Forest of hope
Preventing tropical deforestation must be one of the major targets if mankind is to have any chance of reducing the impacts of climate change and avoiding massive biodiversity loss. Burung Indonesia with the backing and help of many other BirdLife Partners may just have found the future blueprint for forest conservation.
To Alfred Russel Wallace, who spent eight years in Malaysia and Indonesia between 1854 and 1862, Sumatra was a “forest” country, “except a few small and unimportant tracts, due perhaps, in some cases, to ancient cultivation or accidental fires”.
But during the 20th century, in its lowland parts, Sumatra become an island of plantations, with a few, relatively small tracts of its forests left. From around 16 million hectares in 1900, Sumatra’s lowland rainforests were reduced to 2.2 million by 1997. Clearance has continued, and some observers have suggested that only 300,000 hectares remain.
Plant diversity of Sumatra lowland rainforests rivals the Amazon. Within the Indonesian archipelago, Sumatra is second only to Papua in bird diversity, with 582 species, 14 of them endemic, and a majority of them forest-dependent. But as the forest has shrunk, the number of threatened birds, and the rate at which Sumatra’s birds are becoming threatened, have both dramatically increased. In 1994, 17 Sumatran species were regarded as globally threatened, with 27 Near Threatened. Just ten years later this figure had risen to 21 threatened and 85 Near Threatened species.
Hopeless? So it seemed in 2002, when the World Resources Institute predicted that without immediate and fundamental changes in policies and management, virtually all Sumatra’s lowland rainforest would be cleared by 2010. But also in 2002, BirdLife Partner Burung Indonesia floated the idea of acquiring management rights for a large block of Sumatra’s surviving lowland rainforest. It was, as Burung Indonesia CEO Sukianto Lusli admits, “nothing more than a dream sketched on a flipchart”.
It was also against the law, as it stood at that time. Almost all the remaining Sumatran lowland rainforest had been designated “production forest”, set aside for private companies to exploit by logging. Areas which had been stripped of saleable timber by logging were to be cleared for oil palm or timber-pulp plantations. With the support of the BirdLife Secretariat and the RSPB, Burung Indonesia set out to persuade the government to change the forestry law to embrace the concept of “restoration forest”, logged-over forest that would be allowed to re-grow, not only providing a home for an incredibly rich biodiversity, but also restoring the array of ecosystem services that these rainforests are able to provide, from timber and other forest products, to regulation of precipitations and local climate, carbon sequestration, and many more.
"it was highly likely that the area would be cleared and planted with acacia or oil-palm"
During 2003 and 2004, Burung Indonesia and the BirdLife consortium developed the concept and discussed it with the Indonesian Ministry of Forestry. They had already identified the first potential restoration forest. Since 2002 they had been engaged on a comprehensive analysis of all remaining large blocks of lowland rainforest in Sumatra. The Bukit Bahar-Tajau Pecah Meranti Forest Block in the Provinces of Jambi and South Sumatra emerged as the top priority. Within the overall forest block (about 200,000 ha), they identified a core area of 100,000 ha. Mostly below 100 metres, it consists entirely of non-swampy lowland rainforest – an extensive tract of the most threatened forest ecosystem in Sumatra.
It is home to at least 267 bird species, including one Endangered species, Storm’s Stork Ciconia stormi and five Vulnerable species, Short-toed Coucal Centropus bengalensis, Large-billed Blue Flycatcher Cyornis caerulatus, Crestless Fireback Lophura erythrophthalma, Wallace’s Hawk Eagle Spizaetus nanus and Large Green Pigeon Treron capelli. There are also 65 Near-Threatened species.
Surveys also indicate that up to 20 Critically Endangered Sumatran Tigers Panthera tigris sumatrae (of which only 100–300 remain in the wild) are present, and other threatened mammals such as Asian Elephant Elephas maximus, Malayan Tapir Tapirus indicus, Sun Bear Helarctos malayanus and two species of gibbon also occur.
Every part of the forest had been logged to some extent over the past 60 years. Around 30 percent now consists of tall secondary forest, which is regenerating naturally, but already represents closed-canopy rainforest of great importance for biodiversity. A further quarter is more degraded secondary forest, which is also regenerating, acting as a powerful carbon sink, and already hosting a highly diversified flora and fauna. The rest consists of scrubby secondary forest, and several thousand hectares of exotic species, mainly acacia and rubber, that will have to be turned back to natural forest.
The consortium decided to call this forest Harapan, which is Indonesian for “hope”. But hope was still in short supply. “The outlook for the forest was not good”, explains BirdLife’s Marco Lambertini. “Once logging operations had been concluded, it was highly likely that the area would be cleared and planted with acacia or oil-palm. So it was important to act swiftly.”
Then almost miraculously, in June 2004, as a result of the BirdLife initiative, the Indonesian Government’s Minister of Forestry issued a decree on ‘Ecosystem restoration in Production Forests’, which introduced a new and revolutionary type of license for production forests. And in September 2004, Harapan was gazetted by the Ministry of Forestry as the first ecosystem restoration concession.
“It is difficult to express just how significant this breakthrough is"
Graham Wynne, Chief Executive of the RSPB, voiced the delight—and relief—felt by all the partners: “It is difficult to express just how significant this breakthrough is. There have been many times in the last five years when our hopes of saving Harapan Rainforest had all but ebbed away. But all of the forest can still recover and every single species it hosts now has a toehold on survival.”
