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So – How do you Save a Rainforest? A Case Study from Indonesia

Jonathan Shopley | 14 March 2017 |

During a recent visit to the Rimba Raya project in Indonesia, Jonathan Shopley, Managing Director of Natural Capital Partners, witnessed first-hand how the project is saving the forest from palm oil conversion.

So – How do you Save a Rainforest? A Case Study from Indonesia

Perspectives from Pangkalan Bun

I’m flying in to Pangkalan Bun, a provincial town in central Kalimantan in the Indonesian part of the island of Borneo. As the wing of our plane dips for landing, I see neatly laid out palm-oil plantations right up to a river-drawn line of tropical heath and peat swamp forest which used to cover much of southern Borneo.

It’s the end of the rainy season, and I’m visiting the Rimba Raya Biodiversity Reserve. It’s a REDD+ project that uses carbon finance to protect and restore a 65,000 hectare area of degraded forest that acts as a buffer between the palm-oil plantations and the Tanjung Puting National Park. The National Park’s 400,000 hectares of more or less intact forest and peat swamp is the final refuge for around 6,000 orangutans and other endangered and unique species of fauna and flora found in the Park.

I’m travelling with Joseph Falmer, CFO of Infinite Earth, the US non-profit that helped establish Rimba Raya. When we land we are joined by Antonius (Tony) Jonatan, General Manager of Rimba Raya, and over dinner we talk about Rimba Raya’s challenges.

Joseph kicks off with an observation so stark it acts as a constant point of reference for everything we observe over the next six days: “Demonising the palm-oil industry is not helpful. Sure it’s the main driver of deforestation. But look at it from a local perspective – every hectare of forest converted to palm-oil delivers $1,000 net income per year for around 20 years. If that was our concession area it could generate a local income of $65m per year for an island that is home to 10% of Indonesians that are in desperate need of development.” Tony picks up the thread: “We have 14 villages and 2,000 households subsisting mainly on fishing. Fish stocks are steadily reducing as effluent from upstream gold and zirconium mining pollutes the main waterways, and mangrove areas cleared along the coast no longer offer spawning grounds for fish and crustaceans. For them palm-oil and mining is both a threat to their traditional way of life and an opportunity for a less tenuous future for their children.”

That conversation sets up the question I hope to answer over the next six days as we visit various parts of the Rimba Raya reserve and meet people involved in its varied activities … “how do you save a rainforest?”. That’s the sixty-five million dollar question.

Fast is slow, and slow is fast

The importance of forest systems in maintaining global biodiversity and a stable climate is now well understood, making action to prevent further degradation of forest systems both critical and urgent. But saving rainforests takes patience and perseverance and when the process is hurried that generally means more haste less speed. This fast / slow dilemma is a reality that Rimba Raya has lived with from its inception, and it is at the heart of the six core activities that underpin its work.

1. Get host country approval
Indigenous forests are most commonly under the control of national governments. So the first step in the process of setting up Rimba Raya was to secure an Ecosystem Restoration Concession (ERC) under Indonesian law. A tough multi-year process of negotiations with central and regional governments led to the establishment of the Rimba Raya ERC -- but not without losing half of the area originally targeted to palm-oil interests. While the value of Rimba Raya in preventing palm-oil encroachment into the eastern side of the Tanjung Putting National Park is recognised, there remains a tension between conservation and commercial interests that needs continued management, with specific attention to the land tenure rights and resources available to villagers living within the concession.

2. Raise finance
The capital and operational budgets required to implement the ongoing protection activities at the project is substantial, and conserving forests in and of itself does not generate revenues anywhere near what is required. Nor are the forest protection funds being set up by the World Bank, nations including Norway, UK and the USA, and the private sector near sufficient to the task. Therefore, Rimba Raya chose a results-based financing model using carbon credit sales to generate ongoing income tied to its performance in slowing and reversing deforestation in the concession area. That too required and requires investment to develop a Verified Carbon Standard methodology and the procedures to monitor and verify climate mitigation outcomes; and, similarly for the Climate Community and Biodiversity standard to assure social, environmental and economic co-benefits from project interventions.

The majority of Rimba Raya’s operational funding now comes from the sale of carbon credits to corporations taking voluntary action on climate. REDD+ credits have yet to be written into the Paris Climate Agreement or any other compliance system. Until that happens, Rimba Raya’s progress will be dependent on demand and prices for carbon credits used for voluntary action.

