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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

In Forests, the Challenges of Climate Change and Poverty

Air Date: Week of

A fishing village in the forest in Borneo. (Photo: Mitra Taj)

REDD-an ambitious plan to pay people to protect rainforests and the carbon stored in them, is beginning to take root in the forests of tropical countries. One of challenges to making it work is the people depend on the forest for survival. Living on Earth's Mitra Taj reports on a pilot project in Indonesian Borneo.


CURWOOD: It’s Living on Earth, I’m Steve Curwood.

YOUNG: And I’m Jeff Young. The international community seems far from agreeing on a tough plan to prevent runaway climate change. But one potential solution has found broad support. It's REDD—not the color, but a U.N. acronym for Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation. It’s a plan to save forests, fight climate change, and help the poor—all at the same time.

CURWOOD: Rich polluting countries like REDD because protecting forest carbon in the tropics could buy time for the reduction of industrial emissions. Developing countries like the billions of dollars REDD could bring them.

But the world’s rainforests aren’t just home to a lot of carbon, they’re also home to a lot of people, and recently—the site of more than 100 REDD pilot projects. Living on Earth's Mitra Taj visited one project in Indonesian Borneo.

Near the river’s edge, the big trees have already been pulled from the forest. (Photo: Mitra Taj)

TAJ: In theory, REDD sounds simple—pay to protect forests; reduce the CO2 emissions that come with their destruction. In practice, REDD sounds like this.


TAJ: Dozens are crowding into a wooden house to discuss REDD in Jelemuk, a village between a big river and a big forest in the heart of Borneo. Most of the people here are Dayak Kantu, a tribe whose roots on the Indonesian archipelago go back more than three thousand years.


TAJ: Today Jelemuk villagers have guests: a handful of conservationists, an Australian investment banker, and an American expert on carbon credits.


TAJ: The house belongs to one of Jelemuk’s traditional leaders, but it’s his grown daughter, Ida, who speaks up first:


VOICEOVER: Everyone here is wondering, who are these white people? We’ve seen you passing through our forests taking leaves and logs but we don’t know what you’re doing. So what is this carbon, anyway? Do you want to take the carbon from our forest, or maybe even gold?!

Ida (left) and other residents of Jelemuk listen as REDD project developers explain avoided deforestation. (Photo: Mitra Taj)

TAJ: Actually, far from wanting to take the villagers’ carbon, the foreigners very much want it to stay right where it is—in the trees, and in the peat soil, and not in the atmosphere where it would help heat up the planet.

Degraded forests are the source of almost a fifth of global greenhouse gas emissions, and protecting them in places like Indonesia is considered one of the quickest ways to slow climate change. Zoe Harkin, a forest carbon specialist for the conservation group Fauna and Flora International, or FFI, offers this explanation:

HARKIN IN MEETING: If you protect the forest in Indonesia, it makes it less hot in Australia. So we want to help protect forests here so it’s not so hot in Australia.

TAJ: While REDD, or Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation, is still just a four-page document that international negotiators discuss around the world, scenes like these are taking place in tropical forests from Brazil to the Congo.

More than two-dozen REDD pilot projects are in the works in Indonesia—each one an experiment in a brand-new way of managing forests. FFI’s Zoe Harkin:

HARKIN: It is extremely exciting. I mean, I used to work in government and what I would give for a lovely little template that would tell me exactly what I need to do, because you’re constantly feeling your way around, just trying to do the best that you can, but there’s not many or any examples to follow as yet, so that is a challenge.

FFI forest carbon specialist Zoe Harkin (center) and other team members at a community meeting in Jelemuk. (Photo: Mitra Taj)

TAJ: One of the biggest challenges is how to include forest communities into plans to protect forest carbon. Up to a third of Indonesians are estimated to live in and around forests. The forest FFI wants to protect has 19 villages surrounding it, and FFI wants them all on board it’s proposed REDD project.

HARKIN: It really just is early days of trying to introduce the concept of REDD. So if you go from a situation where they’re asking ‘why do you want our carbon’ to giving full permission with full knowledge to undertake the project, it’s just a very long process. And I think they’re very wary of a bunch of white guys coming in and promising all sorts of things because throughout history anytime that’s happened in the past it’s always resulted in a negative outcome for them.

