New research questions value of REDD project in Sumatra

By Margaret Ran

David Gaveau et al. have released an innovate paper that takes a critical look at the widely touted Reduced Emissions through avoided Deforestation and Degredation (REDD) project in the Ulu Masen Ecosystem of Aceh, Sumatra.

Sumatra is ground zero for the oil palm and pulp-and-paper industries, and, like many tropical habitats, suffers from a severe lack of forest cover and deforestation data to inform natural resource use discourse.

The REDD project in Aceh, named ‘Reducing Carbon Emissions from Deforestation in the Ulu Masen Ecosystem’, is to be implemented by Flora and Fauna International, and Merrill Lynch signed on to fund the carbon project back in 2007.

Over the past two years, this project has been mired in political and practical considerations including uncertainty over the involvement of the Indonesian Government in a private and voluntary carbon project, as well as the status of project funding during Merrill Lynch’s financial implosion.

But many observers in Aceh and in the environmental community consider it a shining example of the positives REDD can potentially deliver to the protection of forests, local communities, and the world’s climate; California, along with two other US states, has committed to purchasing carbon offsets generated by the project.

With their paper, Gaveau et al. have produced the region’s first reliable deforestation maps, a critical tool for forest management and policy groups. These maps depict historical deforestation rates in Aceh and also serve as a model for future deforestation scenarios. This research is on the forefront of landscape ecology by not simply generating a ‘one-rate-fits-all’ model for deforestation in Aceh, but rather it evaluates the importance of factors such as road expansion and forest type – parameters that significantly impact the chance that any given block of forest is deforested.

REDD and deforestation scenarios in Aceh through 2030
REDD and deforestation scenarios in Aceh through 2030

The researchers used their new forest deforestation maps to examine the potential for Ulu Masen’s REDD project to effectively conserve Aceh’s forests. Using some basic assumptions of potential REDD scenarios, Gaveau et al conclude that the Ulu Masen project will only protect a small percentage of Aceh’s forest, and very little of Aceh’s highly threatened lowland forests.

The researchers are correct to point out that limiting REDD efforts to large protected areas of forest will not give any protection to many fragments of primary forest immediately threatened by oil palm concessions or other agribusiness throughout Aceh, and to focus on the giant role road expansion plays in deforestation.

The paper proposes an alternate REDD model, where these endangered forest fragments are protected with REDD-based revenues, which are paid directly to land owners to compensate for potential revenues earned through the conversion of forest to oil palm or other agriculture. This would be in place of Ulu Masen’s focus on funding law enforcement to protect the Ulu Masen Ecosystem Protected Area.

Road construction and deforestation risk
Road construction and deforestation risk

I commend Gaveau et al. for thinking big and working out the details of how to maximize forest conservation in Aceh with REDD revenues.  They realistically point out that the current price of carbon offsets will have trouble competing with oil palm development, and, in my opinion, this might indeed be a fatal flaw in the potential implementation of their ‘maximum forest protection’ model in Aceh.

Their work makes clear that the Ulu Masen REDD project is not sufficient to protect all of Aceh’s forests, which is a valid contention. But in my view, the Ulu Masen project is promising not because it attempts to conserve all of Aceh’s forests, but rather because it attempts to establish a novel pathway to securing long term funding for the protection of a single block of Aceh’s forest.

In fact, as deforestation rates recover to pre-tsunami and pre-conflict levels in the province, any measure that secures the protection of Aceh’s forests from oil palm and illegal loggers deserves support.

After a year and a half of taking a close look at the social and economic dynamics of illegal logging and oil palm expansion in Aceh, I have serious concerns if Gaveau et al’s maximum forest protection REDD scenario could ever be implemented in Aceh. While working with the Leuser International Foundation, I became acutely aware of the giant political and community support road building projects, in particular. Even with the implementation of a comprehensive REDD-based forest protection project in Aceh, efforts by Acehnese politicians and industry to expand Aceh’s limited road network will remain.

As Gaveau et al. point out, current carbon offset prices would have trouble competing with potential profits from oil palm and illegal logging revenues. An additional barrier would be the enormous technical challenge of monitoring a large patchwork of forest fragments for changes in carbon stocks over time. And the absolutely essential outreach needed to gain local communities support in any REDD project would become a logistical nightmare for even the largest and most capable of implementing partners, not to mention the financial distribution and reporting requirements of an REDD project spread through out rugged and isolated Aceh.

While many REDD mechanisms deserve attention for their potential to fund forest conservation, they must be viewed not as stand alone mechanisms, but as tools to influence the natural resource use debate currently raging in Aceh.  Intrinsic to this approach, REDD project design must be based in the social, economic, and political realities on the ground faced by forest management groups operating in Aceh, not just the carbon quantities or even blocks of forest potentially conserved.

David Gilbert is a Research Fellow at RAN. He has worked in the tropical forests of the Amazon and Indonesia, with a special focus on forest conservation and indigenous rights