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

In Kalimantan, Big Experiment, Big Hopes

Air Date: Week of
Intact forest in Berau District, East Kalimantan, Indonesia. (Photo: Ingrid Lobet)

Climate and forestry experts are trying to figure out how to reduce carbon emissions from deforestation across the tropics. In Indonesia, on the giant island of Kalimantan (Borneo), The Nature Conservancy is trying to persuade timber companies and government officials to leave more trees standing and make money in the process.


GELLERMAN: REDD is also a major opportunity for conservationists who, for decades, have been trying to save the world's rain forests with little success. Under REDD, owners of forests would be paid to stop deforestation and keep the carbon in their trees.

The Nature Conservancy, perhaps the world's richest environmental organization, is already trying to get REDD going on the ground. It’s piloting a new approach in Borneo that could provide a template for the rest of Indonesia, and other countries as well. From eastern Borneo, Living On Earth's Ingrid Lobet reports.


LOBET: Borneo. Indonesians call it Kalimantan, tropical forest iconic for its orangutans and its seeming endlessness. Coal mines and oil palm trees have flattened much of it but you can still see much of it, if you get up high enough. Nawa Irianto, with The Nature Conservancy, climbs the rungs of a fire tower.

IRIANTO: Kalimantan in the past was almost all like this. All of the island! But now only in the remote area we can find a few like this.

LOBET: Far below, a blur of brown-grey swings from tree to tree: monkeys.

IRIANTO: If brown or reddish, then it's the very rare one: Coo-coo-coo-coo!

LOBET: For years The Nature Conservancy tried to protect forests like this by buying them. But even a group with a billion dollar budget can only afford to buy a fraction of the forest. It’s a kind of triage: Conservancy biologists pore over satellite photos of disappearing forest. They know most can't be saved.

GRISCOM: I think, you know, the mentality that we, the conservation community, has had for a long time is sort of this painful process of prioritizing only the most critically endangered places.

LOBET: That's Bronson Griscom, a climate specialist with The Nature Conservancy. Once wildlife experts identify the very most endangered places, they try to protect them, for example, by making them into a park.

GRISCOM: And that is and remains a core strategy for The Nature Conservancy. But the world is not going to be one big park and we recognize that.

LOBET: Even when land is protected as national park, these parks often exist only on paper. Hungry people-- sometimes people who were displaced to create the parks in the first place-- farm and hunt inside the parks. Plantation companies build roads. Park rangers are few and underpaid.

Faced with this reality, The Nature Conservancy made a major break with the past. It began working with logging companies. Griscom says conservationists figured out a lot more animals survive in a timber concession than a forest converted to agriculture.

GRISCOM: The difference between a well-managed forest, logged using sustainable, well thought-out logging practices, that are designed to mimic natural disturbance, and a converted forest-- converted to some kind of plantation like oil palm-- is night and day. You are talking about a system that is maintaining almost all the biodiversity on the one hand as compared to a system that is maintaining very little of it

LOBET: The Nature Conservancy says: just come take a look.


LOBET: So we travel to the end of the road and from there take a boat to Long Pay, an indigenous Dayak village.



LOBET: Jonas Lakan, a community leader, welcomes visitors into a traditional raised house. There’s a computer and maps of the village's traditional forests. Just a few years ago, Lakan recounts, this village was locked in a conflict with a well-known timber company that was clear-cutting.


VOICEOVER: They logged our fruit trees. They even cut down the trees where we keep our bees.

LOBET: At a certain point the community got fed up with the company, and took away the keys to the bulldozers in protest. This cutting was contrary to the way they’d used the forest for hundreds of years.


VOICEOVER: We held a protest and halted their production. We shut them down for three years.

LOBET: And for three full years, there was a standoff. Villagers and logging company didn’t talk. The Nature Conservancy got involved and people in Long Pay village began to organize and then negotiate with the timber company. They won the right to monitor tree-felling, and the company agreed to avoid cutting in certain areas.


VOICEOVER: With TNC's assistance for mediation, we took the company back. Before the conflict, they cut down any kind of timber they wanted. Now we monitor their activities and they cannot take any tree under two feet in diameter. That's our way of conserving our forest. Because if we cut the small ones, we won’t have any trees left.

