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“Without this project they will lose both forest and fields”: Interview with Brett Pritchard, Tropical Offsets Pty Ltd

Interview with Brett Pritchard, Tropical Offsets Pty Ltd

A year ago, Long Bangan, a Penan village with about 600 people in northeast Sarawak, set up a blockade to stop timber and plantation companies from encroaching further into their land. This was the most recent in a series of blockades since 1987. The head of the village, Unga Paren told Malaysiakini that “Penans will die if the jungle is destroyed.”

Unga said that “They were logging in our areas. They were replacing our trees with oil palm trees. We did not like this but whenever we raise this matter, we are told to keep quiet. We are told that we have no rights to raise these issues.”

“We don’t want our jungles to be replaced by oil palm and acacia trees. We have no trees, no stones, no sand – all gone, taken away from us,” he said.

Now Unga is negotiating a REDD-type project, with a company called Tropical Offsets Pty Ltd. Brett Pritchard, the Managing Director of Tropical Offsets, agreed to be interviewed by email about the Long Bangan carbon offset project.

REDD-Monitor: I understand that you have a close link with the village of Long Bangan in Sarawak. Could you explain how you got to know the villagers?

Brett Pritchard: I lived in the Penan village for two years in the early 1990s teaching Permaculture-based sustainable village development. I had met Unga when he travelled to Australia as part of the ‘Voices from the Rainforest’ tour and he told me the people were starving and needed help to grow food. Amongst the project successes were the planting of 5,000 native fruit trees and 5,000 sago palms in the jungle surrounding the village, the rebuilding of the village, introduction of toilets and boiling water, and intercropping vegetables in their rice fields. I speak the Penan language and am accepted as a member of the village, and in recognition of how much I helped the village I was also given a Penan name after a revered headman from the past.

REDD-Monitor: After living in Sarawak, what did you do next?

Brett Pritchard: I worked with a number of Australian Aboriginal groups teaching Permaculture and carrying out “bush tucker” consultancy work for them. I also consulted for the Barkintji people in Australia on installing solar power at Mutawintji National Park in far west NSW. I had a bad fall in 1996 while teaching organic gardening at an Aboriginal Women’s Shelter in Wilcannia (NSW, Australia) and tore the cartilage in both knees, leading to two operations and reduced mobility. This spurred me on to returning to university studies where I gained the relevant qualifications to design and manage a REDD project (Bachelor of Natural Environments and Wilderness Studies). As part of my degree I studied climate change science and policy at the Australian National University.

REDD-Monitor: And why are you now setting up a carbon offset project in Sarawak?

Brett Pritchard: When I heard last year that the village was threatened with oil palm expansion I decided to see if the village wanted me to try to get a carbon offset project established as a way of getting them communal forest.

I hadn’t been back to Sarawak for 17 years. I went into the village in October 2009 and discussed the concept with them. I said I could try to get the government to give them some forest as communal forest (tana nodo) where they could hunt and gather but not cut trees. The people welcomed the idea, but asked that I also try to protect their rice field areas (tana terik).

To ensure there is sufficient agricultural land and forest the current proposal is for a total of 2,000 hectares of land to be granted to the village as communal forest and a further 1,400 hectares as agricultural land. The agricultural area is based on where they currently grow rice and will act as a ‘buffer zone’ for the carbon offset area.

Part of the project will be to assist the people to develop cash crops on their agricultural area. These will be grown in organic mixed-species plantations in conjunction with native fruit and medicinal plants. Rubber is one crop the people are interested in as it can be collected and stored until they have sufficient to sell, unlike perishable crops such as fruit or oil palm.

The communal forest area will be carbon audited and the offsets sold on the voluntary carbon offset market. Depending on international agreements after 2012 it may be possible to sell them under the UN regulated CDM carbon offset market.

REDD-Monitor: What has happened since October 2009?