3. Stop deforestation
With results-based finance as the key source of funding, results are the priority. I meet staff in all three of Rimba Raya’s regional offices who are responsible for patrolling the swampy and tangled project area to protect it from further degradation from palm-oil incursions, and to a lesser degree, impact from local villagers: illegal logging by communities is a low level risk, while incursion by palm-oil interests at the margins is much more prevalent and significant. Incursions often occur after fires are instigated in marginal areas during the hot/dry season. This provides the ‘toe in the door’ for palm-oil to encroach into the protected areas which are no longer viable as natural forests. So fire- fighting is important. Fire fighting with locally available equipment in the low-lying, extremely rough and swampy regions is rarely effective, unless the fires are spotted and addressed when they are small. Internet and communication connectivity is almost absent within and across the conservation area, making on-the-ground coordination difficult.

4. Change attitudes and behaviour
Halting isolated incidences of incursion into the reserve is an important quick response to the deforestation problem. Longer-term, the project relies more upon changing attitudes and behaviours. That takes time and perseverance. Rimba Raya has staff dedicated to engaging all key stakeholders in a continual process of dialogue.

Local villagers are engaged through their established community leadership and their children through school teachers. School children are supported with access to solar lanterns, provision of text and reading books, and the direct involvement by schools in restorative planting in the forest. During 2017, Rimba Raya will launch a floating clinic to provide a higher level of health care to the underserved forest communities.

The hardest yards though are those won and lost in ongoing negotiations with local and national policy-makers and domestic palm-oil companies. The project is engaged directly in the herculean task of defending the long-term, social and environmental value of a standing forest against the option of revenues today from palm-oil.

5. Generate alternative sources of income
Developing alternative sources of income, employment and wealth creation in the region is central to the longer-term objective of developing a sustainable regional economy without sacrificing forests. The provision of fuel efficient cook-stoves, water filters, and solar lanterns and the forthcoming floating clinic, have an immediate impact by reducing expenditures on fuel, water and health care. That improves disposable income in the forest communities.

We visit longer-term initiatives to create value through forest product enterprises including women cooperatives making and retailing shrimp paste; village cooperatives for chicken and egg production to provide alternatives to fish; revenue raising waste management, recycling and up-cycling initiatives; and nurseries developing market produce and saplings for reforestation. Future plans include bee-keeping for honey; jungle rubber (Jelutong); medicinal plant extracts; and, other value-added products sourced sustainably from the forests.

None of these concepts can be operationalised overnight. Their feasibility depends on access to raw materials; husbandry and production skills; and access to viable markets.

As one of our interviewees said: “making stuff is very different to setting up and running a business”. These activities are about transforming school kids to teachers, fishermen and mothers to entrepreneurs, and subsistence communities in to sustainable local markets. I learn that this level of transformation cannot be hurried.

6. Restore degraded areas

The sixth activity is the one most people have in mind when they think about the Rimba Raya REDD+ project – replanting of trees and mangroves, restoration of forest habitat and releasing orphaned or previously captive orangutans into the protected forest areas.

There is indeed a well-developed replanting plan supported by tree nurseries. Local teams work in concert with community schools to get saplings planted in areas targeted and prepared for restoration. Over 300,000 of a targeted 1m trees have been planted in the southern region.

During the trip we are invited to see five great apes make their unfaltering leap back into the wilds of the Rimba Raya reserve. Dr Birute Galdikas, world-renown orangutan conservationist and highly-respected local expert, oversees the release of five orphaned orangutans from the Orangutan Foundation International’s local rescue centre into the protected habitat in the Rimba Raya reserve.

Go high and go home

Seeing those five orangutans swing off through the canopy of Rimba Raya without so much as a backward glance was an anticlimactic end to many years of care for the fire-orphaned animals which will need to continue from a distance for many more months as the animals settle in. It was humbling to witness the quiet satisfaction amongst the project staff as years of work across so many people and organisations culminated in this high level home coming into a habitat that the Rimba Raya project is working hard to sustain.

The corporations that have chosen to recognise the essential role of REDD+ projects in protecting habitat and climate by supporting projects like this in their offset programmes are making a critical, positive impact. Their commitment and financial support is critical to the exceptional work being done by Infinite Earth and Rimba Raya in Kalimantan, Indonesia. Together, we may yet have the answer to the sixty five million dollar question.

Join us on 21st March for a Q&A with Todd Lemons, Founder of the Rimba Raya project, to learn more about the work of the project. Register here.