TAJ: Between 1985 and 2004, 14 billion dollars—private and public—poured into Indonesia’s forests. And while the large-scale planting of oil palm and pulpwood trees has helped Indonesia’s companies become industry leaders, the poverty rate for rural Indonesian communities has remained much the same.


TAJ: In Jelemuk, villagers like Ida want a different outcome.


TAJ: Ida takes her two-year-old daughter by the hand and agrees to show me around Jelemuk. She’s short, wears a bright blue t-shirt, and smiles and laughs a lot.


TAJ: Before heading out into the hot sun, she grabs a large shady hat typical of rice farmers in South East Asia. It’s called “tangguy” and she says all the women here know how to make it.


TAJ: She brings me to a tree thick with long thorny pandanus leaves.


VOICEOVER: This is the living tree of the hat. We call it purrupo. First you remove the stickers, then you cut it and it depends, if you want to make a hat, you cut it this size, and if you want to make a mat to sleep on, you need to cut it smaller, like this—


VOICEOVER: And we don’t cut it with a knife, we cut it with fishing line.


VOICEOVER: Without these hats we couldn’t farm. Working in the sun all day is hard work—we cut down the trees and pull up weeds and burn them so we can plant rice. We have to change plots every year because we can’t afford fertilizer. It’s hard work.

A woman tends to a rice field near Jelemuk. (Photo: Mitra Taj)


TAJ: People in Jelemuk know what they want: a trained doctor in the village, paved roads, and a better future for their children. And they also know what they don’t want: oil palm plantations—the source of a cheap and versatile oil found in everything from oyster crackers to biofuel blends.

Villagers say oil palm companies have taken their neighbor’s land for plantations. Conservation groups like FFI say the industry is responsible for almost half of Indonesia’s deforestation, and FFI wants to use its REDD pilot project to keep oil palms out of Jelemuk’s forest.

But while many hope REDD will empower poor forest communities; some fear it’ll just create another incentive to lay claim to their land, excluding people like Antonius, a traditional leader in Jelemuk, from the one thing he says villagers must have: involvement.


VOICEOVER: We just want to make clear one thing. If FFI wants to make its project happen here, we don’t want to just watch, we want to take part in it. That means asking for permission before doing things to the forest, and asking our opinion about what to do in the forest.

Jelemuk’s traditional leaders, Antonius (left) and Markus. (Photo: Mitra Taj)

Because oil palm plantations in this area are destroying the land, but the people who live off the land have no input into the decisions made! So we want to help make decisions. If not, we will refuse FFI just as we will refuse oil palm.

TAJ: But it’s not really up to people like Antonius and Ida to decide what happens with their land. In Indonesia, traditional land claims come after national interest, which can be defined as creating jobs, or boosting palm oil exports, or a more recent goal—using REDD to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 26 percent by 2020.

But because global leaders failed to pass a legally binding climate change treaty in Copenhagen, REDD and its preliminary support for local land rights aren’t a reality yet, that leaves the nascent forest carbon market to regulate itself.

(Photo: Mitra Taj)

And in places where the only known path to development are illegal logging, palm oil harvesting, and coal mining, REDD is appealing. Ida says she likes the basic concept—earning money not to destroy the forest, but…


VOICEOVER: I am still confused about the idea of carbon trading. I mean, how would it be possible to make it cooler where they live by buying carbon here?

TAJ: The answer involves something Indonesia has a lot of: peat forests.


TAJ: Gusti Anshari is a scientist hard at work with his crew in a swampy slosh of forest just beyond Jelemuk. His worktable, a blue ice chest settled among moss-covered tree stumps, is splattered in mud and scattered with knives, syringes, and metal blades.


Gusti Anshari prepares carbon-rich peat soil for analysis. (Photo: Mitra Taj)

TAJ: Anshari leans over a chunk of peat soil just pulled from earth, pushes back his glasses, and carefully slices it into precise pieces. He hands them to his graduate student who wraps them in plastic and tape, preparing them to be sent for lab work in Europe.


