Exactly what kind of ‘forest’ will Indonesia save?

In the world of REDD – the UN-backed scheme to save the plant from boiling in man-made gases by reducing carbon emissions from deforestation and degradation – a lot hangs on how certain words are defined. What, after all, is a forest?

Indonesia is one of the world’s biggest emitters of greenhouse gases by virtue of its love affair with the chainsaw and the bulldozer, which are tearing down its carbon-storing forests faster than Brazil is ripping up the Amazon. In an effort to stop the climate-warming carnage, Norway has offered to pay Indonesia a billion dollars in exchange for a two-year moratorium on forest clearing. The deal was announced in May to much fanfare and even song. The moratorium is due to start in January.

The problem is no one knows what “forests” Indonesia is going to spare from the axe, raising very real fears even within the UN about the obvious potential for fraud by the nation’s rapacious palm oil and paper producers.

In the latest clang of an alarm bell, a group of scientists has written to President Yudhoyono to urge him to include degraded forest in the moratorium. This would include forests that have been partially logged but remain vital to carbon sequestration and biodiversity, including habitats of species like critically endangered tigers and orangutans.

Here’s the letter:

Dr. H. Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono
President, Republic of Indonesia
Gedung Bina Graha Jl. Veteran 16
Jakarta Pusat

Mr Jens Stoltenberg
Prime Minister of Norway
P.B. 8001 Dep
0030 Oslo
November 18th 2010

Your Excellencies,

As scientists who study tropical forest ecosystems, we would like to commend the Indonesian government for its commitment to tackling deforestation as well as the Norwegian government for the support it is providing to help Indonesia achieve this.

We would like to emphasize how important it is that both governments ensure the agreement currently under discussion not only ensures a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, but also supports the conservation of Indonesia’s rich and diverse forest ecosystems, which provide livelihoods for millions of people and sustain biodiversity. For decades, some of the world’s most charismatic wildlife, including orangutans, tigers, Asian elephants and rhinos, clouded leopards, and countless other endemic and rare species, have experienced extreme pressure as their forest habitats have disappeared.

A moratorium on the granting of new concession licenses for plantations on natural forest and peatland areas for two years provides a strong starting point to help with such protection, but only if the right safeguards are established from the beginning.

One crucial issue that we feel compelled to raise surrounds the need for protection to include logged forests of high conservation value in addition to unlogged or ‘primary forests’. Certainly, all remaining primary forests must be protected, but any tract of forest should be assessed for its current and potential future conservation value.

This matters because whilst the original ‘Letter of Intent’ between Indonesia and Norway stated that ‘natural forests’ would be protected, recent press reports suggest that only ‘primary forests’ will be protected (see also Reuters).

Government officials have been reported to state that plantation expansion will still be possible because “degraded land and forest” could still be licensed for agricultural use. Indeed, last month the Indonesian forestry minister told the Jakarta Post that “idle forest areas other than primary forests and peatlands” would be available for cultivation. We note with concern that there is still no official Government definition of what constitutes ‘degraded’.

When analyzed together, these statements suggest that the Indonesian government may be adopting a position that would rightly protect primary forest but could then by default define all other ‘non-primary’ forest as ‘degraded’ and as such potentially earmark it for clearance.

This is deeply concerning. In our scientific view, habitats being considered ‘degraded forests’, including disturbed, logged, secondary, and other natural forest types, can be tremendously important for the protection of biodiversity and forest dwelling peoples, as well as for combating global climate change. Recent academic papers have highlighted this exact point, as did an important resolution passed at last week’s Round Table on Sustainable Palm-Oil General Assembly: On orangutans, Ancrenaz et al recently stated: “Our surveys show that orangutan populations can be maintained in lightly and sustainably logged forests but decline and are eventually driven to localized extinction in forests that are heavily logged or subjected to fast, successive coupes following conventional extraction methods.”

On Sumatran tigers, Maddox et al stated “even the most degraded habitats had significant conservation value; the heavily logged and cleared areas within the oil palm concession contained 90% of the species in the wider landscape including a healthy population of Sumatran tigers.” It must be stressed, though, that monoculture plantations alone sustain very little biodiversity compared with natural forests, even degraded ones.

On Carbon, Berry et al stated “We conclude that allowing the continued regeneration of extensive areas of Borneo’s forest that have already been logged, and are at risk of conversion to other land uses, would provide a significant carbon store that is likely to increase over time. Protecting intact forest is critical for biodiversity conservation and climate change mitigation, but the contribution of logged forest to these twin goals should not be overlooked.”

