Tuesday, 17 November 2009

Protecting Sumatra's peat lands vital for saving the environment

Tue, 11/17/2009 8:17 PM | Lifestyle The Jakarta Post

With only 19 days to go before the critical UN climate summit in Copenhagen, environmental activists are right to be highlighting Indonesia's unenviable position as one of the world's largest emitters of greenhouse gases.

There is no doubt that long term abuse and mismanagement of the nation's forests is the main cause, which is why Greenpeace set up a "Climate Defenders Camp" on the Kampar Peninsula in Central Sumatra three weeks ago.

Burgeoning population pressures, rampant illegal logging and widespread forest fires release millions of tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, which is significantly contributing to the global warming crisis.

When I first flew over the Kampar Peninsula in Riau province eight years ago, massive swathes of natural forest had clearly been destroyed. A complex network of canals had been chiseled out to provide access for illegal loggers. Most of the forest closest to the surrounding water had disappeared, and there was much evidence of devastating slash-and-burn farming.

It looked like a free-for-all haven for encroachment, where anyone could take what they wanted, turning the area into a desolate and barren wasteland.

In addition to being home to endangered animal species such as the Sumatran tiger, the clouded leopard and Wallace's hawk eagle, as well as to many local communities who depend on the forest for their livelihoods, this peninsula is one of the largest remaining peat swamps on the planet.

Peat lands play a major role in regulating global climate, acting as "carbon sinks", storing more carbon dioxide per unit area than any other ecosystem. Their protection is absolutely vital if irreversible climate change is to be averted.

Without groups like Greenpeace, countless threats to our environment would go unchecked. Many such domestic and international nongovernmental organizations relentlessly campaign to improve Indonesia's dire ecological health.

It is therefore unfortunate that this drive to throw a spotlight on the importance of protecting the Kampar Peninsula peat lands has been overshadowed by controversy and confrontation.

One element of the campaign has been to target PT Riau Andalan Pulp and Paper (RAPP), which has government licenses to develop some of the area. RAPP is a leading fiber plantations manager with one of the world's largest pulp and paper mills located in Pangkalan Kerinci, close to Riau's state capital in Pekanbaru.

The group wants to stop the company from operating on the peninsula, claiming that it will further damage the environmentally fragile ecosystem.

RAPP, on the other hand, argues that its activities are helping protect the area and prevent the release of carbon dioxide. Leaving the Kampar peat land forests unmanaged will only accelerate the deforestation and degradation, the company warns. It has commissioned scientific studies and hired experts to safeguard the environmental values of this ecologically sensitive area.

The company's strategy is to create a buffer zone by developing a plantation ring of acacia on the degraded perimeter of the peninsula, based on High Conservation Value assessments by independent third parties.

The company is adamant this is a case where commercial intervention can be positive for the environment. It says its operational plan has been specifically designed to avert greenhouse gas emissions and protect the core area of the remaining ecologically rich natural forest.

Based on the sorry state of this area I witnessed some years ago, it is clear that strong action is long overdue to save the Kampar Cape.

In spite of good intentions, the authorities have often proven powerless to halt the destruction of forests in Sumatra due to their pitifully limited resources.

The nearby Teso Nilo national park is a testament to this impotence, where an area supposedly permanently set aside for conservation, is the scene of scandalous pillaging by illegal logging gangs.

In a country where the public purse is hugely stretched, it makes sense for commercial entities to share responsibility for environmental protection, and to deploy their own resources in combating forest destruction.

Large businesses like RAPP have reputations to safeguard and international markets to protect. Although far from perfect, this company has been implementing a sustainable forest management strategy for many years. And it is Indonesia's only member of the World Business Council for Sustainable Development.

The Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF) is one of many environmental groups that has been working with RAPP for many years. It has not been shy to criticize some practices when appropriate, but it is prepared to collaborate with companies where conservation needs can be effectively addressed.

Greenpeace is an exemplary fighter in the battle to stop climate change. We cannot afford for conservationists to lose, and it is important that attention is being focused on the connection between peat lands and global warming.

Surely now would be a perfect time for this laudable alarm bell ringer to join other stakeholders in working with RAPP to develop viable, practical solutions that enable environmental and economic interests to be properly balanced.

The Copenhagen climate summit cannot afford to fail. Sound forest management is an essential ingredient for its success. It makes sense for proposed solutions from the business sector to be seriously considered, and embraced where proven to be effective.

Jonathan Wootliff leads the Corporate Accountability practice at the consulting firm, Reputation Partners. He specializes in sustainable development and in building of productive relationships between companies and NGOs. He can be contacted at jonathan@reputationpartners.com