Brett Pritchard: I have been back into the village four times since then, and have begun mapping a boundary the village is happy with. We have had to alter boundary points to include grave sites, and have tried to incorporate all the existing rice growing area into the proposed agricultural area.

To try to get this project up and going I have had to establish a company in Australia, as I knew the Sarawak Government would be more likely to talk to a company than an individual or an NGO. I also set up a branch in Sarawak with local partnership to give the project even more chance of success.

I then approached the International Tropical Timber Organisation (ITTO) and gained their support. I also managed to get the Australian Trade Commissioner to support the proposal as well. I then started on a long round of proposal submissions and meetings with Sarawak State Government officials until I finally got the government to both understand the project and agree to it.

Unfortunately they have put in the priviso that the oil palm company with the concession for the area also agrees. I then began another round of proposal writing and meetings, this time with the palm oil company (KTS Sdn Bhd), which are currently still in progress. In total I have spent 7 months out of the past year in Sarawak trying to get this going.

REDD-Monitor: What is the current status of the project?

Brett Pritchard: I have had a couple of meetings with KTS and they are currently considering the proposal. The company will receive far less income from this scheme than if they plant oil palm but will receive a lot of positive international PR, something palm oil companies could do with right now. Although some NGOs will criticise any project that gives good PR to an oil palm company I believe the general reaction will be that here is an oil palm company that should be applauded for giving land back to the people and for doing their bit to help the planet against climate change.

This small project is a pilot project under a much larger ‘Dayak Communal Forest Carbon Offset Scheme’. If this project goes ahead and is deemed successful I will be looking at implementing similar projects in other Dayak villages in Sarawak. Dayak is the term for all the indigenous peoples of Sarawak.

REDD-Monitor: What safeguards are in place that you will respect the Penan’s rights?

The company I have established, Tropical Offsets Pty Ltd, was set up only for the purpose of gaining land for the native people of Sarawak and the project is 100% based on prior and informed consultation and consent.

The people of Long Bangan tell me the village is my village also, and I feel I am acting as a voice for the Penan and as such the Penan’s rights are foremost in my planning and actions. My background is as a social and environmental activist, and not as a financial investor, and my past history shows my dedication to helping these people. I put into the agreement that this project does not replace their Native Customary Rights (NCR) land and that they are still free to claim land under NCR.

I have sent a draft copy of the agreement with the village to ClientEarth for their opinion and input, and suggested to Unga that he have a local lawyer look over it as well before he signs. Currently his son, who has an IT degree from Kuala Lumpur, is translating it into both Penan and Malaysian for him at my request.

I also intend to have the offsets certified under both the Climate Community and Biodiversity Alliance (CCBA), and the Voluntary Carbon Standard (VCS) or a similar internationally recognised standard, to ensure independence and transparency. I do not believe a company involved in REDD projects should self-certify or withhold information from the general public.

Another Australian carbon offset company ‘operating’ in Sarawak has been very secretive about where their proposed projects are and even who their agreements are with, and this type of behaviour is what gives REDD projects a bad name. I have emailed the Managing Director of the company to ask where they are operating and which Dayak groups they are working with, as none of my local contacts or local NGOs had heard of them, but received no reply. As they self-certify none of the details of their REDD projects are available to the general public.

Unless they release more details they are leaving themselves open to accusations that they have no projects here and that they are making outrageous claims to draw people to their web site, where you can buy expensive offsets from unnamed projects. The ACCC (Australian Competition and Consumers Commission) is currently looking into carbon offset companies in Australia and have already taken at least one Australian company to court for making misleading statements on their web site.

REDD-Monitor: Could you please say a little more about the process of free, prior and informed consent that you carried out in the village.

I have been into the village five times in the past year and discussed the project extensively, both in meetings and to individuals. My Penan was a bit rusty after 17 years, but in a mix of broken-Penan and broken-Malay and with the help of a Penan translator I got the concept across and explained what I could try to do for them.

