Forestry, economic development & climate change in Asia: resolving the tension, by Paul McShane

Reducing poverty in developing countries through economic development is often contrary to addressing climate change. In countries like Indonesia, many of the strongest drivers of the economy – palm oil and mining, for example – are industries which promote deforestation and contribute to emissions of carbon dioxide. Deforestation also damages habitat, reduces biodiversity, degrades river catchments and promotes soil erosion.

Reducing Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD) is a prominent program in global efforts to reduce carbon emissions and help mitigate the harmful impacts of climate change. REDD+ goes further. It aims to reverse harmful impacts by restoring degraded land and re-establishing native forests.

REDD+ also supports the wellbeing of forest-dependent communities. However, concerns that developed countries will offset carbon emissions by purchasing cheap carbon credits under REDD+ schemes remains a divisive issue. A perception that multi-national companies responsible for deforestation are abrogating their responsibilities at local community level remains current. Few people really understand how REDD+ can work in practice, particularly when widespread poverty persists.

The Monash Sustainability Institute recently completed a collaborative project with researchers and policy makers from India, Cambodia, Vietnam and Indonesia. We looked at whether successful community-based forestry management experiences could be extended to include REDD+ scheme reforestation trials. Could they be used to develop an Asian low-carbon economy?

We found that until natural assets such as viable ecosystems and watersheds have commercial value (such as mineral resources), there will be little incentive for Asian countries to restore habitat and protect native forests.

For example, oil palm provides immediate economic opportunities for poor rural communities. But if ecologically important peat lands are degraded as a result then additional costs will be incurred; these are measurable as degraded lands, poor water quality, and loss of biodiversity. Ultimately, resources will be diverted for land restoration. This has parallels in the dry land salinity problem in Australia where water resource allocation remains unresolved in the Murray Darling basin.

The Australian and Indonesian governments are currently working together in the Kalimantan Forest Climate Partnership. Trials are underway at villages in a district of Central Kalimantan, Indonesia. Villagers are paid to restore degraded peat lands and forests and to develop livelihoods alternative to forest clearing. Sustainable development activities such as planting (and subsequently using) rubber trees are well advanced.

Community acceptance is a vital driver of broader REDD+ policy acceptance. More particularly, the local Dayak villagers have a unique association with their forests. Their indigenous knowledge or traditional wisdom can be harnessed to provide insights into viable alternative livelihoods (including alternatives to oil palm plantations).

If these types of REDD+ activities are to continue, Australia and Indonesia will need a functional carbon market with transparent payment mechanisms (at local community level) so that any emissions reductions from the activities can be verified. This is not yet in place. Furthermore, legislative and regulatory arrangements, such as secure access for local people to forests, remain underdeveloped and conflicting (laws governing mining and forestry in Indonesia, for example, are contradictory to one another).

Without a clear framework to encourage the sustainable development of forests, activities to reduce deforestation and forest degradation are unlikely to become widely adopted.

Indonesia’s commitment to reducing its carbon emissions by at least 26% (from 2000 levels) by 2020 is compromised by its economic dependence on industries like oil palm. While oil palm offers substantial economic, and therefore social, benefits in the short term, the long term impact on climate change and Indonesia’s forest ecosystems remains a significant issue. This reflects the practice of burning native forest, and therefore releasing carbon, to clear land for oil palm.

The mutual benefits of conserving ecosystems on which life depends, and sustainable development of natural resources, must feature in forest conservation policies implemented in Asia.

Paul McShane is Chief Research Officer at the Monash Sustainability Institute at Monash University.

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