Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Saving the rainforests

The following article from the National Geographic magazine was surprising (to me) because there seems to have been a paradigm shift in environmentalism that I had not been aware of:

"Nothing is more important than hunger," says Albertus of the Pontianak-based group Green Borneo. "Funding agencies need to change their way of thinking about this. Better health, better education, better economic conditions—that will help protect the forest."

Even as she shows me West Kalimantan ecosystems and economies wrecked by unsustainable logging, Dessy Ratnasari makes sure I know the benefits it brought. "Many people in West Kalimantan grew up on money from timber companies," she says. "I grew up on the multiplier effects, because my father had a small clothing store, and the money people spent there came from timber. That is why I was able to go to school and get an education."

... "The logged forest is the future for wildlife in Borneo," says Siew Te Wong, who works on conservation of the threatened sun bear.

"In Borneo, species do not go extinct over a broad area as a result of one round of logging, or even two and possibly three," says Junaidi Payne of WWF's Sabah office. "The balance of species changes enormously, but even the specialist birds or orchids or epiphytes are still there if you look in little valleys and the wet areas. So you can log forests and still save that biodiversity. But the thing you can't do is convert the whole thing to monoculture plantations," such as oil palm. "Then of course you lose everything. It's a biological desert."

... In East Kalimantan, Meijaard has spent much of his time in recent years working with logging companies to help them harvest trees sustainably, and with local villages to find ways for them to derive income from the forest. Purists may imagine the major conservation goal in Borneo to be the setting aside of vast tracts of untouched forest, but for biologists dealing with day-to-day reality, compromise is the only realistic alternative.

When Meijaard spends time in villages discussing the choice between forest conservation and oil palm plantations, he never mentions orangutans. "People get bored with that in five minutes. To them it's just another monkey in a tree that Western people want to come and look at. But if I talk to them about fish in the rivers or pigs in the forest, then they pay attention, because those are resources they can harvest from the forest."

Meijaard is unsentimental about timber harvesting and the sanctity of virgin rain forest. "Hey, it's the tropics. Plants will grow back," he says. "These forests have to earn their money somehow." Otherwise, they'll inevitably be turned into plantations of oil palm or pulpwood.

"You're trying to get people who have economic opportunities right now to forgo those benefits for other benefits years down the road," orangutan conservationist Paul Hartman says. "The bupati is in office for five years, and he says, ‘I'm going to make my money now.' "

Sustainable forest management—logging that provides income without compromising the long-term viability of the ecosystem, won't be an easy sell. In Sangatta, East Kalimantan, I talk with Daddy Ruhiyat, an adviser to the local government on conservation issues. "We have asked forestry companies to show us that forests can be as financially productive as oil palm," he says. "But nowadays there are no fresh ideas coming from the forestry sector to make land more productive. We have a choice of either good forest and no money, or cut down the forest for palm oil. There is a long list of companies asking for land for palm oil development."

... I ask him how he feels about someone like me, from a country that cut its forests, mined its coal, depleted its wildlife, and became wealthy, coming to Borneo to question local people's decisions about conservation.
"It is reasonable that people in other countries are concerned about the Borneo environment," he says. "I'm not resentful of that. But the most important step is to make people have better incomes. It starts with oil palm plantations, which bring money so people can enjoy better lives. It is hard for hungry people to appreciate nature."

Glen Reynolds of the Danum Valley Field Center says that "payment for environmental services" is the only thing that will tip the balance away from clear-cutting and palm plantations. He uses the broad term for finding ways to pay communities, regions, or countries to keep their ecosystems healthy and functioning. "Without that there's going to be no lowland forest left on Borneo in ten years," Reynolds says.

On corruption:

Local officials, having watched Suharto et al. loot the country for decades, began cashing in themselves. Many provincial governors, district bupati (regents), and police avidly took bribes: from timber companies, to grant logging permits in nominally protected forests; from illegal loggers, to ignore intrusions into national parks; and from oil palm companies, to allow wholesale clearing and burning of forestlands for plantations.... Across the border in Malaysian Borneo, the state of Sarawak has been controlled for 27 years by Chief Minister Abdul Taib Mahmud, whose administration is widely regarded as dictatorial and corrupt. Uncontrolled logging has so greatly depleted Sarawak's forests that most conservationists working to save Borneo's biodiversity have, in a kind of environmental triage, essentially given up and focused their attentions elsewhere on the island.

... On a national level, many Indonesian ministers get high marks, or at least grudgingly awarded passing grades, for their dedication to reform. "And yet I will say that in this village there is no question that it's impossible to get a policeman to do anything without being asked for a bribe," a person connected to a small conservation group tells me. (As happened often when I talked with activists, I was asked not to name the speaker.) "The bupati has friends in Jakarta who could shut us down," another NGO worker says. "It's a fine line you have to walk here. They could crush us if they wanted to."

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