The Letter of Intent that prompted a tectonic shift in the dialogue about Indonesia’s forests: An interview with CIFOR’s DG

"The Letter of Intent was the single most significant game changer in that 25 years of observing the Indonesian forestry sector."

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BOGOR, Indonesia (16 April, 2012)_The Letter of Intent between Indonesia and Norway has been “the single most significant game changer” for the Indonesian forestry sector in the last 25 years, commented CIFOR Director General, Frances Seymour in an recent interview.

“I would say that the Letter of Intent prompted a tectonic shift in the dialogue about forests, who participates in it, realignment of domestic constituencies among themselves and vis-à-vis international constituencies in a way that I haven’t seen in 25 years,” said Seymour in an interview with REDD-Monitor, the seventh in their series of interviews with key REDD actors in Indonesia.

In 2009, Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono announced a commitment to reduce Indonesia’s greenhouse gas emissions by 26 percent from business as usual by 2020 with domestic resources, and by 41 percent with international support.

His pledge was one of the earliest and most far-reaching voluntary commitments to reduce emissions by a developing country. Building on this commitment, Yudhoyono signed a Letter of Intent with the government of Norway in May 2010 that lays out a set of activities designed to realise reductions in forest-based emissions in return for financial support of up to $1 billion. 

Here, Seymour reflects on how the discourse on forests in Indonesia has advanced since 1986, and addresses the current issues of REDD+ funding, carbon trading, and the logging moratorium.

This edited transcript was first published by REDD-Monitor. Read the full interview here.

REDD-Monitor: What is CIFOR’s position on REDD?

Frances Seymour: That’s easy, because CIFOR doesn’t take positions on anything. One of the reasons that we can play the role that we do is that we are able to be an independent source of information and analysis. We attempt to be relevant in the sense of answering “if, then” questions. If you’re trying to maximize this objective, then the analysis shows you ought to be approaching it in this way. But we are not taking the next step and saying and therefore it needs to be done in this way. We’re really putting options on the table. That’s our approach.

Having said that, when we think about REDD, we think about REDD as an objective that has been acceded to by the international community. Nobody really disagrees with reducing emissions from deforestation and degradation. We feel that pretty much everything that CIFOR does is towards that objective, because we’re in the business of improving forest management with a special focus on livelihoods and good process.

From the point of view of the objective, we’re in favour of it. Do we take a position on a particular programme, or incarnation of REDD by various proponents, global, national, local? No. That’s what we’re doing research on. Our question is, which of these different approaches meets the 3E test of effectiveness, efficiency, equity?

REDD-Monitor: The carbon trading question. I know that CIFOR doesn’t take positions, but what is CIFOR’s position on carbon trading?

Frances Seymour: Well, as I said before, we don’t take positions, so we don’t have a position one way or the other on this. What I can say is that we have published analysis including in this book “Moving ahead with REDD“, that was published several years ago, that suggests, depending on your assumptions about what the global regime is, you can have deeper emissions reductions for the same price if you allow carbon trading. Again, it’s one of those “if, then” answers. But of course reasonable people can disagree about the likelihood of getting a political regime that allows that economic instrument to function as it should. But we don’t take a position on that.

REDD-Monitor: How does CIFOR think that REDD should be funded?

Frances Seymour: Again, we don’t take a particular position. But in our research and things that we’ve published, we accept the idea that the needs of countries and communities for REDD finance will vary over time. The generalised three phase approach of readiness, getting ready for performance, policy change and then performance based payments makes sense as a progression.

As well, the different needs even through that time-frame, some kinds of needs are more appropriately funded by the private sector and some more appropriately funded by the public sector.

The private sector’s not going to fund things like capacity building so the public sector’s got to step in to do that. You’ve got that kind of trade-off. And you also have different capacities and risk profiles across geographies, both in terms of REDD projects in lower carbon, lower capacity governance countries in certain regions, as compared to regions with higher carbon, higher capacity of governance.

You would look at a different funding profile for those two extreme situations. In any given case you’re going to have a mix of funding sources that are specific to that particular place, but also the time and the progression through the strategy. So it’s always going to be a mix, public, private, domestic, international, appropriate to the need.

REDD-Monitor: What is CIFOR’s view of the US$1 billion deal between Indonesia and Norway?

