The fine print on forest protection

The Jakarta Globe: November 19, 2010: Ian Redmond

As scientists who study tropical forest ecosystems, we would like to commend the Indonesian government for its commitment to tackling deforestation and Norway 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 under discussion not only reduces 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 granting new concessions 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 we feel compelled to raise concerns 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, while 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.

Government officials have been reported as stating 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 said 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 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 that are 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, a recent peer-reviewed scientific paper (by Ancrenaz et al) found “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, another paper (by Maddox et al) stated that “even the most degraded habitats had significant conservation value; the heavily logged and cleared areas within the oil palm concession contained 90 percent 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, a paper by Berry et al concluded “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 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 global climate stability depends.

Ian Redmond is ambassador of the UNEP Convention on Migratory Species.


Prof. Tor A. Benjaminsen, Norwegian University of Life Sciences, Dr. Nicholas Berry, Senior Ecosystem Analyst, Ecometrica, Edinburgh Prof. Corey J. A. Bradshaw, Director of Ecological Modeling, The Environment Institute, University of Adelaide, Prof. Robin L. Chazdon, Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, University of Connecticut Dr. Susan M. Cheyne, Department of Zoology, University of Oxford Dr. David Edwards, Princeton University and the University of Leeds Dr. Simon Husson, Director, The Orangutan Tropical Peatland Project, Indonesia Dr. Simon Lewis, School of Geography, Earth and Biosphere Institute, University of Leeds Dr. William F. Laurance, Prince Bernhard Chair for International Nature Conservation, James Cook University, Australia Prof. Jack Rieley, Special Professor of Geography, University of Nottingham Dr. Douglas Sheil, Director, Institute of Tropical Forest Conservation, Uganda Dr. Ian Singleton, Director of Conservation, PanEco Foundation, Indonesia Prof. Nigel Stork, Head of Department of Resource Management and Geography, University of Melbourne Dr. Jatna Supriatna, Conservation International, Indonesia Prof. David S. Wilcove, Ecology, Evolutionary Biology and Public Affairs, Princeton University United States members of the UNEP/UNESCO GRASP Scientific Commission: Dr. Serge Wich, Chair, GRASP Scientific Commission Dr. Marc Ancrenaz, Scientific Director, Hutan, Sabah, Malaysia Dr. Suci Utami Atmoko, Faculty of Biology, National University, Jakarta Dr. Christophe Boesch, Director, Max Planck Institute of Evolutionary Anthropology, Germany Dr. Tatyana Humle, School of Anthropology and Conservation, University of Kent Dr. Inza Kone, Biologie de la Conservation des Primates, Université de Cocody à Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire Dr. Mark Leighton, Ecology, Rainforest Conservation and Management, Harvard University 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

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