Some five hours from Palangkaraya, the capital of the Indonesian province of Central Kalimantan on the island of Borneo, lies a hidden treasure: thousands of hectares of peatland containing black-muddy material that is key in the fight against climate change.
It is difficult to get to this peatland area that lies between the Katingan and Mentaya Rivers. Transportation is very limited and local communities are reliant on river transportation. Otherwise, the road to reach the “black gold” is long and winding.
But in this area deep in the heart of Borneo, one of the world’s biggest peatland conservation and restoration projects is underway with local communities at its center.
Conservation in hands of local people
Maryanto (his name has been changed to protect his identity) has been an illegal logger for years. He says that the money he made was not really worth the many risks and penalties he faced over the years.
“But that [logging] was all I knew; my father was also a logger,” he said. “I’ve done it ever since I started working.”
He did not realize there were options and he did not think he would ever find another job to provide for his family until a friend invited him to attend a training course to learn how to produce coconut sugar in Basawang, a neighboring village.
He attended the course and learned the technique. Now, he can make approximately $8.50 a day, much better than the income from logging that earned him only $53 for 20 days hard work cutting trees from the peat forests.
Maryanto is one of many villagers now producing coconut sugar for the Mentaya Sumber Manis Cooperative, a local initiative established by farmers in Basawang that works closely with the private ecosystem restoration company PT Rimba Makmur Utama, also known as the Katingan Mentaya Project.
The company runs the private ecosystem conservation and restoration initiative on a peat swamp forest, with more than 150,000 hectares of reserved area.
The Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) and the UN-REDD Programme, along with 11 journalists from across South East Asia — Singapore, Vietnam, Indonesia, Myanmar — visited the project area in November to learn about the activities.
Maryanto told the journalists that now he wants to quit illegal logging for good.
“I’m tired of being chased by the police,” he says. “I don’t want my kids to live like that as well.”
Maryanto’s ability to find a different livelihood option is quite an achievement for an ecosystem restoration initiative.
Dharsono Hartono, chief executive of the Katingan Mentaya Project, says the organization tries to find ways to involve local communities from the surrounding villages in conservation and restoration efforts.
“The strength of our restoration efforts is actually working hand-in-hand with the communities,” he says.
One of the core activities of the project is to conserve the area while restoring the degraded areas.
Local communities are also involved in reforestation activities. Families are given seedlings to plant on degraded areas. Each family receives an annual payment as a reward for participatingand keeping the area reforested.
Switching to sustainable farming
Another challenge is to discourage the use of swidden, the clearing of land using techniques traditionally known as “slash and burn” as part of rotational crop management. This method is followed up with the application of chemical fertilizers.
Zainuddin took up the challenge of going organic, and he is now one of the farmers advocating for more sustainable farming methods. He coordinates activities in Sekolah Tani Agroekologi Tuntung Pandang (Tuntung Pandang Agroecology Farming School), which has around 70 members.
Zainuddin says he was mocked by his friends when he first started. Due to the many weeds and wildflowers on his property, they asked him laughingly: “Are you farming or planting a garden?”
But instead of using fire, chemicals and herbicides, they let weeds grow and cut them, letting them decay to become a natural fertilizer along with compost from organic waste and cow urine.
Although the techniques take more time and require more patience, Zainuddin says it is much cheaper. He can barter for organic fertilizers from members of the farming school, instead of buying chemical fertilizers.
“Our members’ activities are varied, some do horticulture, some have paddy fields, some raise cattle, so we can also barter (according to) our needs,” he says.
Zainuddin mainly cultivates bawang Dayak (Eleutherine bulbosa), known for its medicinal properties. His chemical-free methods lead to a higher market value. He can sell the crop for $5.40 a kilogram while the non-organic product fetches only around $2.90 a kilogram.
He started applying the new methods in 2017, and it took a year until he saw the benefits. He admits that it takes longer to prepare his fields for planting without burning the land, but states that in the end, it is worth it.
“I’m happy because my plants thrive even in the dry season,” says Zainuddin. “Now some of my neighbors ask me to teach them.”
Supporting rights-based approaches
Forests and peatlands play a significant role in meeting the global targets to combat climate change, but a holistic management approach is needed to maximize their impact.
“We cannot just take greenhouse gasses and carbon into account, but we also must consider biodiversity and local livelihoods,” says Adam Gerrand, Forestry Officer from the UN-REDD Programme in Indonesia, explaining how conservation and reforestation efforts under REDD+ (Reducing Emissions caused by Deforestation and Forest Degradation) mechanism have the potential to deliver social and environmental benefits that go beyond carbon and the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions.
As forests provide a range of ecosystem services, from water regulation to food production and cultural services, it is important to address biodiversity and social factors in REDD+ programs.
There is hope for the future with a growing number of commitments to end deforestation from the private sector and protecting the rights of indigenous and local communities.
The Katingan Mentaya Project area is one of the local REDD+ initiatives evaluated by CIFOR’s long-term Global Comparative Study on REDD+. CIFOR Senior Scientist and Climate Change Team Leader Amy Duchelle said she appreciates the efforts to involve local communities by the private sector, stating that the progress in Central Kalimantan has been encouraging.
“What we’ve seen here through the site visit, and also in our REDD+ impact evaluation is the importance of maximizing synergies between conserving ecosystems and providing real benefits for local people,” she says.
REDD+ interventions on the ground are a bundle of land tenure clarification and environmental education activities, restrictions on forest access, alternative livelihood support, and incentives for forest conservation or restoration.
“CIFOR’s long-term study highlights that, in general, well-being effects of REDD+ interventions have been small, but are much more likely to be positive when incentives are part of the mix,” Duchelle says.
Another important step is to work out how best to include and encourage such local conservation initiatives like the Katingan Mentaya Project into Indonesia’s Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) under the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change, at provincial or national levels, in the context of the Paris Agreement.
Sri Suwanto, the head of the Forestry Agency of Central Kalimantan, says that the provincial government has been working hand-in-hand with a number of private and non-governmental organization-led conservation initiatives.
“For the sake of the local communities, we hope these initiatives will be long lasting and sustainable,” he said.
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