Frances Seymour: Again, CIFOR doesn’t take a position. But I think it’s fair to say that the deal has created an opportunity for CIFOR and everybody else to get more political attention to the work that we do in support of improved forest management in Indonesia. Both governments have approached CIFOR for advice and support. What can I say other than it’s a welcome discussion that has been precipitated by the Letter of Intent.

If I may, I’ll give a personal answer to that question. I started working in Indonesia in 1986-87, so we’re talking about a 25 year horizon. I’m willing to say that the Letter of Intent was the single most significant game changer in that 25 years of observing the Indonesian forestry sector.

My own personal perspective, looking over that horizon, I would say that the Letter of Intent prompted a tectonic shift in the dialogue about forests, who participates in it, realignment of domestic constituencies among themselves and vis-à-vis international constituencies in a way that I haven’t seen in 25 years.

It creates an opportunity for a variety of issues to be on the table at the highest levels, I mean head of state level, to talk about what is the future of Indonesia’s forests. What we experienced at the Forests Indonesia conference last September, which was an open discussion among all the different stakeholders about fundamental questions about which way forward, might not have been possible in the absence of the Letter of Intent. So that’s a very good thing.

REDD-Monitor: CIFOR put out a report last year that was quite critical of the moratorium. The report wasn’t only critical, however, it also put forward a series of recommendations for improving the situation. Do you think that these recommendations are likely to be implemented? Do you think that things are moving in the right direction?

Frances Seymour: I think we were clear in the working paper on the moratorium that it needed to be evaluated not as an instrument for immediate carbon reductions but rather an instrument for shifting to a better governance framework for reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation. The working paper talked about lost opportunities in terms of the relatively narrow scope of the area covered by the moratorium – such as the omission of secondary forests – and the many exclusions that, depending on how they are operationalised, could further reduce its scope. Unfortunately the omission of secondary forests makes it harder to “swap” planned conversion between lower and higher carbon density forest land, especially in the interest of conserving peatland forests.

But at the same time, we pointed out that it provided some traction in terms of openness, transparency and public participation, good governance principles in terms of having as a commitment, having the consolidated moratorium map with a revision process every six months. Again, this is the first time in the 25 years that I’ve been watching, everybody will have the opportunity to comment; having this posted on the web is revolutionary. To have access to the data and be able to sit around a table together and discuss what’s going on is new. That then provides a platform to start plucking some of that low-hanging fruit and higher-hanging fruit that was depicted in the cartoon in the report.

The good news is that that process of opening up the decision making is happening. That is a good thing. We all need to be realistic about how quickly the harder parts of it can go forward, because of the constraints that are political in nature. Some of these are really tough because there are entrenched vested interests that will take some serious political will to deal with. As we know, there’s a lot else going on here, fuel price subsidies and everything else in the broader political context. There are also data constraints and capacity constraints and all those things that we have to be realistic about how long things take.

I think that there is good will in important places, the President is serious about his commitment. We need to be realistic about how long these things take, but at least it is forward progress in having that platform of common data to work together to achieve change.

REDD-Monitor: Indonesia recently signed an illegal logging agreement with the EU. What do you think are the lessons learned from the illegal logging debate in Indonesia for the debate on REDD that’s currently taking place?

Frances Seymour: Well, it just so happens that we have an entire working paper commissioned by UNODC [UN Office on Drugs and Crime] on exactly that question, specifically for Indonesia. It came out late last year.

At the end of the report, there is an articulation of lessons learned from the FLEGT [Forest Law Enforcement, Governance and Trade] process in Indonesia. It is basically that the good governance principles that have been necessary for a successful SVLK [Sistem Verifikasi Legalitas Kayu – Timber Legality Verification System] process will also be necessary for REDD. Things like, the strength of the agreement depends of the strength of the multi-stakeholder process that produced it. These things take time, so we’ve got to invest in an inclusive process to come up with the rules of the game.

Another lesson is that the credibility of the whole enterprise is going to depend on transparency of data so that we all know what we’re talking about à propos our moratorium discussion just now. As well as the independence of those who validate data and performance, the institutional relationships of who does the MRV [measuring, reporting and verification] type roles in REDD. There is a key challenge of capacity. If you don’t have the capacity to deliver, it doesn’t matter how good your policy framework is, and making sure that the gap between those two things doesn’t get too far out of whack.

