Couple forest protection with jobs to boost appeal, experts say

by Fidelis E. Satriastanti | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Thursday, 21 August 2014 09:15 GMT

Tree seedlings grown by Ulak Batu villagers will be sold to the Rimba Raya biodiversity reserve under its forest protection scheme. TRF/Fidelis E. Satriastanti

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Indonesian communities weigh paid plantation work against forest conservation schemes that may raise their income later

SERYUYAN/JAKARTA, Indonesia (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Schemes to reduce climate-changing emissions from deforestation will attract more local support if they offer jobs and concrete income opportunities for forest people, Indonesian villagers and experts say.

Indonesians who live in forested areas are increasingly faced with a choice between paid labour on a plantation or participating in a forest protection initiative that could improve their livelihoods down the line.

Until recently, plantation work seemed the best option for many, but that may be starting to change as schemes that compensate communities for safeguarding forests get up and running.

In Ulak Batu village in the Seruyan district of Central Kalimantan, local people worked as fishermen for many decades before an oil palm plantation was set up nearby in 2007. In the main, they shifted to labouring on the plantation because their fish catches were gradually decreasing due to pollution in the Seruyan River, attributed to plantation waste.

Around 70 percent of the 264 villagers worked on the plantation, earning up to Rp 59,000 ($5) each per day. In the good times, fishing had brought in at least Rp 100,000 ($8) per day.

“We need more income to support our lives and it’s impossible to get it from fishing only. But working in an oil palm plantation also does not pay much,” village head Syahrian told Thomson Reuters Foundation on a recent trip to Ulak Batu.

Things started to change when a programme to generate carbon credits through avoided deforestation and forest regeneration was introduced to the area by a company called InfiniteEarth in 2009, said Syahrian, who goes by one name. The Rimba Raya Reserve covers nearly 65,000 hectares of tropical peat swamp forests in the south of Borneo Island.

Though Syahrian did not know much about the carbon finance side of the project, he said some villagers had shown interest in its other activities. 

LEARNING TO GROW TREES

“People’s response here is positive. (Rimba Raya) has projects such as water filters, stoves and a tree nursery,” he said. “When the nursery is fully functioning, I think people will want to leave oil palm and come to work there.”

The nursery, which is run by villagers, offers training led by the Rimba Raya project, and local people are free to plant the seedlings they grow at home.

The nursery aims to produce 100,000 native tree seedlings, such as rubber, jelutong (a gum tree), and gaharu (agarwood), by the end of the year. Rimba Raya has agreed to buy the seedlings, providing an alternative income for villagers who receive the proceeds.

They are also hoping for additional employment, such as jobs with the Rimba Raya project, Syahrian added.

ECONOMICS

Nonetheless, Elfian Effendi, executive director of Greenomics Indonesia, a Jakarta-based policy institute specialising in natural resources, said palm oil usually wins out when it comes to economics.

 “If you look it from the conservationist (perspective), protecting forests is much more beneficial. But from the business point of view, (standing forests) are considered as idle lands,” Effendi said.

Schemes linked to a U.N.-led initiative to Reduce Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD+) in developing countries, which is still being negotiated at U.N. climate talks, can be enhanced by creating sustainable employment, Effendi said.

“They need to convince politicians or law makers that millions of job opportunities can come out of this programme,” he said. That would make REDD+ more attractive than palm oil investment, which has been regarded as environmentally damaging, he added.

In this way, REDD+ could become more competitive compared to other economic sectors. “With a 7 percent growth target, the (Indonesian) government will need to do more on jobs or eradicating poverty - and (people) need to be convinced that REDD+ is not just about protecting forests but can provide jobs,” he said. “It’s much better to achieve that economic growth without having to clear more land.”

LOCAL PEOPLE AS PARTNERS

Dharsono Hartono, president of PT Rimba Makmur Utama, a project developer for a REDD+ initiative in the Katingan district of Central Kalimantan, said REDD+ isn’t just about creating jobs, but about achieving “sustainable livelihoods” and ensuring communities have access to clean water, education and healthcare.

Hartono obtained an ecosystem restoration permit for 108,225 hectares in Katingan in January 2014, but the project has yet to generate any revenue because it is still in the preparatory phase.

Still, it is already providing employment. “In 2007, there was literally only me but now we have managed to hire 100 people - including locals - and it’s growing,” he said.

For REDD+ to work, forest communities must be treated as partners, he stressed.

“We don’t want a top-down approach where projects come entirely from us. It needs to come from them,” Hartono explained. “They need to find out what their priorities are - for instance land tenure security. Then there should be participatory mapping (of land) with involvement from villagers.”

But convincing people to protect forests instead of clearing them for other purposes is not an easy task, he stressed.

“We are persistent - and we believe in transparency, equity, accountability and communication,” he said. “So far, so good.”

In Katingan, local people have demanded a similar approach from other companies that want to develop oil palm plantations, he added. “I think that’s a good sign. We set the standards, people accept them, and it’s great for them to demand that others do the same. They have a choice.”

REDD+ is not a short-term effort, and will take many years to develop, Hartono cautioned.

“We are talking about sustainable livelihoods - employment is just the first door to open,” he said. “I am convinced that REDD+ projects in Indonesia can set that example.”

(Editing by Megan Rowling: megan.rowling@thomsonreuters.com)

Fidelis E. Satriastanti is a Jakarta-based writer with an interest in climate change issues.

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