'€™s permits are still yet to materialize.

The Lamandau River project proposes to be the largest HKm/REDD+ activity in Indonesia to date. But, what makes this project really unique is that KoBar forest dependent communities are developing it themselves. The principle driver is not thirst for land appropriation, profit or resource rights, but rather a wish to live a life with dignity.

It is hoped the 16,000 hectare site will provide sustainable livelihoods for impoverished forest dependent communities across four KoBar villages. The project will also offer additional protection to the Lamandau Reserve'€™s orangutan population. HKm status will help guarantee communities have management autonomy and a reason to protect and rehabilitate the now heavily degraded production forest peat land.

Researchers at the Centre for International Forest Research (Cifor) suggest that these community groups, not companies or government agencies are best placed to manage their own land. Instead of small areas of degraded land, communities should be granted large patches of forests with greater levels of management autonomy. KoBar'€™s forest communities would be playing a significant role in land-use decision-making, and taking the benefits from the sustainable management of forest resources.

The success of non-community-based REDD+ models in the region can be described as neutral at best. Some have failed to achieve their stated objectives by a significant margin.

The near-defunct Australian Government'€™s Kalimantan Forest Carbon Project (KFCP) for example, was a REDD+ activity run by the consultancy firm, Aurecon, who administered the entire Indonesia-Australia Forest Carbon Partnership from their Jakarta HQ. Duties were managed by a complex web of sub-contractors, communities were poorly consulted, jobs were outsourced to international '€œexperts'€, and verified emissions reductions proved modest.

Even if a viable carbon market materializes, it is against the prevailing capital-logic to expect private investors to take the lead in designing and managing REDD+ schemes that may reduce their profits in favor of forest communities'€™ welfare.

For this reason, poverty reduction cannot be left to corporations, external '€˜experts'€™ or international NGOs alone. Success requires intervention by local government. Conditions need to be set in which smallholders and forest dependent communities can take the lead in forming REDD+ programs on land they manage autonomously, with multi-stakeholder support.

Rainbow'€™s members and their local supporters think that if forest communities are placed at the very foundations of the project, sustainable land management, livelihoods (with pride and self-respect included) and proven emissions reductions, will be guaranteed.

Local government backing would demonstrate a clear commitment to community forestry goals and the rights of KoBar'€™s forest communities. With the province of Central Kalimantan now standing as the figurehead for Indonesia'€™s Institutional REDD+ Readiness program, the eyes of the conservation world are fixed firmly on the region'€™s forests.

Success will prove Indonesia is truly moving towards a '€œgreen economy'€, helping to ensure rural communities can grasp a life with dignity.

Not just empty husks of oil palm and a pair of pretty biscuit jars.

The writer, who is pursuing PhD degree from the school of geography, environment and earth sciences at Victoria University of Wellington, is conducting a community-based REDD+ project in Central Kalimantan.

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