They readily understood the concept of climate change, and how CO2 is like a blanket around the planet. They have a term already for an area of forest where trees cannot be cut, tana nodo, and also understood the concept and restrictions of a carbon offset area. Prior to the signing of the agreement with Unga yet another village meeting will be held where the agreement will be fully explained to the people. I have also been working very closely with the Secretary of the Long Bangan JKKK (Village Development and Security Committee).

REDD-Monitor: Which of the NGOs that are working with indigenous peoples in Malaysia have you been in touch with regarding this project? What has been their response so far?

I have informed both JOAS Malaysia and BRIMAS (Borneo Resources Institute) of the project. Jaringan Orang Asal Se-Malaysia (JOAS) is “The Indigenous Peoples Network of Malaysia” and is an umbrella network for 21 community-based non-governmental organisations that have indigenous peoples’ issues in Malaysia as their focus. I have also written to Non-Forest Timber Products (NTFP) as they are currently assisting a number of Penan villages with growing rubber as a cash crop. I have not received a reply from BRIMAS or NTFP yet but the reaction from JOAS Malaysia has so far been positive. The project also has the full support of Unga Paren as Chair of the Sarawak Penan Association, the peak NGO body for the “Eastern Penan” (Penan Selungo).

REDD-Monitor: Why carbon offsets? Why does the project have to involve carbon trading?

Brett Pritchard: I became involved in this business as I saw it as a possible way to get land for a village and a people I have a long and deep connection with. The villagers rely totally on the forest for their meat and fruit and on their fields for their rice and vegetables. Without this project they will lose both forest and fields. Due to my educational qualifications I knew about climate change and the carbon offset market, and saw REDD as a way to combine this knowledge with my aim to help the people.

This is an opportunity to get a project established that can be used as an example of how a REDD project should be established and run, and that includes free, prior and informed consent; full transparency; and maximum involvement of the local people in the planning, mapping and monitoring stages.

I am only doing what I can with the tools I have to try to save them from being swamped by a 42,000 palm oil concession that they are right in the middle of. Currently there is a palm oil nursery only five kilometres from them, and the clearing is getting closer every day.

The Sarawak State Government’s definition of NCR (Native Customary Rights) land is only restricted to cultivated area or farmed area locally referred to as “temuda” which must have been cultivated or farmed before 1958. As the majority of the Penans were still nomadic in 1958 they find it difficult to claim NCR as they were not farming at that time. The people of Long Bangan claim a much larger are of land under NCR than is covered by the proposed carbon offset project, but also realise the difficulties in having this recognised. If they chose to take legal action to claim their NCR they may not succeed, and even if they do the length of time this takes would mean their land would already have been converted to oil palm.

The village has been involved in blockading against logging for almost a quarter of a century and in that time they have failed to stop the bulldozers and chainsaws. Although past blockades have been peaceful I fear future ones may not as blockades did not stop the logging and because they realise they are now fighting for their continued existence. The younger Penans have also been exposed to violent kung-fu and western movies and are not as peaceful as their parents. Hunting and gathering was reduced in the logged-over forests, but with oil palm developments this is no longer an option. Since settling over 45 years ago the people of Long Bangan have also grown rice and fear they will also lose their rice fields to oil palm.

In a blockade situation there is the likelihood of violence, and the Penan are ‘outnumbered and outgunned’ and I do not see this as a viable method for them to hold on to their land. My aim is to give them, the Sarawak Government, and the oil palm company a peaceful alternative and a REDD carbon offset project is the only way I could think of with a chance of succeeding.

REDD-Monitor: How much of the money raised will go to villagers and how much to the oil palm company, government and your company?

The 2,000 hectares forest will be carbon audited with 30% of the proceeds going to Permaculture-based sustainable development (solar lighting, bio-gas toilets, organic mixed-species cash crop areas, ecotourism, etc). Of this my company Tropical Offsets Pty Ltd will retain 6% for managing the village development projects. The developments will occur over a 10 year period as the offsets are sold and at the peoples request I will be spending around 3 months of each year living in the village to personally oversee and develop the projects.

