Tuesday, 10 November 2009

Indonesian forests on frontline of climate debate

Indonesian forests on frontline of climate debate

By Jérôme Rivet (AFP)

TELUK MERANTI, Indonesia — With the approach of global climate talks in Copenhagen, activists are hoping to draw world attention to their fight to save the last tropical forests on Indonesia's Sumatra island.

If successful, they believe they will slow global warming by preventing the carbon trapped in the forest's timbers and dense peat soils from being released through logging and clearing.

In the complicated argot of climate negotiations, the idea is called REDD: Reducing Emmissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation.

"We are here on the frontline of forest and climate destruction. This forest is under immediate threat," Greenpeace Indonesia forest campaigner Bustar Maitar said.

The battleground is the Kampar peninsular, 400,000 hectares (988,420 acres) of exuberant nature which is home to rare species such as Sumatran tigers, as well as indigenous people who live on fishing and gathering.

The spongy, peat soil that feeds the forest has stored organic material over thousands of years to a depth of about 20 metres (66 feet), forming part of one of the largest natural carbon "sinks" in the world.

The clearing and burning of Indonesia's peatlands account for four percent of total global greenhouse gas emissions, according to Greenpeace.

Vast areas of peatland and other forests have been cleared for pulp, paper and the booming palm oil industry, making Indonesia the third biggest greenhouse gas emitter in the world after China and the United States.

Emissions linked to forest destruction account for about 80 pecent of the 2.3 million tonnes of carbon dioxide -- a greenhouse gas blamed for global warming -- released each year by the Southeast Asian archipelago, according to government estimates.

Environment group WWF says forest loss and degradation, peat decomposition and fires in Riau province, which includes Kampar, cause annual carbon emissions equivalent to 122 percent of the Netherlands' total annual emissions.

But if the government gets its way, Kampar's peatlands will be drained and its carbon-rich forests turned into acacia plantations.

That's the plan of Indonesia's Asia Pacific Resources International Holding Ltd. (APRIL), one of the world's biggest pulp and paper companies, which has been given a huge concession over most of Kampar.

Not surprisingly, the company says it is helping to "manage" the forest for its own good. The acacia project will also create 20,000 jobs, it says.

"Leaving the Kampar peatland forests unmanaged will only accelerate the deforestation and degradation," APRIL sustainability director Neil Franklin said.

"This area is currently under serious threat of unabated degradation through population pressures, slash-and-burn farming, illegal logging and fires."

APRIL says it is negotiating with the Teluk Meranti forest people to "design a comprehensive community development programme" including scholarships, assistance to health services and infrastructure such as mosques and schools.

"We do not believe in giving money. Our philosophy is to teach them how to fish to feed themselves instead of giving them the fish," Franklin said.

Teluk Meranti villager Iras confirms that APRIL's offer has been the subject of much discussion among locals, who are unsure how to resist the might of the pulp-and-paper giant.

The 29-year-old fisherman says he is ready to give up his traditional land if the company pays "around 70 million rupiah" (7,350 dollars) per person and provides land for villagers to plant oil palms.

Others, however, warn against the lure of quick money.

"All our life comes from the forest. If we lose that, we lose our means of subsistence and our traditions," said village elder Mohammed Yusuf.

"The community is too weak to fight the company. It has everything: money, power, connections with politicians... It is very influential."

One way to overcome the power of the pulp companies, according to Greenpeace and other environmental groups, is for rich countries to intervene financially and make REDD part of a future global climate pact.

This would put avoided deforestation at the heart of carbon markets, creating a powerful incentive for countries like Indonesia to stop cutting down trees.

"Indonesia can eliminate, or at least dramatically reduce, its emissions from peatland," said Paul Winn, Greenpeace's Sydney-based forest and climate campaigner.

"For that, we are calling on industrial countries to give more money to help developing countries to compensate communities and to protect intact forests."

Companies like APRIL should get out of forests and do their business on degraded, low-carbon land, he said.

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