LOBET: So, resolution. And now several people have filled Jonas Lakan's living room, and they want to say why this forest is crucial for people who live here.


VOICEOVER: Everything we do, we take from the forest-- potatoes, vegetables, sago palm, rattan, you can gather them and even get enough to sell them.


VOICEOVER: To me the forest is like my car! Because I can get wood to make my boat from trees there. That’s why we care so much about our forest because it's like our transportation.


VOICEOVER: We're very careful about which trees we cut down. In fact we only cut down trees when we need to build our boats or our houses because we depend on the trees for our bees.

LOBET: At the mention of bees, several people have something to say.


VOICEOVER: Honey is our sugar, we mix it in water and drink it!


VOICEOVER: It's so much easier for people who don't depend on the forest, they can just made decisions from afar. But for us who depend on it, if the forest is gone, what will we do?

LOBET: The villagers say that they're satisfied now with the timber company and the logging is more sustainable. The Nature Conservancy is trying to build a replicable model based on experiences like this one in Long Pai. They’re hoping to help build a model for all of Borneo. Or even the whole country. A model for keeping carbon out of the air, having communities benefit and protecting forest life at the same time.

To understand how, remember that as part of international climate talks, richer countries are pledging billions of dollars to poorer nations to help them develop cleanly, so they can leapfrog the dirty industry of the last century. Billions of dollars are being committed to preserving forests and the carbon within them to address climate change. These billions dwarf the interest the world has ever shown in rainforest protection until now. Again, The Nature Conservancy's Bronson Griscom.

GRISCOM: You are really talking about forests all over the place. And a level of financing that would generate national scale reductions of substantial decrease of the total deforestation across a country. Instead of dealing with, sort of this triage approach, prioritize a few spots and go after those, it’s really a much bigger scale.

LOBET: In fact The Nature Conservancy sees international climate finance as the last big opportunity for tropical conservation. But for carbon money to actually change the game, village-level efforts like the one in Long Pay must be scaled up to whole-country reductions in carbon emissions. In this area of Borneo that cannot be done without timber companies because they lease 40 percent of the land. So The Nature Conservancy is approaching them, one by one, to get them to improve their practices.


LOBET: It's an approach some environmental groups would find questionable.


LOBET: Red splinters spike up like daggers from a fresh tree stump.


LOBET: And swiftly, a 240 horsespower Caterpillar bulldozer drags the log, wracking the trees along the way. Finally, bulldozer and log arrive at the logging road, a muddy gash.


LOBET: Probably 80 feet across, 60 feet of road and ten feet of piles. When it rains, these roads pour silt into the streams. This is Belayan River Timber’s concession. It’s been clear- cutting. But the man in charge here, pak Totok, instead of seeming defensive, seems dismayed.

TOTOK: (Bahasa Indonesia translation) As a forester this makes me very sad. My conscience wants more sustainable foresting. In the future, we will keep learning to do things better.

LOBET: Do things better because Belayan River Timber and The Nature Conservancy are coming up with less destructive ways of logging.


LOBET: Using engines much smaller than bulldozers.


LOBET: Think of this as "no-gash" logging. Again, Bronson Griscom:

GRISCOM: With this system, you are sliding the logs along a very narrow skid road that requires no bulldozer. So, in the spirit of small is beautiful, we have a much smaller machine, it’s an engine. Do you know how much horsepower?

MAN 4: Twenty-two!

GRISCOM: Twenty-two horsepower. And what is the bulldozer?


MAN 4: Three hundred. Two hundred to three hundred.

GRISCOM: So you have an engine that is ten times smaller, that is powering a big spool with a metal cable on it, and is just a very simple device.
LOBET: This cable-winch system uses one-tenth the fuel of logging with bulldozers. It's low-key enough that one guy is riding a log on its slow path uphill as if it’s a surfboard. Smaller engines mean fewer emissions. And fewer roads mean fewer cut trees. More carbon left in the forest. The Nature Conservancy is now working with eight of the 13 timber companies who own rights in this district.


LOBET: One of them recently won FSC or Forest Stewardship Council certification. Here again is the Conservancy's Nawa Irianto.

IRIANTO: In this plot we still can see, lets see: one, two, three, four, five, six, seven big trees. Means per hectare there are still seven big trees. It's still a healthy forest.

