CIFOR Director General reflects on 25 years of change in Indonesia’s forests

Indonesia stands poised to become a “forest superpower,” according to Frances Seymour.
, Wednesday, 30 May 2012

JAKARTA, Indonesia (30.05.2012)_“When you’re climbing a mountain, you sometimes need to pause and look down to see how far you’ve ascended. It keeps you from getting discouraged when you look up and see just how far there is to go before reaching the top,” said Frances Seymour, CIFOR Director General, at her farewell luncheon held in Jakarta last week.

Much of Seymour’s 25-year career in forestry policy has been focused in Indonesia, from her initial job as a Ford Foundation grant officer in the 1980’s to her latest stint at the helm of CIFOR since 2006. Her valedictory speech, made ahead of stepping down as Director General after 6 years working with the organisation, offered a survey of how far CIFOR’s host country had progressed and how far there is yet to go.

Home to the world’s third largest tropical forest (after the Amazon and Congo Basins), Indonesia stands poised to become a “forest superpower,” Seymour said, referencing a quote by Indonesian man of words, Wimar Witoelar. Indonesia’s tropical peat lands (half the world’s total) and extensive coastal mangroves make the country all the more crucial for the mitigation of carbon emissions.

Protection of Indonesia’s forests, Seymour said, is indispensable if “the international community is …to succeed in keeping global warming below two degrees Celsius.” And, in the time she has worked in the country, Indonesia has come a long way to meeting these responsibilities.

Two decades ago, the government barely acknowledged indigenous rights to forest tracts; today, Ministry of Forestry is in discussions with indigenous peoples’ representatives regarding how to resolve questions of forest land tenure. Illegal logging used to be scarcely discussed at the national level; Indonesia now hosts multi-stakeholder forums on the subject.

In 2002, Indonesia became the first Asian country to negotiate a bilateral Voluntary Partnership Agreement with the European Union on legal timber sourcing. In 2010, Indonesia signed a Letter of Intent on REDD with Norway committing to develop national schemes to reduce emissions from deforestation and forest degradation.

Just as Indonesia has evolved in its approach to forestry issues, so too have its international interlocutors. Back in the 1980s, the World Bank financing favored big dams and “transmigration” projects to relocate people from overpopulated hubs to sparsely settled outer islands. Today the Bank partners with environmental groups like AMAN to address indigenous land issues. A quarter century ago, the state timber corporation saw teak plantations solely as a revenue source. Today it collaborates with neighboring smallholder farmers, and recognizes the importance of ecosystem services through ventures such as water bottling.

Such collaborations, Seymour stressed, belie the fallacy that Indonesia “faces a choice between forests or food.” CIFOR’s research globally has shown that on average, almost a quarter of household income for forest communities comes directly from the forest. In East Kalimantan, CIFOR research with local communities has identified more than 3600 specific uses for more than 1400 forest species  . Research on the contribution of forests to climate resilience suggests that forest cover helps prevent flooding, landslides and reduces the risk of wild fire.

To realise such benefits, education is crucial, Seymour added. The more Indonesians go in for advanced training, at home or abroad, in forestry and related disciplines, the faster the sector can develop. “Individuals are ultimately the agents of change,” she is convinced. But the change agents’ innovations need to be complemented by institutional development , she added, not just in Jakarta but nationwide at local, provincial and community levels.

“Why should it be left up to international consulting firms, NGOs based in developed countries, or even CIFOR to undertake the role of independent policy research in Indonesia,” Seymour asked. Better “to build that capacity where it does not yet exist domestically,” she said.

As for CIFOR itself, Seymour noted, it “is now in its last year as a teenager,” in light of its establishment in 1993. Like many teenagers, it may have seemed a bit awkward to have around the house, from Jakarta’s standpoint.

“Some of those officials who campaigned to…host CIFOR 20 years ago probably concluded that they should have been more careful in what they wished for,” Seymour said. At the same time, she credited Indonesia’s Ministry of Forestry for “tolerating and sometimes even welcoming CIFOR’s critical analysis.”

“Indonesia’s forests provide an ideal laboratory for studying all the reasons that forests are valuable, as well as all of the reasons that they are disappearing,” she said.

Seymour leaves for her native U.S. in early July.

To access the full transcript, please click on the link: Farewell speech by Frances Seymour, CIFOR Director General



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Topic(s) :   Indonesian Wetlands