And more generally, the richest biodiversity in Indonesian rainforests occurs in lowland forests. Conserving this biodiversity requires large, landscape-scale forest areas that in many cases are comprised of selectively-logged or otherwise lightly-degraded forest contiguous with primary forest. Scientific protocols to delineate these critical lowland forests of high conservation value have been endorsed and implemented by diverse stakeholders in Indonesia, and could help advise your forest classification.

With this perspective in mind, we call on the Indonesian and Norwegian governments to recognize and reflect in their forest protection agreements that natural forests, even when not in their primary state, may have high conservation value and are still important for the long-term protection of Indonesia’s biodiversity and its forest dependent peoples, as well as for combating global climate change. Indeed, as world attention turns to Cancun, Mexico for the forthcoming UN climate talks, Indonesia is well placed to set a good example for similar schemes all round the tropical forest belt, on which the future of our global climate stability depends.

Yours sincerely,

Ian Redmond OBE, GRASP Envoy, UN Great Apes Survival Partnership,

Co-signatories: Prof Tor A. Benjaminsen, Norwegian University of Life Sciences, Norway
Dr Nicholas Berry, Senior Ecosystem Analyst, Ecometrica, Edinburgh, UK
Prof Corey J. A. Bradshaw, Director of Ecological Modelling, The Environment Institute and school of Earth & Environmental Sciences, University of Adelaide, Adelaide, and South Australian Research & Development Institute, Australia
Prof Robin L. Chazdon, Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, University of Connecticut, USA
Dr Susan M. Cheyne, Orang-utan Tropical Peatland Project (OuTrop) Director of Gibbon and Felid Research, Wildlife Conservation Research Unit (WildCRU), Department of Zoology, University of Oxford; Associate Lecturer, Oxford Brookes University; Scientific Director Busang River Initiative for Nature Conservation and Communities (BRINCC), Indonesia.
Dr David Edwards, Princeton University, USA, and University of Leeds, UK
Dr Simon Husson, Director, The Orangutan Tropical Peatland Project, Indonesia
Dr Simon Lewis, School of Geography, Earth and Biosphere Institute, University of Leeds. UK
Dr William F. Laurance, Distinguished Research Professor & Australian Laureate, Prince Bernhard Chair for International Nature Conservation, James Cook University, Australia
Prof Jack Rieley, Special Professor of Geography, University of Nottingham, UK; Co-Director Kalimantan Tropical Peat Swamp Forest Programme, University of Palangka Raya, Indonesia; Chairman Scientific Advisory Board, International Peat Society
Dr Douglas Sheil, Director, Institute of Tropical Forest Conservation, Uganda
Dr Ian Singleton, Director of Conservation, PanEco Foundation, Indonesia
Prof Nigel Stork, President-Elect Association for Tropical Biology and Conservation; Head of Department of Resource Management and Geography, University of Melbourne, Australia
Dr Jatna Supriatna, Conservation International, Indonesia
Prof David S. Wilcove, Ecology, Evolutionary Biology and Public Affairs, Princeton University, USA

Members of the UNEP/UNESCO GRASP Scientific Commission:
Dr Serge Wich, Chair, GRASP Scientific Commission; Director of Research, Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Programme (PanEco-YEL) and researcher, University of Zurich, Switzerland
Dr Marc Ancrenaz, Scientific Director, Hutan, Sabah, Malaysia
Dr Suci Utami Atmoko, Faculty of Biology, Universitas Nasional, Jakarta, Indonesia
Dr Christophe Boesch, Director, Max Planck Institute of Evolutionary Anthropology, Germany
Dr Tatyana Humle, School of Anthropology and Conservation, University of Kent, UK
Dr Inza Koné, Biologie de la Conservation des Primates, Laboratoire de Zoologie, Université de Cocody à Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire
Dr Mark Leighton, Ecology, Rainforest Conservation and Management, Harvard University, USA
Dr Fiona Maisels, WCS Monitoring Coordinator, Central Africa
Dr Erik Meijaard, People and Nature Consulting International, Indonesia
Dr Willliam Olupot, Director, Nature and Livelihoods, Uganda
Dr Liz Williamson, Coordinator, Section on Great Apes, IUCN SSC Primate Specialist Group

 (Photo courtesy of Greenpeace)

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2 responses to “Exactly what kind of ‘forest’ will Indonesia save?

  1. linked in http://emergent-hive.com Recent posts in evolutionary biology

  2. Pingback: Exactly what kind of ‘forest’ will Indonesia save? | Biodiversity is an important global issue

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