A further 10% will be invested in a Monitoring Fund, with the people receiving the interest each year for 30 years as a monitoring fee.

Of the remainder 30% will go to KTS Sdn Bhd, and 30% to the Malaysian branch of Tropical Offsets (Tropical Offsets Sdn Bhd). Tropical Offsets Sdn Bhd will be raising the finances to fund the project, which could be as high as MYR500,000 (approx.. USA$160,000) and this 30% is the return for those investors. With the original proposal 30% was to go to the Sarawak State Government, but as they stated it was up to KTS to agree and I should approach them this is now to be directed towards KTS instead.

In saying this, if the project goes ahead I believe the Sarawak State Government should be applauded for approving such a project and that their recompense should be recognition for doing the right thing by the people.

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  1. Mr. Pritchard, I applaud your dedication and commitment to the Penan people. There should be more like-minded people that collectively, can help the mostly remote villagers with projects like this to ensure their livlyhood and existance is not compromised for corporate greed. As a Papua New Guinean, with similar situation in our forest dependent communities, it is an eye opener to see that there are still people like Mr. Pritchard, with a committment to help remote villagers.

    Thanks, and continue the great work.


  2. Is long bangan in Sumatra or Sarawak …based on first question?

  3. UPDATE – REDD project not to proceed

    Unfortunately the project in Sarawak (Malaysia) will not be proceeding due to a lack of commitment on the part of the palm oil company. Although I did manage to gain approval from the Sarawak State Government in late 2009 to conduct a REDD pilot project they put in the priviso that the company with the concession for the area, Pusaka KTS Sdn Bhd, also agrees. Although initial meetings were positive KTS have continually postponed agreement for the project to proceed.

    I am severely disappointed over this outcome not least because of the personal and financial cost involved in promoting the project over the past two years. This project not proceeding will be a major blow to the two villages concerned as they were to receive much needed development assistance through a share in the revenue from the offsets, and also still face the possibility their remaining forest will converted to plantations. It may not be palm oil after all that encroaches on their land, as KTS has decided the area is too far from a processing factory to make it viable and instead the company has started to plant monoculture plantations of eucalypt for pulpwood. I do not know if this will increase or decrease their rate of expansion towards the two villages and their remaining forest.

    The initial carbon audit in the proposed carbon sink area near the villages showed the carbon levels were equivalent to primary rainforest even though the area had been selectively logged 30 or 40 years previously. Due to its steep and hilly terrain the area had been difficult to access and many original trees were left standing. Possibly the area could be included in a future national REDD scheme, although I would imagine the peat swamp areas would take precedence over lowland rainforest due to the much higher carbon content and therefore higher financial return per hectare. I had hoped this pilot project would be an example in Malaysia on how REDD projects can benefit the local indigenous communities. Without such an example national schemes are more likely to be modeled on the 240,000 hectare Pahang offset project, initiated by Malaysian Airlines, with minimal or non existent benefits to the local inhabitants.

    While I will no longer be involved in REDD projects in Sarawak personally I will continue to support the indigenous Penan people in other ways, and am involved in a reafforestation project involving jungle fruit trees and medicinal plants as well as a clean water project currently trying to raise funds to supply water tanks to two villages.

    In conclusion, while I still see REDD as a potential tool for assisting rainforest based people and conserving forests I do believe it is a toll open to misuse and I congratulate Chris Lang on his outstanding work on uncovering the darker side of REDD. As someone who has worked in the field and know the pandora’s box of problems establishing a REDD project can bring I also send my best wishes and encouragement to all those working to make REDD ‘work’ for the people and for the planet. The industry is still in its infancy and needs to be watched and guided for it to become a tool for gaining land rights, forest conservation, and development assistance and not just another financial instrument further lining the pockets of vested interest while riding roughshod over human and environmental rights. Keep up the good work.