ANSHARI: This very slow process.


TAJ: Peat is special. If you look closely, you might be able to make out little pieces of fallen forest—twigs, leaves, barks—that haven’t broken down into the soil over the years. That’s because the forest floor is so wet it’s soaking in water. So much water that full decomposition is put on hold. So the plant parts build and build, retaining the carbon dioxide they soaked up when they were alive.


VOICEOVER: Here, we’re finding the peat is very deep—17 and a half meters deep! So this peat is very unique; we think it was formed 20 thousand years ago.

(Photo: Mitra Taj)

TAJ: Old, deep peat; lot’s of carbon. If the water were drained out of the peat, what’s needed to grow oil palm trees, the bits of plant parts would decompose, emitting carbon dioxide. Indonesia is home to half of the world’s peat forests, but most of them are now dried out and degraded—a big part of why Indonesia, just after the United States and China, is considered the world’s third largest greenhouse gas emitter.

If Fauna and Flora International can keep the oil palm industry out of this undrained forest near Jelemuk, it can sell the carbon as avoided emissions in global offset markets. FFI hired Anshari to find out how much CO2 is in the soil of it’s proposed site.


VOICEOVER: For this area we predict that there are 15 hundred to two thousand tons of carbon per hectare. It’s a lot of carbon!

TAJ: And when you add in the carbon from the trees and plants growing here, this forest has about 100 million tons of carbon dioxide—the amount of CO2 five million Americans will emit in a year. Preventing those emissions could be worth tens of millions of dollars.

This small river gives villagers fish, clean water, and a path to travel through the thick peat forest. (Photo: Mitra Taj)

And that’s just the voluntary market—driven solely by people and companies that want to offset their polluting habits. But if the world’s rich, polluting countries were to agree to tight caps on greenhouse gas emissions—demand for carbon offsets could soar.


TAJ: A teenage boy from Jelemuk rows a canoe downriver from where Gusti Anshari is measuring peat.


TAJ: He sings a traditional song about festivities during rice-planting time when the land is cleared and burned, and people play games trying to blacken one another’s faces with the charred remains of the forest.

Villagers gathered in a temporary hut in land cleared for rice and corn cultivation near Jelemuk. (Photo: Mitra Taj)


TAJ: Out here, slash and burn agriculture is one of life’s essentials—in order to eat, you grow rice, in order to grow rice, you clear the forest. But for Fauna and Flora International to successfully market carbon credits from its REDD project, it has to make sure the forest it promises to protect stays protected, and that might mean changing age-old agricultural practices.


TAJ: Puttussibao is the nearest city to Jelemuk, and the Kapuas River is the only way to get here. At the port in the heart of the city, rural villagers from up and down the river arrive in boats, ready to sell their forest products for colorful rupiah bills. Patrick Oswald stands out as a tall lanky blonde German living in Puttussibao.

OSWALD: My part in this is focusing on the aspect of remote sensing, GIS, mapping, carbon accounting.

TAJ: Sent by a German development agency, he’s been helping Indonesian officials prepare for REDD, an effort he calls “slow going.” But he says the bigger challenge isn’t technical—it’s making sure real and reliable benefits flow down the Kapuas River and into forest communities.

OSWALD: People here why they should be environmentalists? Why should they protect the forest so that developed countries can continue with their way of living? People here want to develop themselves. Everybody has televisions—they see how it’s going on, how other people live and they all want a share out of it.

The port of Putussibao at sunset. (Photo: Mitra Taj)

If you say okay you conserve this area, you’re not allowed to do— okay you must give them some alternative. And this is money from REDD, but if it’s not enough, then people will opt for something else and you can’t blame them for this.

TAJ: But in Indonesia, forest communities’ legal lack of land rights means they’ll probably get the smallest share of REDD revenues. In draft Indonesian legislation, most forests would earn locals 20 percent of total profits—the rest goes to the government and REDD project developers like FFI and its investment partner, the Australian bank Macquarie Group. Oswald says it’s up to FFI to make sure its potential share satisfies both villagers and shareholders.

