Seeing REDD in Kalimantan

Ellen Roberts from FoE Melbourne reports on the latest news from Australia's pilot forest carbon offset project in Indonesia.

Since 2005, there has been a turn to the world's forests as a point of potential agreement in climate change politics at an international level. Under the term 'REDD+', policy-makers have been negotiating the inclusion of land-based emissions in a future UN agreement on climate mitigation. REDD+ means reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation in developing countries.

Lots of the details are unsettled including how to finance REDD programs (with carbon trading, state grants, or a mix), and how to deal with the potential complications such as unclear land tenure, and the risks REDD may pose to indigenous and forest people's social and cultural rights. While the debate on these issues goes on, nations like Australia have been creating pilot projects to demonstrate their particular preference for how REDD should be put into action.

By any account, Australia's REDD project in Kalimantan, Indonesia has gone wrong. Alexander Downer first announced the Kalimantan Forests and Climate Partnership (KFCP) in 2007, claiming the project would not only lead to rehabilitation of carbon-rich peatland which has been logged and drained for a failed agricultural project in the 1990s, but would also show the world that forest carbon trading was possible.

Downer, and then Labor foreign ministers after him, claimed projects like this around the world could one day provide carbon credits to polluters around the globe.

Five years on and problems with the KFCP are great, and multiplying. Firstly, there have been conflicts with the local community over the project, some of whom say that they have never agreed to have this kind of carbon trading project on their land.

In an open letter to the district government in September 2012, local community leaders stated that "The [KFCP] project management tends to rely on the police or military personnel to curb conflicts, … Military personnel were invited to attend meetings with community creating intimidated feeling among communities."

Disputes have focussed on unpaid wages for work undertaken by local villagers. Community members resent being considered only as labour for the project, and their knowledge about the unique conditions in the area have been ignored in project design and implementation.

Friends of the Earth Australia has been campaigning on issues with the KFCP since 2009, and in 2010 sponsored three people from Indonesia to publicise the issue in Australia. In September 2012 Rebecca Pearse from FoE Sydney accompanied a field trip to the project site. The field team encountered a community deeply concerned about this multi-million dollar aid project taking place on their lands.

Former Indonesian President Suharto ordered the land to be cleared in 1996 for the mega rice project and the remaining peat deposits continue to burn regularly, creating smoke which significantly contributes to Indonesia's greenhouse gas emissions. An Australian funded aid project in a section of the site which sought to reduce these fires has created conflict with the local community and failed to deliver planned emissions reductions.

Controlling fires in this area is obviously crucial not only to minimise emissions but also to avoid local health impacts.

Australian aid agencies claim that working with villagers on tree planting and fire management provides grassroots benefits for the project. However villagers point to encroaching oil palm plantations and logging and mining activities as a potentially greater source of environmental destruction than their small scale farming practices.

With the Climate Justice Program and WALHI, FoE Australia is committed to continuing to support the community for a revision of the KFCP in line with their needs, knowledge and basic rights. From the beginning we have argued that seeking emissions reductions in Indonesia's forests should never be considered a substitute for stopping Australia's own industrial emissions – which is further reinforced by on the ground experience of these forest carbon trading projects.

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