It’s the basic good environmental governance processes that were in Principle 10 of the Rio Declaration. This is not new: Public access to information, participation in decision making, accountability issues, capacity building, it’s those lessons.

REDD-Monitor: There’s been a lot of discussion on REDD in Indonesia, and there are something like 40 REDD projects in the country. At the same time, there remains a very high rate of deforestation, there is still expansion of oil palm concessions, pulpwood concessions, mining concessions, oil exploration concessions. Are you optimistic or pessimistic about REDD in Indonesia?

Frances Seymour: There are two opposing sets of forces. One set is what you just described, where we have many interests in expanding the area planted to oil palm, to fast-growing timber species, to other agricultural crops, developing infrastructure corridors, exploiting mineral resources and all of those are leading to continued deforestation, possibly accelerating in some places, but at least continued pressure. We can characterise that as business as usual with the understanding that depending on commodity prices, business as usual could get worse for the forest or better for the forest.

You also have a set of constituencies driving things in the other direction. Those include the ones narrowly associated with REDD that are promoting this REDD scheme narrowly defined, payment for performance in avoiding deforestation and forest degradation. But there is also the broader climate change debate that includes a lower emissions development strategy that people are starting to talk about. And there is the wildly under-appreciated issue – but we hope to do our part to increase the appreciation – of the importance of forest in adaptation to climate change. I think once people responsible for economic development in Indonesia understand that the viability of sustainable agricultural production and food security, water security, the need to invest in infrastructure, that forests are part of a solution to all of those problems, then the incentives will start to change.

You also have whole constituencies with other interests, such as those aligned around tenure reform, which has its own momentum. People have been talking about this for 20-odd years, but there’s an alignment of interests that includes those who are worried about REDD as a threat to tenure security, and those who understand that instrumentally we’ve got to clarify these tenure questions for REDD to work, because in a payments for performance system you’ve got to know who to pay and how to ensure that the benefits go to the right people. There’s been a lot of investment over the years from civil society groups on how to solve this problem, now there seem to be serious high-level discussions about how you reform forest tenure in Indonesia.

For all of those reasons there is progress on this countervailing agenda that would serve to reverse some of the trends that you started the question with. I think the question whether you’re optimistic or pessimistic depends on your sense of time-scale. At what point are the forces that might drive change toward a more climate-friendly, longer term sustainable development model, compared to business as usual? There are so many variables that have to do with externalities like commodity prices, but also internal variables like a President who has publicly said that he’s committed to these emissions reduction targets, that he’s dedicating the next three years of his Presidency to this agenda. We’ll see what happens.

But I think that there are reasons that supporting this whole process with the best information and analysis, which is our business and as well as some convening and capacity building, is a “no regrets” approach. We can be optimistic that our inputs are leading to progress and we’ll see what happens.

A lot of your questions have to do with what are reasonable expectations for the pace at which change can take place. My first five years in Indonesia took place before CIFOR even existed. When you’re climbing a mountain, you don’t know how far you’ve climbed until you look back down. When I get together with colleagues that I worked with 20-25 years ago on the first generation of social forestry projects, we’re amazed at the progress. 25 years ago the State Forest Corporation [Perum Perhutani] would not think about sharing timber revenues with local communities in Java. Now they do. 25 years ago there wouldn’t be an open discussion about recognising indigenous peoples’ claims to forest lands. Now that discussion is wide-open. 25 years ago there would never have been a public discussion about how to deal with illegal logging and corruption within the forestry sector. Now that’s common. So, from a 25 year perspective, look at all the progress. Look at what’s happened.

I think it’s important to keep that time-scale in mind and keep that as a source of optimism that change can happen and to temper perhaps unrealistic expectations that now that we have a Letter of Intent, within six months all these problems are going to be solved.

To ensure that  Rio+20 delivers a global message that forests matter to sustainable development, CIFOR will coordinate one of the most important conferences on forests on 19 June, 2012. Forests: The 8th Roundtable at Rio+20 will discuss new research findings, remaining knowledge gaps and policy implications for integrating forests into the solutions to four key challenges to progress toward a green economy: energy, food and incomewater, and climate. Seats are limited so register here to avoid disappointment! 

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Topic(s) :   REDD+ Climate talks