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A hidden “green war”: The Sungai Lamandau REDD+ Project in Central Kalimantan, Indonesia

Indonesia contributes more greenhouse gases from forest destruction and degradation than any other country. The solution, trumpeted since 2007 at the UN climate meeting in Bali, is supposed to be REDD.

A recent paper looks at the Sungai Lamandau REDD+ project in Central Kalimantan. The author, Peter Howson, wrote his PhD thesis on this project and spent nine months in Central Kalimantan in 2013. Howson is now a lecturer in Human Geography and Development at Northumberland University in Newcastle.

The paper is titled “Slippery Violence in the REDD+ Forests of Central Kalimantan, Indonesia”, and is part of a “Green Wars” Special Section of the current issue of Conservation and Society.

The Sungai Lamandau REDD+ Project was the first “community based” REDD related activity in Indonesia. The project was supported by the Clinton Climate Initiative’s Forestry Program between 2008 and 2013.

In 2010, a consortium of NGOs partnered with the West Kotawaringin local government launched the REDD project. Funding was supposed to come from the sale of carbon credits.

The REDD project area is a “buffer zone” bordering the Sungai Lamandau wildlife reserve. Within the buffer zone, extractive activities, fires, and felling of trees are prohibited.

UPDATE – 5 June 2018: Earlier today, REDD-Monitor received a response from the Indonesian NGO Yayorin to this post. Yayorin’s response is posted in full here:

Blaming local communities for deforestation

Howson points out that, “the logic of REDD+ constructs people living in and around project sites as environmentally destructive and therefore in need of incentivisation to do otherwise.”

The drivers of deforestation, according to this REDD narrative, are small-holders, not the corporations that have cleared vast areas of Indonesia’s forest to make way for oil palm plantations and industrial tree plantations for the pulp and paper industry.

Under the REDD project, local people are supposed to be paid as compensation for not destroying forests. Howson writes that, “Within this frame ‘locals’ – suffering from the malaise of dispossession — are Othered as illegal loggers, poachers, greedy miners or arsonists.”

Howson gives an example of how local people are constructed as “Others”. Ashley Leiman, director of the Orangutan Foundation UK, told him that the people living in Sungai Lamandau simply didn’t care about protecting forests, or orangutans:

It’s difficult to say ‘you have to protect the forests because you have to look after the orangutan’. It’s not a species people warm to. They like stories about tigers and elephants; they all know about the Komodo dragon. But the orangutan isn’t a species they’re comfortable with….

The majority of people who live here have never been to Tanjung Puting [National Park] and they have no interest in ever going to Tanjung Puting — no interest in orangutans. It’s because of the resemblance to humans maybe or vice versa, I don’t know. To get people to conserve forests you have to talk about timber and money and poverty, not species like orangutans, they don’t care about that. They don’t value it — the way we think about the value of the forest—in that way.

Howson points out that in fact “many local people did care about forest protection”. He describes a group of people in their early 20s who met weekly to discuss opportunities for direct action against oil palm companies that were encroaching on local forests.

REDD, neoliberalism and violence

Howson is critical of REDD as “part of suite of neoliberal resource-valuation tools, which do more to promote uneven accumulation of rights to things and extend the reach of global capitalism than to providing tools for sound ecological management”.

He argues that neoliberal environmentalism can be “profoundly violent”. Howson isn’t talking about bloodshed, but he describes the push for REDD in Indonesia as “war by other means”.

The violent exclusions from REDD+ forests addressed in this paper are of an implicit kind — hidden away in market-based regulation of land and private property….

When enclosing forests for REDD+, exclusions form part of an inevitable trade-off to securing conservation and development interests, which are often considered more legitimate than those involving resource extraction. Violence thus becomes a matter of law and property rights.”

One section of Howson’s paper, “investigates how everyday market-based interactions tied up in the REDD+ project’s development and conservation goals constitute the arsenal for a hidden ‘green war’ — exposing the violent exclusions from the REDD+ project as they were mobilised by the project’s diverse array of actors.”

Excluding marginalised farmers

The REDD project aimed to support trade in Sungai Lamandau’s local commodities of rubber, rice and rattan. Howson notes that this in effect excludes already marginalised farmers.

One of the villagers told Howson that,

Rice harvests fail at least once every three tries. The soil isn’t right for it. We’re forbidden from burning the fields like we used to, so we have to buy chemicals. […] When there’s no rice to harvest, people borrow from each other from the arisan [rotating communal savings and loans schemes]. If people can’t pay it back they take timber and look for gold or something inside the reserve. […] It’s dangerous yes, but people have to eat.

Other villagers have sold off their land to repay debts. Some cleared areas of forest to grow crops. When they did so they were forced out of the REDD project.

Some villagers tapped rubber trees inside the forest. A local forestry officer explained to Howson that the number of permits issued to rubber tappers allowed into the forest was limited. The permits are valid for six months. They can’t be handed down to children and have to be renewed by the cooperative leaders.

“So the numbers of forest users will always decrease,” the forestry officer said. “Yes there’s resistance, because there are few alternatives for them.”

A volunteer with Yayorin (Yayasan Orangutan Indonesia, one of the NGOs that created the REDD project) told Howson that,

The people here, who have come from Java, they moved here to work in the forest for the timber. Most of the timber mills are closed because all the big trees are gone. Now we have to change their minds about forests as just timber. We need to help them find prosperity outside the forests with non-timber forest products.

Howson notes that non-timber forest products is a highly politicised term and “the regulation of what constitutes ‘sustainable alternative livelihoods’ and the promotion of NTFPs is profoundly violent”.

The gold within Sungai Lamandau’s forests could be considered as a non-timber forest product. But artisanal gold mining was strictly forbidden inside the REDD project site.

Fishing was also banned for anyone without an official permit. The REDD project offered sustainable alternative livelihood training in aquaculture. But Howson found that, “this was considered with limited sympathy for landless fishermen dispossessed by the REDD+ project enclosure”.

Villagers without formal land titles were often the ones excluded from accessing Sungai Lamandau’s forests. One villager told Howson how he could no longer enter the reserve through the gates, “even though I have always used the forest”. He still hunts in the forest, but does so at night.

Howson notes that because villagers had no choice other than to enter the forest covertly, there was no monitoring of the resources collected. “Illicit logging, gold mining and poaching were silently undermining the project’s conservation goals,” he writes.

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  1. I am an old man now, and been supportive of conservation of forests and wildlife for the past fifty years, but am losing faith in the efforts being made to save the Earth’s forests and endangered species. After reading this article and adding its woeful story to all the other material I receive, I am wondering if it is really worthwhile donating and signing petitions to save Orangs, Tigers and Elephants, along with their forest homes. A similar person to myself, stated she was giving up in despair, and just let the inevitable happen to Life on this planet, as there is no way mankind can be stopped over populating the planet and destroying the whole natural world. No political power or religion seems capable of saving the situation. To whom can we who love the Earth and its wildlife turn? The corporate plundering of the Earth for resources; the unrelenting population growth and its concomitant poverty and exploitation; the contempt for tribal peoples who wish to live content within the parameters of their sustainable ways of life; the every day announcement of more species being threatened with extinction; the supertrawlers hoovering up vast numbers of marine life forms, and turning the oceans into empty places, and filled with huge gyres of plastic waste; the continuing threat to world climate by Trump figures wanting to mine more coal, and many, many more instances of lack of compassion towards the environment and other life forms. Add to all these destructive practices and forces, the sheer criminality of mankind towards its own species is another reason why we do not deserve to inherit this planet or have place in the Universe.