Money might just grow on trees

Money might just grow on trees

Belinda Lopez, The Jakarta Post, Palangkaraya, Central Kalimantan, 22 June 2008

Taking a step into the tropical peat swamp of Central Kalimantan can be a dangerous affair. A firm surface is never guaranteed, and losing your boots in the quicksand-like mud is inevitable — but the least of your concerns.

There are snakes, spiders and a particularly nasty variety of ant that proved itself talented at getting into one’s pants for a salutary welcome bite. Stories of orangutans and hikers will be left to the reader’s imagination.

But the alternative to such a thriving forest is a desert-like field of peat, the extinction of Indonesia’s array of wildlife and fires that make the country the third highest carbon producer in the world. This too can be found in Central Kalimantan.

It’s a situation Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd and Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono appear to want to halt. A new agreement signed by the pair last week aims to preserve the forests, and possibly make Indonesia a lot of money in the process.

As part of the Forest Carbon Partnership, signed on June 13 during Rudd’s visit to Jakarta, 30 million Australian dollars (US$28.6 million) will be dropped into the forests of Central Kalimantan. It will be used to try and do what has never been done before — to put a money value on the carbon that has been saved by avoiding deforestation, said development economist and advisor to the ASEAN Centre for Energy, Terry Lacey.

The first Kyoto Protocol narrowly focuses on industrial gas emissions that tend to come from wealthier industrialized countries, while neglecting those caused by forest degradation — which often occurs in countries under transition, like Indonesia, he said.

But the Kalimantan project could be the first step toward a fairer system of combating climate change. It aims to measure the amount of carbon stored in forests using new technology developed in Australia, which is now considered “best practice” by international standards, according to Prime Minister Rudd.

Until now, measuring the amount of carbon in forests has been a rather rudimentary practice, despite deforestation accounting for 20 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. But once the amount of carbon in Kalimantan is measured, it could be tendered on the emerging carbon market, Lacey said.

It means Indonesia stands to potentially raise a lot of money by preserving its forests; that is if its most permeating problems — corruption and bureaucratic incompetence — do not get in the way.

When former president Suharto’s government cleared the middle of Kalimantan in 1996 for the Mega Rice Project, it overlooked a minor, but crucial, detail — that peat is too acidic for rice to grow in. By then a million hectares of forest had been culled and 4,600 kilometers of wide canals built.

What was left after the canals drained the water from the formerly boggy rainforest was a desert-like layer of highly flammable peat as topsoil. The next year fires raged through the former forests, contributing to between 15 to 40 percent of 1997’s global CO2 emissions, Wetlands International found.

Residents in the Central Kalimantan town of Palangkaraya still endure the consequences of annual fires. For three months of the year, smoke encases the town like a bitter fog.

“Nobody goes outside, nobody goes anywhere”, residents say of the “smoke months”, again and again. Life stops, as peat burns for meters underground.

The University of Palangkaraya’s Dr Suwido Limin was among the scientists who watched in horror as Suharto set about destroying forest to plant rice that was never going to grow.

A weathered environmental warrior for the university’s Center for International Co-operation in Sustainable Management of Tropical Peatland, Suwido, is very familiar with the paradox of forest preservation, Indonesian-style.

He believes things are “getting worse”. Regulations that forbid timber, oil, palm and pulp (acacia) plantations from over-clearing might exist on paper, but the hundreds of companies working there are all guilty of ignoring them, he said.

The problem is only made worse by small groups of Indonesians from outside Kalimantan coming in to carry out illegal logging and trafficking of orangutans and other wildlife.

The big, gaping canals dug in to drain the muddy forest to grow rice have since been blocked up to allow the forest to regenerate, but illegal loggers regularly break the dams in order to float boats down the artificial rivers, leaving the peat to dry out and burn once again.

A fiercely proud Dayak, Suwido’s own approach to forest preservation has been firmly grassroots. He has implemented a program where local families are paid for the amount of trees they regenerate over 10, 20, 30 years — helping people living near the forest make a living from it without destroying it.

But Suwido said the Indonesian government — on a local, regional and national level — was not listening.

“Their mentality is more difficult to change; we need to find a new strategy, new people and a new generation. If they put new people in the government, in the parliament, in the local offices, it would help. People have been there too long.”

A staff member of the Australian government department AusAID, which will partly manage the Kalimantan project, said the way to avoid corruption was “through transparency and openness in the way we manage projects and do business”.

The staff member was able to speak with The Jakarta Post on the condition of anonymity, as per department “practice”.

He said a draft local anti-corruption for development plan for 2008- 2013 is scheduled to be made public in July to guide future projects like Kalimantan, which will be subject to independent financial and quality auditing.

“We will look at the quality of all projects. The money trail may look fine but quality can be a let down.”

AusAID prefers to engage with local governments and communities in its development projects, rather than solely using Australian or international organizations to get the job done, he said.

“You do come face to face with issues of corruption, but isolating yourself from it is not the way to help change things … for local development and the local community.”

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