The Australian government is learning firsthand just how fraught environmental conservation in Indonesia can be.
Introduced as an effort that would provide “immediate and tangible results” in Indonesia’s ongoing struggle to protect its forests, a leading initiative by Australia’s Agency for International Development (AusAID) has been “quietly but drastically scaled back” and is well behind schedule, according to recent research.
The project in Central Kalimantan’s Kapuas district was announced jointly in 2007 by President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and Australia’s then-foreign minister, Alexander Downer, with the aim of reflooding drained peatland, replanting deforested areas and protecting 70,000 hectares of peatland from further deforestation.
The effort, known as the Kalimantan Forests and Climate Partnership, would ultimately reduce climate change-inducing carbon dioxide emissions by 700 million tons over 30 years.
More than four years after the project’s unveiling, the reflooding target has shrunk from 200,000 hectares to 25,000 hectares, just 50,000 of an originally announced 100 million trees have been planted, and the entire undertaking is “moving forward too slowly when considered against the rapid rate of deforestation,” researchers from the Australian National University have found.
“We really feel that the work we are doing on the ground, forging a path to show how REDD might work in Indonesia, is still a very valid approach and it is one of the most advanced,” Sara Moriarty, a counselor for climate change at AusAID, said last week in response to the report.
The KFCP is a “demonstration project” for REDD — reduced emissions from deforestation and forest degradation — with an emphasis on carbon-rich peat forests.
A scheme that envisions one day paying nations to conserve their forests, REDD is seen by some as an effective way for Indonesia to cut its carbon emissions, the vast majority of which come from deforestation or land use changes.
But the paper highlights serious concerns about the 47 million Australian dollar ($49 million) project’s feasibility and transparency, with a particular focus on the under-the-radar nature of the scaling back of the KFCP objectives.
“[We] could have and should have been more open and transparent with the release of information when we were revising what we were actually going to achieve through the program,” Moriarty said.
The report cites multiple factors, including insufficient funding, questions of land tenure rights and administrative hurdles, in assessing reasons for KFCP’s delays and lesser ambitions.
Having already extended the project’s implementation phase by a year to run through June 2013, Moriarty conceded that “it’s unlikely that we would meet all of the objectives in the time frame that was initially outlined,” although no official decision has yet been made.
Tim Jessup, a forests and climate specialist with AusAID, said another factor slowing progress was the emphasis placed on gaining support from local governments and indigenous Dayak populations in the project area.
“An important part of REDD is delivering and sharing benefits with local communities … but that’s not something you can do quickly,” Jessup said.
“We would be criticized much more strongly than they’ve criticized us if we’d rushed in there.”
The ANU report is not the first one critical of the KFCP. Journalists, environmentalists and indigenous rights groups have all voiced concerns in the years since the project’s inception.
Stibniati Atmadja, a researcher with the Center for International Forestry Research (Cifor) in Bogor, has conducted research at the site intermittently since 2009 as part of a global comparative study on REDD. Describing the dilemma between following REDD permitting procedures and consulting local communities as a “catch-22,” Stibniati said the project had to get the necessary permits prior to consultation.
“[In 2010] REDD was a new concept; it’s hard to explain it to the people, and I had the same problem when I was there,” she said. Conveying the meaning of REDD and KFCP is an ongoing activity, and some progress is now being seen, she added.
Jessup said KFCP finally inked cooperative agreements with all seven villages located within the site in February. The blocking of major canals, a critical component of the peatland rehydration, is expected to begin this year.
Lessons for Jambi
But against a backdrop of continued deforestation, palm oil plantations’ expansion and Indonesia’s penchant for lax law enforcement and corruption, the report asks whether it’s all too little, too late.
The ANU researchers advise AusAID to reconsider plans for a similar project in Sumatra’s Jambi province, saying it “already has its hands full with KFCP,” and should “not disperse its efforts through a second demonstration project.”
That input, along with Aus- AID’s own review of KFCP, will be considered as it weighs its ambitions in Sumatra, where the proposal is still in its infancy.
“So much has happened internationally in terms of REDD that we do feel it’s important with the second demonstration activity to be mindful of those changes,” Moriarty said. “We’re currently discussing with the government of Indonesia what that means for the Jambi project.”