By Chris Lang
Bernice Maxton-Lee’s excellent book, Forest Conservation and Sustainability in Indonesia: A Political Economy Study of International Governance Failure, highlights the difficulties of stopping deforestation in Indonesia. She does so not by focussing on poor villagers who clear land to grow crops, but on unsustainable economic ideology and the obsession with economic growth. This book is a must read for anyone who cares about forest conservation and climate change – in Indonesia and globally.
The book puts REDD in the historical and political context of forest conservation. Maxton-Lee looks at formal and informal structures of Indonesian conservation before looking in detail at the Rimba Raya REDD project to explain why land tenure, transparency, and governance won’t make REDD work. “Unfortunately,” she writes, “the flaw in the Rimba Raya model is that it tries to make carbon emission reductions compatible with demands for economic growth and ever-increasing returns on investment.”
She also takes a critical look at Norway’s bilateral partnership with Indonesia, the US$1 billion REDD deal signed in 2010, and the book includes a critique of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO).
In August 2020, Maxton-Lee wrote a Guest Post for REDD-Monitor:
“Sustainability means business”
Maxton-Lee points out that,
Addiction to fossil fuels is what is predominantly causing climate change. If global society does not stop those emissions, it cannot stop climate change. But that enormously significant detail is left out of the neat REDD+ concept.
“Sustainability means business”, Maxton-Lee writes.
Far from stopping emissions from burning fossil fuels, REDD allows them to continue by selling carbon offsets. To oil corporations like Shell, for example.
REDD serves profit, not nature
As Claude Garcia of ETH Zürich points out in the foreword to the book, deforestation in Indonesia is often blamed on population pressure, corruption, and over-exploitation. Missing is the role that the Global North played in structuring economies and politics to make these outcomes inevitable. Maxton-Lee writes:
“In Indonesia, irresponsible small-holders and ne’er-do-wells are blamed for perpetuating this hell on earth. The real reason the fires continue, the forest is lost, and climate change gathers pace is, of course, much more complicated. It starts not with poor people in poor countries but with rich countries and their unsustainable economic ideology, their obsession with economic growth, and their belief that somebody else can always be found to pick up their tab.”
Maxton-Lee argues that programmes like REDD, RSPO, and the Norway-Indonesia REDD deal, “serve profit, not nature”. This type of “conservation” is a new way of finding buyers and sellers for new commodities. It comes with new laws and institutional frameworks to ensure that the market works as it is supposed to – thus generating a boom for carbon consultants, standard setting organisations, and carbon traders.
The book addresses four questions:
- Why has large-scale international forest conservation failed to reduce deforestation in Indonesia?
- How much do the structure and goals of global resource institutions reflect and reinforce the role of specific interests and ideas, and how does this affect outcomes?
- What assumptions and subjectivities are reflected in conservation interventions and what interests do they serve?
- What does the history of geopolitical relations and imbalances of power tell us about how global and domestic resource institutions have evolved, about how environmental problems are framed, and about how solutions are selected?
Indonesia framed as “environmentally irresponsible”
Maxton-Lee notes that at the Earth Summit in Rio in 1992, rich countries like the US refused to change their economic practices – with President George W. Bush famously announcing that “the American way of life is not negotiable”. Meanwhile “poor countries like Indonesia were framed as environmentally irresponsible and put under pressure to reduce their ecologically damaging behaviour,” Maxton-Lee writes.
By the early 1970s, Indonesia had developed a massive timber export industry, followed by pulp and paper and oil palm industries resulting in large scale deforestation. The country also has a large mining industry. As well as destroying the forests, these industries have had a major impact on the livelihoods of the people living in and near the forests.
Of course, this large scale destruction of Indonesia’s forests has taken place with financial investment from the Global North, and, “The IMF and World Bank have historically pushed energy, infrastructure, and extractive technologies and strategies as conditions for loans,” Maxton-Lee writes.
“Unequal global power relations”
The UN climate negotiations in Bali in 2007 may have appeared to be a turning point for Indonesia’s forests, but as Maxton-Lee notes, “the elevation of developing-country forests on the climate change agenda obscured a continuing reinforcement of unequal global power relations in global clmate change negotiations. . .”
In participating in the sustainable development agenda of the Global North, Indonesia adds legitimacy to a system that has historically exploited but which also has rewarded elites and provided tools and markets for Indonesian capital accumulation within a local framework of uneven capital relations.
REDD is based on the assumption that economic growth is essential. Maxton-Lee writes that REDD combines,
patriarchal, outdated, and often rather colonial notions of conservation with deeply ingrained ‘common sense’ convictions about development. It combines modern development theories and neoliberal doctrines of economic growth, low regulation, and ‘free markets’, which have spread throughout the world since the death of Keynesianism in the late 1970s.
“In the rich world, nothing changes”
In the case of the Rimba Raya REDD project, run by the Hong Kong based company Infinite Earth, Maxton-Lee writes,
The discourse of Rimba Raya with its notions of property rights and enforcement, laid upon market imperatives of competition and individualism, is fundamentally exclusionary and denies material, political, and social realities. The process of identifying owners of forest assets and of identifying who is permitted to have access to those resources by definition excludes other actors. It constructs the ideological framework of access, rights, and narrative, indeed, the very spaces and concepts within which people think about nature and livelihoods.
Maxton-Lee notes that representatives of major carbon emitters (including Gazprom and Shell) were involved in setting up and funding the Rimba Raya project. “In the rich world,” she writes, “nothing changes”.
Maxton-Lee concludes that “the market cannot provide the logical framework for understanding environmental problems and presenting solutions”. She calls for deeper understanding, transparency, and communication about how conservation is framed, and how this framing shapes and misdirects environmental discussions. She appeals for an “open, honest discussion of ecological problems with real space created for genuine alternative approaches”.