OSWALD: Of course in the end people must make a living. That’s the point, right? I mean, in the villages they must make a living. On the other hand FFI, they cooperate with Macquarie which is a bank, and of course there are investors in this bank and they see it as an environmental thing but I think primarily they see it as an investment, and as an investment they are seeing how to get some profit out of it.

And from this point of view I think FFI is in a conflict, because FFI must ensure environmental protection, they must ensure poverty reduction, and on the other side they are the investor. I think it’s a very tough job to find middle way.


TAJ: Back in the forest near Jelemuk, an FFI biologist is showing a Macquarie investor and other visitors how he measures carbon in trees and plants.


FFI explains how to estimate the carbon-content of trees. By measuring the diameter of their trunks, biologists can determine their weight, about half of which is carbon dioxide. (Photo: Mitra Taj)

TAJ: The investment bank wants to begin selling carbon credits from the Kapuas Hulu REDD pilot project by the end of this year. But FFI wants formal consent from villagers, which its social team expects to take twice as long. Zoe Harkin:

HARKIN: One of the trickiest issues is that because we’re associated with a private investor they are very keen to see a return on their investment as soon as possible, and so I have to be honest with you the two timelines cause a lot of tension and we need to be very careful to make sure that the communities are supportive of the project and give intermediate approvals along the way for each of these steps.

TAJ: But Harkin says in order to even get a chance at changing the status quo, a REDD deal needs to happen fast. The government considers the proposed REDD site “production forest” which means it could at any time, write it into an oil palm concession.


TAJ: Constantinus Victor is a local forestry official. I met him in the lobby of the only hotel in Puttussibao.


VOICOVER: 70 percent of the people in this district depend on the forest—for food, for timber. With REDD they could make money from protecting forests, instead of working for an oil palm plantation where they earn low wages and destroy their forests. But oil palm is here and REDD is still a concept. It hasn’t happened yet.

The capital of the Kapuas Hulu district, Putussibau. (Photo: Mitra Taj)

TAJ: FFI is also trying to engage directly with the oil palm industry itself. It’s offered to share carbon credit revenues with Indonesia’s biggest companies, in exchange for protecting peat forests contained in their concessions. But already one of those deals has soured, after FFI says natural forest was cleared to make way for oil palm.

The reason why is simple: oil palm earns more per hectare of land than carbon. Even with mandatory emissions reductions, research shows oil palm out competing carbon credits. Despite all of the challenges, Zoe Harkin says she’s hopeful about REDD’s potential:

HARKIN: Very rarely does an issue internationally get such unanimous support from all the countries in the world— maybe it’s naïve but I feel that it has to succeed with so much support. And for me it’s really the last gasp for the world’s natural forests, and so if REDD doesn’t work, I hate to say it but I don’t think anything will.


TAJ: Not far from where FFI is measuring carbon, Sabran, a Malay fisherman from a nearby village, tosses a metal net onto the river and watches it fade beneath the water’s surface.

A life tied to the forest; Sabran fishes and taps rubber to survive. (Photo: Mitra Taj)



VOICEOVER: Logging has harmed this forest here, but I still love it because it gives me fish that supports me today and tomorrow. So if there is a way to protect the forest I hope to help make that happen, and I hope everyone will be involved and everyone will feel this places is theirs, and that a sense of belonging will be created.


TAJ: If REDD is to live up to its promise, it’ll have to give power to people who have none, and in places where change comes quickly. For Living on Earth, I’m Mitra Taj in Kapuas Hulu, Indonesia.

[MUSIC: Racoon Fink: “Borneo Is Fallen” from Finally (Racoon Fink Music/Tune Core 2008)]

YOUNG: Coming up: environmental justice—and how the residents of a small Louisiana town are taking the United States to an international court—that’s just ahead on Living on Earth.



For more on forest peoples and REDD, check out the report “The End of the Hinterland: Forests, Conflict, and Climate Change”

Find news and studies related to REDD in Indonesia here.

Click here to learn more about Fauna & Flora International and REDD, click here.

Mongabay stories on REDD.

The UN REDD website has information on past and current policy developments.


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