Carbon Hopes and Landless Farmers in Indonesia and Malaysia

By Chiew, Hilary | Contemporary Review, Autumn 2009 | Go to article overview

Carbon Hopes and Landless Farmers in Indonesia and Malaysia


Chiew, Hilary, Contemporary Review


LANDLESS farmers, in Indonesia and Malaysia, fear they will suffer if tropical countries get cash to save forests. This dispute shows the tensions so often present between the hopes of environmentalists and the realities of life in Third World countries.

Just before his sixtieth birthday last November the Prince of Wales, Britain's future King and one of the most prominent environmentalists in the world, visited the Harapan forest in Jambi on the Indonesian island of Sumatra and planted an ironwood sapling, a fitting symbol of his wish to be remembered for saving the rainforests. Covering 101,000 hectares of degraded lowland forests in the South Sumatra and Jambi provinces, Harapan, which means hope, is the latest forest to be endorsed by the Prince's Rainforest Project. It mirrors the Prince's twin visions of halting deforestation and mitigating climate change.

The Indonesian government has granted a concession to manage the restoration of the forest to a consortium of three non-governmental organisations. A local group Burung Indonesia, the UK's Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB), and BirdLife International formed a group called PT Restorasi Ekosistem Indonesia, known as PT REKI.

Dieter Hoffmann of BirdLife International expects the trees to absorb up to five million tonnes of carbon annually, equivalent to the annual emissions of the UK city of Manchester. To finance the project, it plans to raise money from the Carbon Offset Market by trading in carbon credits generated from the restoration of the forest. The money will go towards buying seedlings and employing workers to plant them. Carbon offsetting is a financial instrument developed under the UN's Kyoto Protocol (which was adopted in 1997 and came into force in 2005) that allows companies and governments of industrialised nations to meet their mandatory reduction targets by purchasing credits made available through avoided carbon emissions (like reforestation) in developing countries. Because of the rigorous registration procedures under the Kyoto Protocol, many projects have developed outside the Protocol's framework creating an informal 'voluntary offset sector' within which this project falls.

However Dieter Hoffmann's optimism about the trees potential to absorb so much carbon is not universally shared. The forest restoration project has angered landless farmers who say they were evicted from forest land now being managed by PT REKI. A month after Prince Charles planted his sapling, Sarwadi Sukiman, a small farmer from Sumatra, appeared in the Polish city of Poznan for the December 2008 United Nations climate change conference with a farmers' pressure group. Via Campesina. This organization describes itself as 'an international movement which coordinates peasant organizations of small and middle-scale producers, agricultural workers, rural women, and indigenous communities'. It was founded in 1992 and was originally based in Belgium but now has its headquarters in Indonesia. They came to lobby against the project.

Sarwadi comes from Tanjung Lebar village in a rural area that saw large-scale commercial logging in the 1980s. When the companies left in 2002 he said peasant farmers and indigenous people reclaimed the land to grow rice, beans and fruit. About 1,500 families, organised under the Indonesian Peasants' Union occupied and cultivated a large area. Sarwadi said villagers were evicted after PT REKI took possession of the area in 2007. 'We were forced to sign a letter promising to never come back again. Some peasants were jailed, though they were later released. One of them was detained for six months for defending his community's land', he said.

In response to this allegation, the PT REKI consortium has accused Via Campesina of distorting the situation on the ground. When asked about the evictions described by Mr Sarwadi, an RSPB spokesman said PT REKI had reported the presence of 'illegal loggers' to the Indonesian police, 'as required under Indonesian law. …

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