in Indonesia, Norway

Scientists’ letter to Norway and Indonesia: “Natural forests, even when not in their primary state, may have high conservation value”

Scientists' letter to Norway and Indonesia: Natural forests, even when not in their primary state, may have high conservation value. PHOTO: Greenpeace

A group of scientists has written to the governments of Indonesia and Norway, to emphasise the importance of not only reducing greenhouse gas emissions but also supporting “the conservation of Indonesia’s rich and diverse forest ecosystems.”

The problem highlighted in the letter is the fact that “degraded” forest is often extremely biodiverse and is crucial to local communities’ livelihoods. Yet these forests are now the target of the plantation industry’s expansion plans.

The letter of intent between Norway and Indonesia includes the following statement to be carried out during Phase 2 of the proposed REDD deal:

Establish a degraded lands database, starting in one or more appropriate provinces, to facilitate the establishment of economic activity on such lands rather than converted peatland or natural forests.

Here’s how Agus Purnomo and Yani Saloh, Special Assistants to the President for Climate Change, explained what will happen in an interview with in June 2010:

Forestry industries, forest management and agriculture activities can continue under their existing licenses. For their planned expansions, the government will provide information on available degraded forests as well as non-forest land where such development can take place. 

In other words, there is serious danger that “degraded forests” or “degraded lands” form the loophole through which Indonesia’s massive plantation industry can continue business so close to usual that if you blinked you wouldn’t notice the difference.

But, even before the creation of the degraded lands database, even before the mapping of the degraded land has started, even before the first province has been selected where the mapping will start, in fact even before the word “degraded” has been defined, the secretary-general of Indonesia’s Forestry Ministry, Hadi Daryanto, Forestry announced recently that the government has allocated up to 41 million hectares as “special forest areas” which investors will be allowed to bulldoze to make way for new industrial plantations.

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,
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

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  1. Chris, this is great and at TFT we certainly agree to this point. We’re working with palm oil industry players to see what can be done to transform the industry. The question we continually butt up against is – what is degraded? And the problem we face is that no one, not even notable experts like those listed as signatories above, seem able or ready to define it so that we and others can get out in the field and apply it. I’m not sure what the problem is – why the hold up? – but simply calling for the Government of Indonesia to protect “degraded” forest isn’t so helpful. What’s needed is a strong and implementable definition of degraded. Any suggestions?

  2. Hi Scott,
    thanks for your comment – you are correct that no-one has come up with a clear definition of ‘degraded forest’ but there are good definitions of High Conservation Value Forests, as the letter mentions in its penultimate paragraph “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.”
    Removing these forsts from the bull-dozers’ path would be a good start.

  3. Thanks for these comments. I think that the definition of “degraded” is an extremely contentious issue. The problem being that what may appear to one person (a forester, for example) as “degraded forest” may be “recovering forest” to another person (a villager managing their community forest and/or swidden land, for example). Unfortunately, creating a top-down definition (no matter how good it is) is not going to get round the problem that degraded is in the eye of the beholder.

    So, I’d say that a good definition of degraded is a start – as is excluding High Conservation Value Forests from potential plantation areas – but what is at least equally important is that there is a process that includes local communities in mapping and defining their lands and forests. This is not straightforward.

    For an example of how this can go horribly wrong, look at the example of Oji Paper in Laos – the company is now looking into the possibility of REDD funding for its industrial tree plantations (having bulldozed villagers’ “degraded” forest to make way for its monocultures).

  4. I am a West Papuan, living in West Papua and fighting against Indonesian occupation and colonialism. What we as Papuans experience is sometimes not exactly the same as published somewhere. But it is also sometimes difficult to convince outsiders what the Papuans feel about the destruction of their forest and marine environment. We feel powerless and hopeless because the Indonesian military and police are behind the whole natural resource exploitation.
    We are convinced that only one solution to avoid further natural destruction is to give the Papuans the right to determine their own future including having an independent state of West Papua that is free from the Unitary State of Indonesia (NKRI).