Can it Work? A Progress Report on Saving Indonesia’s Precious Forests

As a child, my nightmares weren’t like other children’s. They didn’t have monsters, ghosts, or terrifying creatures, instead, they came from the videos we saw in science class. It was images of acid rain, extinction of species, air pollution and other natural ills kept me up at night. It’s not surprising then that I grew up to be an environmentalist, nor that this choice brought me to Indonesia.

No other place in the world has such a concentration of environmental issues – urbanization, water, pollution, migration, and, chiefly, forest destruction. I believe Indonesia’s greatest asset is its diversity, human but also biodiversity; the immense varieties of plants, marine and wildlife which grace the archipelago, a true treasure that only two other countries can match. Did you know Borneo has the densest biodiversity on planet earth? The immensity is hard to comprehend, but here’s one fact.

A single square mile in the forests of Kalimantan has as many species as the entire United States.

Tanjung Puting N.P By David Metcalf

Tanjung Puting N.P By David Metcalf

This biodiversity is disappearing. 40% of Indonesia’s forest cover has been cut down since independence, a startling number that is much higher than the devastation in the world’s other mega-biodiversity hot-spots – the Congo Basin in Africa and the Amazon basin in South America. Rampant forest fires and destruction of carbon-rich peats have made Indonesia the world’s number three emitter of Greenhouse Gases, behind only the United States and China.

There needs to be a change, but there are challenges. The country is poor, and the resources from forests are helping fuel economic growth. Palm oil plantations, the primary source of deforestation, make up a large percentage of Indonesia’s exports and provide the Government with needed cash.

As weird weather, both here and abroad, is connected to climate change, the world is taking notice of Indonesia’s forests and the vital role they play. Money is flowing into Indonesia under programs like REDD (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation), while international NGOs like WWF and Greenpeace and increasingly making Indonesia a primary focus point. In 2010, to much international fanfare, Indonesia signed a $1 billion agreement with Norway and implemented a moratorium on new forest concessions, a groundbreaking deal that many hoped would signal a shift in fighting deforestation.

Nearly 2 1/2 years later, forest cover is still shrinking, fires are still burning, and more and more peatland is being lost to the palm oil monster. What happened?

For one thing, the moratorium was only for new concessions – existing ones weren’t affected, and numerous loopholes, including decentralization, allow for business as usual. Another part of the problem is cost – though $1 billion may sound like a lot, Indonesian palm oil exports in 2011 totalled $19.7 billion. Norway’s investment is barely a drop in the bucket, and gravely minimizes the value of leaving the forest as is. Right now, forest is more prized when turned into a plantation, biodiversity and greenhouse gas emissions be damned.

That is where I believe the root problem lies; in how we measure economic development globally. We need to start using alternative analysis to understand Indonesia’s growth, which respect natural capital. Currently, a tree is only worth something when it is cut down and sold. Its contribution to air, soil quality, clean water, and the myriad uses for forests resources that indigenous people, like the Dayaks in Kalimantan, know of are all not factored into GDP. Understanding the value of biodiversity is key to protecting biodiversity, and realigning economics to valuate these ecological systems properly is an essential step towards protecting forests not only in Indonesia, but globally.

Tree flyers Kalimantan By David Metcalf

Tree flyers Kalimantan By David Metcalf

Moreover, Indonesia must change its development strategies. Right now, the country is following the path of European countries which completely destroyed their old-growth forests during the industrial revolution. In fact, the only old-growth forest left in Europe is along the Polish-Belorussian border. Indonesia’s dense biodiversity and huge carbon stock means we cannot afford the same scenario here. But there is an alternative model – Japan. Limited by resources, Japan restricted forest destruction, aided by a culture that believed in the merit of forests, and now has the highest old-growth forest cover of any populous developed country, at 64%.

Indonesia is my childhood nightmares turned into dark, adult reality. But I came here not to witness failure, but because I felt that there was huge opportunity to build a new, ecologically sustainable growth model. There are many Indonesians and expats who believe, as I do, that things can improve. Kehati, the Indonesian Biodiversity Foundation where I worked last year, recently embarked on an innovative project where the United States relieves Indonesian Government debt, under stipulations that the relief must go towards forest protection. Peta Hijau Jakarta is raising awareness about the capital’s lack of green space. In the outer islands, improved satellite and spatial technology is allowing for better tracking of illegal deforestation – and exposing Government complicity and corruption.

Overseas, there is action taking place from a different direction. This Easter saw a campaign in the United Kingdom that asked consumers to purchase chocolates that didn’t utilize forest-clearing palm oil. Currently, the United States and the European Union are implementing tough standards on imports of timber that are forcing the Indonesian Government to accurately source timber and clamp down on illegal deforestation. If China begins to also impose similar measures, it could have a real, discernible impact on saving Indonesia’s amazing, disappearing biodiversity. So there is hope that 2013 is the year that the tide finally turns.

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Nithin was born in San Diego, California to parents from South India, and has taken his international upbringing to the maximum, having lived and worked in the United States, France, Spain, Nepal, and currently, Indonesia, where he hopes to play a role in protecting this country’s amazing environmental and cultural heritage through education, policy, and social activism. He can be reached at freelance@nithincoca.com


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