Indonesia's climate experiment

The Diplomat : Tokyo : September 30, 2010: Stephen Minas

There’s an easy charm to Banda Aceh that belies its tumultuous history—and a ground-breaking climate change experiment.

Apart from the large ship washed kilometres inland that still towers over single-story homes, little evidence remains in the north Sumatran city of Banda Aceh of the devastation wrought by the Boxing Day tsunami in 2004, which claimed more than 230,000 lives.

It’s also hard to find traces of the bitter 30-year conflict between the separatist Free Aceh Movement and the Indonesian state that ended the following year there. Except, maybe, for one thing—an uptick in deforestation.

During decades of strife, Aceh’s forests were virtually no-go areas, meaning the province was spared much of the rampant deforestation that other parts of the country witnessed. But demand for timber soared during the post-tsunami reconstruction and many former combatants—demobilised and with few prospects—turned to illegal logging.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change estimates that deforestation is responsible for 17 percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions each year, and massive deforestation has helped make Indonesia one of the world’s largest greenhouse gas emitters.

Concerned by such figures, Aceh’s then new governor, Irwandi Yusuf, took the initiative at the 2007 UN climate summit in Bali to push for the inclusion of a mechanism for reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation, or REDD, in post-2012 climate planning.

The basic concept of a REDD carbon market is simple: a project in a given locality reduces deforestation and forest degradation and thereby reduces greenhouse gas emissions. These foregone emissions are then certified and a second locality can buy the resulting carbon credits and count them against its own emissions in order to help meet its reduction targets.

And now it’s in Aceh that the world’s first commercial REDD-style project is under way. Brokered by the Carbon Conservation firm, the idea is that Aceh’s government will sell credits from avoided deforestation, with Bank of America Merrill Lynch having first refusal on many of the expected credits.

The success of the scheme, managed by the NGO Flora and Fauna International, or FFI, depends on successfully preventing deforestation, which in turn rests on turning ex-combatants, loggers and poachers into what FFI project manager Matthew Linkie calls ‘guardians of the forest.’

An integral part of this process is ten days of intensive training, which culminate in a ‘graduation’ ceremony for new rangers designed to underscore their new position of responsibility.

‘At midnight they go into a river with flaming torches and you have the master trainer waiting for them in the river in his outfit,’ Linkie says. ‘They line up and the master trainer dunks them in the water, after which they put on their ranger uniforms.’

Linkie says it’s a moving experience for those involved. ‘They all cry,’ he adds.

The community rangers then go on to work with patrol elephants and cooperate with local NGOs as well as with the government’s own forest rangers. So far, Linkie says, no community ranger has returned to forest-related crime, while at least 145 illegal loggers have been arrested so far.

Although it’s too soon to pass any firm judgment on the Ulu Masen project, all involved acknowledge that Aceh has become a testing ground for REDD.

Ilarius Wibisono advises Aceh’s governor on the province’s sustainability programme. In the lobby of a hotel favoured by Aceh’s powerbrokers, Wibisono explains his hopes to show that the project is more than just ‘day dreaming.’ He says that although there are still gaps on some of the technical issues of implementation, that there have been some very good early results and that demonstrating the viability of REDD ‘is important not only for our community but for the whole world.’

G.V. Reddy, who manages the forest protection programme in the neighbouring Leuser ecosystem, agrees with the suggestion that the Ulu Masen project is something of an experiment, with REDD still in its nascent stages globally. But he believes subsequent REDD projects will learn valuable lessons from the pilot schemes nderway in Indonesia and he sees REDD as a logical way to protect the ecosystem in the long term.

These lessons look set to be applied at an international level as further projects are developed and REDD continues to gain momentum. It was, for example, endorsed in the Copenhagen Accord and negotiations on a formal mechanism have continued in the run-up to the next annual UN climate summit in Cancun, including within the controversial Interim REDD+ Partnership.

Meanwhile, there have been a number of significant bilateral deals, the largest of which was Norway’s promise of $1 billion to encourage Indonesia to halt deforestation, with the money reportedly pledged to become available after two years if Indonesia stops clearing its forests.

It isn’t all plain sailing though. Despite the broad international support, there isn’t yet a complete consensus on REDD, and there are also confirmed sceptics of the concept in general and the Ulu Masen project in particular.

During the Governors’ Climate and Forests forum in May, for example, a group of mukim, or subdistrict, leaders claimed that their land rights hadn’t been adequately recognised and condemned the forum as a projection of ‘elitist initiatives.’
 
But others have more fundamental objections to the project. Chris Lang, a Jakarta-based analyst who runs the REDD-Monitor website, questions the very principle underpinning such projects. ‘It’s a carbon trading project,’ he says. ‘No matter how good the project on the ground actually is, it’s trading carbon, which is allowing pollution somewhere else to continue.’

Lang isn’t alone in voicing such concerns. Muhammad Teguh Surya, chief campaigner for Friends of the Earth Indonesia, is also sceptical about carbon trading, arguing that trading REDD credits in carbon markets could simply allow developed countries to avoid actually making domestic emissions reductions.

But Linkie believes that even setting aside the uncertainty over how much revenue the project brings in, the Indonesian experiment will likely prove worthwhile. ‘Even if the REDD project didn’t generate a single dollar from selling carbon credits,’ Linkie says, if it resolves land tenure issues and encourages sustainable forest management then ‘you’re halfway to making the forests completely safe.’