How to make communities see green over REDD?

December 2, 2010
A villager collects rattan among rubber trees near a village in Central Kalimantan province on Indonesia's part of Borneo island. Rubber and rattan provide good incomes to villagers and represents a key way to support livelihoods for investors in a large forest preservation project nearby, who are working with local communities to make the project a success. Credit: Yusuf Ahmad

A villager collects rattan among rubber trees near a village in Central Kalimantan province on Indonesia's part of Borneo island. Rubber and rattan provide good incomes to villagers and represents a key way to support livelihoods for investors in a large forest preservation project nearby, who are working with local communities to make the project a success. Credit: Yusuf Ahmad

Forests are the lifeblood for millions of people around the world. Murniah, a 40-year-old mother of one in Mentaya Seberang village in Indonesia’s Central Kalimantan Province, knows this only too well.

Large areas to the west of her village on the Mentaya river have been converted to palm oil. Good for a short-term boost in incomes but not so good for the environment.

“The forest is very important,” she said. “There are many examples where the forest has been opened up, such as for palm oil, and this has caused flooding. We only care about rubber and rattan,” she said during a village meeting to discuss a project to save a vast peat swamp forest just to the east.

Forests have become central to efforts to curb the pace of climate change because they soak up large amounts of planet-warming carbon dioxide from power stations, industry and transport. They are a key part of two-week climate talks in the Mexican resort of Cancun that began on Monday aimed at stepping up efforts to curb the growth of greenhouse gas emissions.

Saving what’s left of the world’s tropical rainforests won’t be easy amid growing demands for land to grow food and extract timber and minerals.

A visit to Central Kalimantan shows this in stark terms. The province has lost millions of hectares of forest to logging, palm oil plantations, coal and zircon mining as well as slash-and-burn farming. Large areas are now wasteland, vulnerable to choking fires in the dry season and flooding in the wet season.

Yet, Indonesia. which loses about 1 million hectares (2.5 million acres)  of forest a year, has emerged as a key player in global efforts to preserve carbon-rich forests. The hope is that a U.N.-backed scheme called REDD, or reduced emissions from deforestation and degradation, will eventually develop into an international payment system based on trading carbon credits from forest preservation projects. There are nearly 40 REDD pilot projects in Indonesia, placing local communities in the spotlight.

A villager collects rattan near a village in Central Kalimantan province in Borneo. Credit: Yusuf Ahmad

A villager collects rattan near a village in Central Kalimantan province in Borneo. Credit: Yusuf Ahmad

The United Nations, green groups and rights organisations say local communities are the key to forest preservation efforts. That means working out clear land ownership rights, livelihood programmes and graft-free and transparent ways to share any benefits at the local level.

Murniah and other villagers are working with an Indonesian company, PT RMU, which is trying to save and restore a vast peat swamp forest near the village. The project is run by Indonesian business partners Rezal Kusumaatmadja and Dharsono Hartono. Both first met while studying in the United States and hope REDD will eventually develop into a market to ensure a steady flow of money to local communities. Livelihood programmes, such as supporting rubber and rattan planting as well as direct employment, build trust and also deter encroachment into the forest, such as illegal logging.

Benefit-sharing mechanisms are crucial says Kusumaatmadja, a Bali-based consultant, and Hartono, who runs Jakarta-based PT RMU.

Some indigenous groups in developing nations still fear REDD will trample on their rights and that locals will be short-changed from any benefits.

To address this, much more work needed to be done to figure out benefit-sharing mechanisms, says Stewart Maginnis, of the International Union for Conservation of Nature. Maginnis has been involved in a series of grassroots REDD meetings in Cambodia, Ghana, Latin America and elsewhere.

“It’s been overlooked or only partially dealt with. We’ve heard this from many stakeholders, including investors,” he said. And investors are increasingly only interested in projects with strong community engagement and benefit-sharing because this cuts the risk of disputes or damage to their reputations.

And more worked needed to be done to accurately assess the degree of forest dependency for local communities, Maginnis added.  Studies, he said, showed that the level of direct cash benefit from forests, in terms of household incomes, can be higher than previously thought, even for workers employed on cocoa and other cash-crop plantations.

Dealing with these issues will be crucial, NGOs say, to meet  the need for steady incomes from long-term sources.

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