Carbon credits have a social price for Indonesia

Carbon credits have a social price for Indonesia

The Sydney Morning Herald, 18 November 2010
By: Teguh Surya

Indonesia wants to combat deforestation, but it can't be used by Australia as a way to circumvent dealing with the real cause of climate change - fossil fuel use.

Climate change has brought forest protection into the forefront of the global agenda. In the past few months, billions of dollars have poured into Indonesia from countries such as Norway, Germany and Australia to tackle Indonesia's huge rates of deforestation. Stopping deforestation is, of course, a very important task. Environment groups such as WALHI (the Indonesian Forum for the Environment) have been working for decades to halt illegal logging and the conversion of forest into palm oil plantations and pulpwood. Preserving tropical forests not only protects habitat for wildlife but also preserves the livelihoods and culture of the millions of people who live in and around Indonesia's forests.

But international assistance comes at its own price.

The money given to Indonesia is part of the United Nations Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation (REDD), which aims to slow climate change by preserving the carbon stored in forests. While other parts of the UN climate change negotiations have stagnated, REDD is progressing rapidly and, unusually for UN processes, promises are backed up with cold hard cash.

Advertisement: Story continues below When finalised, the REDD scheme is expected to enable polluting countries to offset their own emissions by buying carbon credits generated by forest protection and restoration projects, thereby meeting their domestic emission reduction targets without having to impose deep cuts in their own fossil fuel use. It will be much cheaper for countries such as Australia to buy forest carbon credits than to reduce emissions at home — hence the enthusiasm, and the aid money.

However, donor countries often act without respect for the situation on the ground in Indonesia.

The Australian government has established two pilot projects in Central Kalimantan and Sumatra to show that REDD carbon trading can work. The Kalimantan Forests and Climate Partnership was announced three years ago and is one of the most advanced REDD projects in Indonesia. But there are some worrying early signs about the local effects of the project.

Pak Muliadi, who has joined me here in our speaking tour of Australia, represents local villagers from the indigenous Dayak Ngaju people who live within the Central Kalimantan project area. In consultations, the villagers have been promised money for participation but there has been no discussion about how their rights to use and access the land will be affected by the REDD project. Already the money has started flowing, but the introduction of a cash economy is impacting on their traditional culture. Some people are now expecting cash payments for activities that were once part of village life.

The Australian government say their intention is to divert the activities of the local people away from deforestation towards sustainable livelihoods. However it is plantation and logging companies that are causing deforestation in the area, not the local people. On the contrary, the local people have been using their knowledge of the area to live sustainably and restore deforested land.

More concerning is the issue of land rights. Millions of people in Indonesia live without secure access to land, a legacy of the Soeharto era. Conflicts between local people and timber companies are occurring throughout Indonesia as logging and plantation establishment encroach on traditional lands and ways of life. The area to be covered by the Kalimantan REDD project is no exception, and there are ongoing questions over land rights that must be resolved before the project goes any further.

The primary driver of dangerous climate change is the massive expansion in the global use of fossil fuels, not deforestation. As the world's biggest coal exporter, Australia must face up to its part in this, not just push the burden of responsibility for action onto its poorer neighbours. If the REDD scheme is used to justify increasing fossil fuel use in countries such as Australia, it will not be part of the solution to climate change.

We are visiting Australia to inform the government and the Australian people about the complex issues surrounding forests in Indonesia. WALHI has witnessed decades of governance and market failures that have led to massive deforestation and human rights abuses in Indonesia.

We appreciate Australia's interest in protecting Indonesia's forests but this issue is too important and we must get it right, not cause further problems.

Teguh Surya, campaigns director for WALHI, the Indonesian Forum for the Environment, is on a speaking tour in Australia.