Can Ecotourism Save Indonesia’s Disappearing Forests?

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Can Ecotourism Save Indonesia’s Disappearing Forests?

Indonesia’s forests are being destroyed. Ecotourism may offer one way to protect them.

Following a flurry of international attention and keen anticipation, the extension of Indonesia’s forest moratorium, preventing companies from getting new permits to clear protected areas, was confirmed on Wednesday. The news comes days before the original ban’s expiry on May 20, but even with this promised respite for Indonesia’s forests, many remain concerned.

Much of this concern centers on the future of vast swathes of tropical rainforest in Aceh, at the northern tip of Sumatra. Aceh’s Governor, Zaini Abdullah, is pushing a pro-development plan that would allow 1.2 million hectares of protected rainforest—some of the most pristine areas left in the country—to be rezoned, opening the gates to mining, timber and palm oil companies. The plan is reportedly close to approval, unless Indonesia’s President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono intervenes. The spatial plan calls for roads that would cut through sections of Gunung Leuser National Park, the last place on earth where elephants, rhinos, tigers and orangutans can be found in the same location. Adding alarm, the protected status of a critical ecosystem, The Tripa Peat Swamp, would be removed.

East Asia Minerals (EAM) has been lobbying authorities to approve the plan, releasing a statement last month saying: “The company [EAM] is working closely with government officials in the country and have company representatives on the ground in Aceh to obtain reclassification of the forestry zone from ‘protected forest’ to ‘production forest’.” They go on to say that efforts have been stalled by a coalition of environmental NGOs.

Opponents have taken to social media, with efforts including a recent petition from global campaign network Avaaz. Rudi Putra, the Indonesian conservation manager who won The Future for Nature Award 2013, explains in the appeal that Aceh boasts the largest biodiversity in the Asia Pacific region and is home to a UNESCO World Heritage site.

In 2011, the national moratorium was set in motion by an agreement between Indonesia and Norway under the Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD+) scheme. Norway pledged US$1 billion to support Indonesia in its strategy to address issues of rapid deforestation and peatland degradation, which accounts for 75% of the country’s greenhouse gas emissions.  Forest coverage is disappearing at a disturbing rate, earning Indonesia the dubious distinction of inclusion in the 2008 Guinness World Records for having the fastest rate of deforestation. An area equivalent to 300 soccer fields is cleared every hour, and the UN Environmental Programme predicts that 98% of Indonesia’s forest area could be destroyed by 2022.

Suspense about Aceh’s future coincides with the release of a UNDP study of forestry governance in Indonesia, which rates Aceh as the most poorly managed in terms of protection, regulation, planning and participation of REDD+.

Graham Usher, Landscape Protection Specialist, Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Project is pleased that the moratorium has been extended but says it remains unclear what this means for Aceh. He notes that where the former governor reformed forestry regulation in favour of protection, the new Aceh governor is reverting “to the development paradigm of ‘less forests = more development.’”

003Usher explains that national laws and environmental guidelines are paramount, including mandates to protect the Leuser Ecosystem, but the Aceh Government is under the impression that a “special autonomy” act gives it unbridled authority to break national forest protection laws. He says, “It appears that the National Government is taking a softly-softly with Aceh to avoid disputes.”

A key problem is inconsistency in spatial mapping. While the National Government has the final say, since decentralization in the late 90s, local governments have been producing their own maps and Usher says not all of these are recognised by the national authority. He gives the example of a 2007 concession handed to a palm oil company by the land mapping agency in Aceh. This concession in the Tripa Peat Swamp was marked as protected by all previous moratorium maps and yet the company (Dua Perkasa Lestari) has continued to clear the land, regardless of its environmental significance and concerns over legality.

Usher says efforts are being made to move towards a solution “where all government agencies essentially work from the same baseline data.” But with 40 years of divergent maps to assimilate, this is far from simple. “There is no doubt that progress has been made, particularly with the public perception that maps are public documents and should be transparent.”

It is also critical to consider the affected indigenous people living near the areas mapped for rezoning.

Campaigners and conservationists assert that lost forest coverage could cause landslides and flash flooding, with serious consequences for local populations. Usher says that Aceh has many steep mountains with fragile soil systems and that a proposed new road network creates risk of major disasters. “The Leuser Ecosystem was not only established to protect biodiversity and threatened species, but also to protect the ecosystem services on which millions of people currently depend.”

Others, however, argue that restraint on industry is a restraint on raising the living standards of the rural poor. Pro-development bodies maintain that expanding industry creates jobs for communities where there may be little alternative economic opportunity.

This reasoning is used by industry representatives opposed to extending the ban on forest conversions. The director of law and advocacy for the Indonesian Palm Oil Association, Tungkot Sipayung, spoke out in The Jakarta Post, saying extending the moratorium will “limit development of labour-intensive palm plantations and palm processing sectors.”

Another sentiment, in opposition to limiting development, is cynicism towards the interventionist role played by industrialized countries. World Growth, a pro-development NGO, contends in a report about the potential impact of the 2011 moratorium on communities, “It is crucial that developing nations be given the same chance that developed nations have benefited from.”  The report points out that in certain regions palm oil is the main or only crop grown, providing jobs in its various stages of production.

Usher dismisses the idea that industry expansion pulls people from poverty as “rubbish.” He uses spatial planning in Aceh to illustrate that land decisions are being dictated by “a few bureaucrats and private interests.” He goes on to note that there is limited land for productive agriculture in the region and that most people live on the north/northeast coastal plain, where most rice production takes place. This rice farming hinges on irrigation from inland forests. “If these forests are converted to other uses (such as oil palm or mining), many of these people will suffer increased poverty. There is a reason that developed countries like Japan and Taiwan (with a similar landscape to Aceh) have 60-70% forest cover: they have long realized that they need this level of forest cover to sustain their development.”