LOBET: Irianto is showing off a forest that still has large trees, even though it was logged. This selective logging is a middle path between clear-cutting and roping off the forest. If forests are harvested sustainably, they have the potential to sequester more carbon than if they’re simply left alone. The bulldozer logging path too is already growing over. That’s because the operator left small hills like giant speed bumps every 20 yards.

LOBET: You've built a berm here so that when it rains the water isn’t going to flow down the skid road.

IRIANTO: Yes, yes, and then the water run that way slowly, slowly and slowly and not heavy material down to the river system.

LOBET: Nawa Irianto is the one who does much of the work of persuading timber operators here to adopt these progressive practices. He’s perennially sunny and caffeine-charged and happy to explain.


VOICEOVER: Usually there is resistance when they encounter an environmental organization. Because most non-profits are all about advocacy. But once they see we have an economic approach, and that there will be benefits to certification because they will get a premium price, and they can see nearby another company got certified, it's easier for us to convince the owners to move forward with certification.

LOBET: Certified lumber can fetch three and a half times the price of non-certified. As part of the certification, this company also has an inspector now: a tree guardian. His name is Bisam.

How about some of your guys working out here-- don’t they say "Hey can I take this one? This one's good?”


VOICEOVER: Yeah, they say that sometimes, but I forbid them from cutting the tree. I say, “No, you can't, because this is a protected tree. If you want to cut a tree, do it in your own village, on land owned by your community. You can do whatever you want there, but not here.”

LOBET: Bisam is part of the new face of Indonesia and many other developing countries well-educated young professionals who want sustainable development. And later in the timber camp barracks where he sleeps, Bisam says not just his education, but also things he has witnessed also make him yearn for forest protection.


VOICEOVER: There are floods now, and there didn't used to be. My own home was destroyed by a flood. My house was destroyed because the deforestation means forest cannot absorb rainwater anymore.

LOBET: But if The Nature Conservancy hopes to lower forest carbon emissions across this whole district in Eastern Borneo, it must work not just with logging companies. It will also have to work closely with government at several levels. Government controls who gets to do what with land. Private ownership of land in Indonesia is practically unknown. Government slates different tracts for different uses. So The Nature Conservancy is making itself a presence right inside government offices.

NASHR: Working directly with them. So we go to their office, they come to our office, transferring knowledge, to show them like, the whole world is looking on them.

LOBET: That is Fakhrizal Nashr. He is The Nature Conservancy’s main government liaison in the region. Nashr says you wouldn't believe the impact it has on local officials when they get access to modern land use tools—like satellite maps and simulations.

NASHR: If you can imagine the bupati, the head, the number one person in the district. If he comes to his office room and he sees his area. ‘This is the forest that I got,’ he can play with that: ‘If I do this, if I change this, what will be the impact, what will be the economic gains?’ Then he knows what kind of decision he is going to make and how that is going to affect his own people.

LOBET: Nashr wants to show local officials that conservation forestry can pay.

NASHR: We needed to put more options to the forest. We need to put that it is not only palm oil conversion that is the most viable economically for this area, but there are more than that.

LOBET: What The Nature Conservancy hopes to do, is contract with logging companies and other industries across the district to lower their carbon emissions. In exchange, they'll be paid. The initial money to pay them will come from donors like France and Norway. Eventually the emissions reductions become a commodity that can be sold by a special Indonesian board set up for that purpose. This effort provides a crucial, first-of-its-kind link between a local project and a national government's promises to reduce emissions.


LOBET: The Nature Conservancy’s efforts in Indonesia are well known and often cited by Indonesian officials. The whole project is still very much in the early stages, no contracts signed and no carbon credits sold. But the group’s hope is that it has found a way to protect forest and the amazingly diverse life within it. If enough of that life is left there, the warm wet forests here can regenerate, absorbing more of the carbon human beings send out. Nature then, helping to save us from ourselves. For Living on Earth, I’m Ingrid Lobet.



Ongoing Critical Look at Carbon Forestry

Sekala Forest Climate Center Indonesia

Tropical Forest Foundation

Center for International Forestry Research

Alternatives to Slash and Burn

Questioning FSC Certification in Indonesia

Forest Watch Indonesia (Global Forest Watch)

Greenpeace Indonesia

The Nature Conservancy East Kalimantan


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