It wasn’t a miracle of course, but the result of inspired hard work. The Indonesian government were particularly impressed by the campaign led by an Indonesian NGO. “Burung Indonesia’s understanding of how to deal with the government, combined with their knowledge of forest and conservation issues was key to our success”, Lambertini added. “The international support from BirdLife and particularly the RSPB provided a good mix, supporting Burung Indonesia in its skilful lobbying work and confirming to the government that this was a truly international joint venture.”
The campaign had succeeded in triggering a major policy change in forest governance and forest conservation in the country. In February 2007 Indonesia’s Parliament not only voted in favour of incorporating the “ecosystem restoration concession” category in the national forestry law, but also extended the length of the license from 55 to 100 years (logging concessions are for just 25 years). The Ministry of Forestry is empowered to select and allocate the forest restoration sites. Lambertini believes that Harapan is not only the first ever restoration forest concession in Indonesia, but also the first in the world. “I don’t know of any other country that allows its production forest to ‘rest’ for 100 years. Now we have to manage the forest to demonstrate that a restoration concession can produce economic results.”
Burung Indonesia and the BirdLife coalition believe that the new Forestry law creates the conditions for many other restoration concessions to be approved. The next step is to work with the government to identify other forest blocks. “Imagine Harapan times 20!”, says Sukianto Lusli. The BirdLife consortium is now building the management structure, and preparing the Harapan management plan. A director, administrative staff, guards and community-involvement teams have already been employed and deployed.
“Now that we’re on the ground, we have to combine forest conservation and rehabilitation with a solid programme of community involvement”, Lambertini says. “There are about 20,000 people living in the surrounding areas and although this is not a particularly high figure in a populous country like Indonesia, there are serious issues of encroachment, illegal logging and poaching to be addressed. More importantly we will engage local communities in the management of the forest. They will have to see the value and the benefits of the Harapan initiative.”
"a model for preventing deforestation, and for carbon sequestration through forest restoration"
There will be no logging, and no exploitation of non-timber forest products, and no more encroachment; instead the issue will be to make agriculture sustainable by staying on existing plots. “We can plant together and harvest outside the forest—and could also have forestry initiatives outside the forest boundaries”, says Sukianto Lusli.
Biodiversity surveys to date have been brief, and the species lists are certain to be incomplete. There will be monitoring schemes for threatened birds and mammals, and conservation projects for species known to be in particular need of assistance, like Sumatran Tiger and Asian Elephant. A research station will be built providing facilities and accommodation for visiting students and volunteers, and in particular, to support researchers from universities in Indonesia and the ASEAN region.
“There is an incredible lack of facilities to study Asian forest regeneration, and certainly no studies of the regeneration of such a large block of forest”, says Geh Min, President of the Nature Society of Singapore. “We see this as a valuable way for us in ASEAN to work together for the future of our region and of the world.” Once management and community development activities have been established, the BirdLife consortium will introduce ecotourism facilities such as hides, trails, canopy walks, and visitor accommodation. Education facilities will be established to attract local visitors including school children.
“We want to encourage educational tourism for Indonesians, and to develop eco-tourism”, says Sukianto Lusli. “BirdLife will be able to draw on the experience of its Partners around the world.”
“This is a major step towards meeting the challenge of tackling deforestation and keeping forest land forested through incentives and regulatory mechanisms that don’t allow conversion to oil palm or acacia”, said Marco Lambertini.
Beginning on 3 December 2007, the 13th Conference of the United Nations Convention to Combat Climate Change will be taking place on another major Indonesian island, Bali. Delegates will see a lecture on the Harapan Rainforest Initiative. “It will be presented as a model for preventing deforestation, and for carbon sequestration through forest restoration”, explains Sukianto Lusli, who will lead the presentation team. “We expect it to have profound impact on the international community struggling to find workable ways of combating climate change.”
Currently, the contributions made to carbon sequestration by standing forests are not recognised under the Kyoto protocol, nor in any carbon trading scheme. Sukianto hopes that what delegates learn about Harapan will help change that. “We need financial incentives to protect forests”, he says. Harapan appears to be a great conservation success both at policy and site levels, made possible by the skilful leadership of Burung Indonesia and the openness of the Indonesian Ministry of Forestry. “It represents a major step towards meeting the challenge of tackling deforestation in the ‘real world’, outside protected areas”, Lambertini concludes.
By Nick Langley
The Harapan rainforest initiative is led by Burung Indonesia, RSPB and the BirdLife International Sectretariat. Other BirdLife Partners that are actively supporting the initiative include: Natuurpunt and Natagora (both Belgium), SVS/BirdLife Switzerland, LNVL (Luxembourg), Vogelbescherming Nederland (The Netherlands) and The Nature Society (Singapore). BirdLife is also grateful for the support of the EU, the Nando Peretti Foundation (Italy), Naturally Plus (Japan) and the Art for Tropical Forest Foundation (Switzerland).
For more feature articles like this, get your hands on a copy of World Birdwatch.
The award-winning magazine from BirdLife International is full of in-depth articles about the work of the BirdLife Partnership and all the latest bird conservation news from around the globe.
For more information on World Birdwatch magazine and for details on how to subscribe visit: BirdLife: World Birdwatch magazine