002Spurred by climate change worries, industrializing nations are being called on to minimize emissions. As Indonesia demonstrates, this in turn requires new policies and improved forest management to limit the deforestation linked to growing industry. That’s a point echoed in a study by Yale and Stanford University researchers, which projects that expansion of palm plantations in Indonesia’s could pump more that 558 million metric tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere in 2020, more than all of Canada’s current fossil fuel emissions.

Indonesia has the third-largest tropical rainforest coverage in the world and as global warming is blamed for more severe weather events and environmental catastrophes, many eyes are turning to the Southeast Asian nation to keep the lungs of the earth intact.

But who draws the line between development and environmental degradation?

Indonesian conservationist Rudi Putra says in the Avaaz petition appeal, “Countries like mine have a right to develop, but not at the expense of our priceless natural patrimony, and it should benefit, not harm, Indonesians.”

Wolfgang Sachs, author of The Development Dictionary, has written: “Politics is compelled to push either equity without ecology or ecology without equity.” He continues to discuss post-development initiatives where, “a transition from economies based on fossil-fuel resources to economies based on biodiversity is paramount.”

One possible model is ecotourism, which lets people earn money while living in harmony with the earth. Indigenous communities retain their independence, at the same time accessing a sustainable economy.

Disputes between indigenous populations and multinational companies are increasingly common, in a disturbing trend known as “land grabbing” or “economic land concessions.” In Laos and Cambodia, for example, the chain of collusion strings together multinational companies, backed by banks in Europe, which are granted land concessions by corrupt government officials, who then look away as locals are rendered powerless, their farmland and livelihoods destroyed. The disenfranchised are left with an ultimatum: work for the companies or starve.

Right now in Borneo, the Malaysian firm Sarawak Energy is planning to establish hydroelectric dams, which according to news site Mongebay are “controversial because they require the forced displacement of indigenous communities and will flood large tracts of rainforest. Furthermore there is currently little demand for the electricity that will be generated, raising suspicions that the primary purpose of the projects is to generate lucrative contracts for politically well-connected firms.”

Ecotourism turns this trend around. Rather than economic growth at any social and environmental cost, people are empowered to create a conservation-focused economy, creating job opportunities while providing incentives for protecting rainforests and generating funds for wilderness patrols and the rehabilitation of endangered species displaced by human activity.

Take the inspiring example of community-based ecotourism in Tangkahan — near the Gunung Leuser National Park, an area under threat from the Aceh Government’s forest plans. Fuelled by the desire to create a sustainable economy, two villages of more than 7000 people came together to establish The Lembaga Pariwisata Tangkahan (LPT). Supported by NGOs Indecon and Flora and Fauna International, in 2002, LPT signed an agreement with the National Park Authority, securing 10,000 hectares (now 17,000 hectares) for eco-tourism activities under the prerequisite that it be protected. From 55 founding members, 32 formerly worked as illegal loggers, indicating an innate wish to protect their environment while retaining the ability to feed their families.

With financial incentives for conservation, the community has transformed the area into an ecotourism destination. This has led to job creation, with various roles required to run their tourism office and multiple tour packages. LPT’s website states that just a decade ago, the area was an exit point for illegal logging in the national park. With its stunning scenery and clear rivers, however, the community began to realize the potential for income from appreciative visitors.

Jessica McKelson, Director of Raw Wildlife Encounters, launched her ecotourism initiative in 2008 and said the livelihood of local people is a core pillar for why the company operates. “They are custodians of the lands that surround their communities, where we bring guests to visit, they allow us to enjoy these areas and we offer employment opportunities from guides to rangers to administration as well as education programs so they can comfortably support their families and don’t have to work in legal, or illegal, logging or palm oil and can live sustainably. Most have lost all their natural resources to deforestation practices and were left with no option but working for $8-$10 per day in terrible conditions or losing that job to transmigrants.”

Since the business started, McKelson says that 85% of gross earnings have gone to community and environmental programs. “This community-based eco-tourism model provides local people with stable, consistent income without damaging their own backyards and the wildlife and ecosystems within it. It’s conservation through empowering and educating the community. A win-win for all!”

Along with economic benefits for local people, there is the added bonus of conservation-based skills transfer from NGOs to the community. Describing the Tangkahan initiative, The International Ecotourism Society says that skills like “ecotourism development and management, planning and policy development, conservation management, and monitoring and assessment” were merged with Karo culture and values “to ensure community ownership of the initiative and equality in the distribution of benefits.” Raw Wildlife Encounters also offers guide training to the Tangkahan community to support sustainable management that is consistent with standards set out by The International Ecotourism Society.

In promoting ecotourism, emphasis must be placed on ethical management to ensure it does not transform into mass tourism, void of eco-values. McKelson says Bukit Lawang in Sumatra is an example of this. She explains that tourists ignore conventions about avoiding contact with orangutans and even pay bribes to local guides for a close encounter and the chance to feed them, which becomes encouraged by guides keen for the extra cash.

Despite the cases of mismanagement, she says, “Eco tourism in Indonesia can be a great employment model to protect natural resources via an alternative sustainable livelihood.” In other words, a step in the direction of building economies that do not come at the expense of the environment.

Gemima Harvey (@Gemima_Harvey) is a freelance journalist and photographer.