Convert or conserve? The key is in collaboration…

When I moved to Indonesia in 2009 I had to re-program my mind.

It wasn’t the new language that was alien to me. I wasn’t fazed by eating with my hands or the long bumpy bus rides required to get around Kerinci Seblat National Park (KSNP) – the spectacular tropical forest landscape where I was fortunate enough to be based. For me, the greatest adjustment was in my interaction with the human species.

The sheer diversity of relationships required to make conservation work and investment required in communication.  There are NGO partners, District governments, national park officers, community members, the occasional informant with tip-offs about wildlife poaching, press… you get the picture.

Aside from my personal adaptation process, a much more dramatic transition has been taking place in one district bordering the national park – in which Fauna & Flora International (FFI) is privileged to play a role.

In 2008 Lembaga Tiga Beradik (L-TB), a local NGO with whom FFI collaborates, spotted a problem – a proposed 84,794ha pulp and paper concession planned for an area of mature secondary forest bordering the park in Merangin and Sarolangun Districts.

This area holds one of the highest densities of Critically Endangered Sumatran tiger outside the boundaries of the protected area. These state-owned forests also overlapped with the traditional lands of many forest-edge communities that have long relied on access to forest resources.

A window of opportunity

A change of local government and political outlook in 2009 provided a window of opportunity and a campaign was launched to reject the pulp and paper plantation, saving forest lands from conversion.

The campaign called for great perseverance in the face of a nationwide legacy of irreplaceable rainforest parcelled up for monoculture, leaving a trail of conflict between the private sector and local communities in its wake. Oh, and a lot of homeless wildlife.

More than 50 local villages rejected the proposal, and so too, in November 2009 did the Minister of Forestry.

After a huge sigh of relief, the inevitable questions arose. How long until another conglomerate set its sights on these same forests? What are the alternatives for long-term management of such an area?

Since 2010 FFI, L-TB and other local NGOs have been supporting villages to secure legal tenure and management rights to forests within village boundaries in the form of a Village Forest license, valid for 35 years.

It may sound like a simple task, but this is still new for Indonesia. Village Forest legislation was passed in 2008, and the 17 Village Forests in Merangin that have just been approved by the Minister, represent the greatest number issued in a single district to date.

Securing the initial designations is a win, but there’s still a long journey ahead… including supporting villages in preparing sustainable Village Forest management and land-use plans and building capacity to ensure the plans can be effectively implemented.

An elephant in the room

But there is an elephant in the room here – 35 years is a long time. Whilst it enables communities to think strategically about forest management, financing this management and maintaining commitment not to convert forest into farmland, in light of likely population growth, are significant challenges.

Fortunately the communities we’re working with are aware of their reliance on the forest particularly to protect water and hydro-electric energy supplies.

FFI and L-TB are now working with seven villages to help them inventory their other forest resources, so they possess raw data of the natural values provided by their forest areas and can develop new ways to benefit from them sustainably.

With markets emerging for carbon stored in forests that have avoided conversion, and potential for water and biodiversity based schemes, the transition in Merangin from a paradigm of forest conversion at the expense of local communities to forest conservation by communities paves the way for the establishment of schemes that that can channel rewards to those who will benefit the most.

Community Carbon Pool

In this site, and others globally, FFI is promoting a Community Carbon Pool model, where clusters of community managed forests can function as a single larger carbon pool, reducing transaction costs for individual communities that elect to enter the carbon markets.

And so we come back to collaboration, and the reason we all invest so much time in relationships with partners – they are key to conservation success and the future of the Sumatran tiger. I raise my hat to my colleagues. Their phones never stop ringing, always ‘on call’.

But the result is a conservation collaboration that feels something akin to family. It’s great that a Village Head is happy to pitch up at your office without notice, wander in and help himself to a coffee…. even though occasionally you might still be in your pyjamas.