(Kapas River in Harapan Rainforest)
Lists about rainforests seem to usually be listing which countries have the greatest rate of deforestation. So it was a welcome change to read this commentary in the Jakarta Globe last week, which lists the author's three favourite conservation projects in Indonesia. Those of us involved with Harapan Rainforest know just how important it is, for the forest itself and the people and wildlife that live there, and also for the whole concept of ecosystem restoration concessions in Indonesia. So it was great to see Harapan recognised on this list - see http://thejakartaglobe.beritasatu.com/business/commentary-modifying-indonesias-conservation-methods/ for the full list and more details.
The RSPB is proud to work with our BirdLife partners to protect and restore rainforests, and to help improve the lives of the people who call these forests home. In doing so, we protect some critically endangered wildlife, and we help improve the lives and incomes of people in and around those forests, from helping provide clean water or healthcare through to helping them develop better incomes from the forests. This work isn’t easy, but is worthwhile from whatever angle you look at it, and our local project staff work incredibly hard – under extremely challenging and rapidly changing circumstances.
The Harapan Rainforest concession covers approximately 100,000 Ha of lowland Sumatran rainforest (this represents more than 25% of the what remains of this habitat globally), and retains populations of critically endangered species including Sumatran Tiger (above), Sumatran Elephant and provides important livelihoods for forest-dependent peoples.
The Guardian has today published an article based on a site visit in 2012 when the circumstances in the forest were somewhat different to those of today. The journalist who wrote this article visited Harapan Rainforest nearly two-and-a-half years ago, at the height of conflict with migrant encroacher communities claiming affiliation to Serikat Petani Indonesia (SPI) who had entered an area of Harapan during the previous 12-months. These were difficult times for the project, and challenges still remain in tackling one of the most pressing issues facing forest conservation in Indonesia – that of pressure for land from an ever growing human population. However, since 2012 both the rate of encroachment and incidences of conflict have decreased significantly, and the article perhaps paints a harsher picture when compared with the realities on the ground today.
It is true that deforestation in 2012 was 2,500ha (at the peak of illegal encroachment), and the government of Indonesia responded by sending police to uphold the law, and prevent further aggression against the Harapan staff. However, after this time, and partly through a long negotiation process supported by the Government, in 2013 this illegal encroachment was reduced to approximately 650ha, and in 2014 annual deforestation was approximately 1,000ha. Losing forest is never good news, but in comparison to other lowland natural forest areas in Indonesia, including those within the protection area network, these figures are low, and in fact, most of this was additional clearance in already heavily encroached areas. There has been relatively little encroachment of the core forest area.
The article is good in recognising that forest conservation in Sumatra is challenging, and shows some of the more difficult aspects of forest conservation, but the issues faced by Harapan Rainforest are in no-way unique to Harapan. Community land issues in Sumatra are a vast, complex and an on-going challenge faced by the government and all land concession holders.
Towards this end, Harapan is working to improve the livelihoods of the 400 indigenous forest-dependent families who live within the forest through, employment, housing, sanitation, healthcare, schooling and assistance with NTFPs. The project is also seeking ‘win-win’ outcomes with the encroacher communities with the aim to stop continued encroachment and to receive some economic return for them utilising land (through an agreed benefit-sharing mechanism). The first mediated agreement comprising benefit-sharing and a commitment to no deforestation has been established with one encroacher group.
There is no doubt that without the Harapan Rainforest project this area of forest would already have been cleared for oil palm or acacia (for pulp). There is also no doubt that we will still face challenges in the years to come. However, the fact that the forest mostly remains, that the wildlife is still there, and that we are finding solutions to improve the lives of the people who live within Harapan, is a testament to the hard work of the Harapan team. As is the fact that 11 other ERC licences have now been granted, covering an additional 420,000ha. It may not be easy work, but we are proud that our work at Harapan continues to give hope to forest conservation in Indonesia.
The RSPB is no stranger to rainforest conservation, having been working with our BirdLife International and government partners to protect and restore rainforests in West Africa and Indonesia for many years. So we have plenty of first-hand experience of the very real problem of deforestation driven by the production of agricultural crops and other commodities, whether for local or international consumption.
We therefore welcome the increasing interest from companies interested in taking steps to address their impacts on deforestation, as shown by the New York Declaration on Forests, the two-day conference this week in London, and various online debates .
The case of Sumatra is a text-book example of deforestation driven by growth in demand for commodities. In the year 1900 there was over 16 million hectares of lowland terra firma rainforest in Sumatra, in 2014 there is less than 500,000 hectares remaining. The rest of that previously forested land has been converted to oil palm or fast-growing trees for pulp and paper. This clearance continues today, with a mixture of legal and illegal deforestation and conversion of forest. This has led to Indonesia being the country with the highest rate of deforestation anywhere in the world.
But we’re trying to reverse that trend. In Sumatra, together with Burung Indonesia and BirdLife, we are managing 100,000hectares of previously-logged forest as the first-ever forest restoration concession in Indonesia; to protect the wildlife and people that depend on the forest, and restore the forest and the environmental services (such as water or carbon) that we benefit from. We called this initiative “Harapan Rainforest” from the Indonesian word meaning “hope”.
This is challenging work, which still faces the ever-present threat of illegal deforestation. It is also expensive. Some particular challenges are:
But despite the challenges, our work has stimulated the idea that forests can be managed for restoration in Indonesia, and thus form an essential part of a wider landscape that can support wildlife and people. Taking such a landscape level view is essential if we are going to stop deforestation leading to forest protected areas essentially ending up as islands in a “sea” of other land-uses.
We therefore welcome initiatives from companies such as Asia Pulp and Paper (APP) that are now taking steps to address deforestation through their activities. We would encourage all companies to follow suit, and to take the larger view and look at how they can support not only initiatives such as Harapan Rainforest, but forest restoration more widely. APP have committed to restoring 1 million hectares, and we look forward to them implementing this commitment. At Harapan Rainforest we are demonstrating that it is possible to restore a rainforest; and if companies, government and NGOs work together there is real hope that we can turn this tide of deforestation.