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Can Carbon Markets Save Orangutans?

"Saving orangutan habitats and other forest lands has the potential to make a major contribution towards reducing global warming." 

Erik Meijaard, former senior ecologist for The Nature Conservancy in Indonesia

By Erik Meijaard

Orangutans are known worldwide as “the people of the forest” and the face of Indonesian conservation. The orangutans of Borneo and Sumatra are uniquely beautiful, undeniably compelling…and incredibly endangered. These precious creatures should be well protected as both a cultural icon and an endangered species.

But not nearly enough is being done to save orangutans. The time to act is now, or this precious animal will be lost forever. The recent discussions on global climate change have provided a great opportunity to effectively protect orangutan habitats — using the mechanism of carbon markets to make conserving those habitats financially attractive.

Why Carbon Markets Make Forest Conservation Lucrative

How are orangutans and carbon markets linked? Consider these two facts:

  • Annual forest loss in Indonesia amounts to some 1.8 million hectares — helping to make Indonesia one of the biggest CO2 emitters in the world.
     
  • And forest loss in Indonesia over the last three decades has directly or indirectly killed some 3,000 orangutans every year.

Much of the forest conversion has happened under the guise of economic development. This development has ignored the muiltifaceted benefits of forests: how they provided many local communities with livelihoods as well as clean water, local climate regulation, and flood and erosion prevention.

However, those benefits did not clearly translate into financial gains for the state, local governments and business involved in Indonesian forest conversion. But the lack of financial incentive to protect forests might now change — because it will now be possible to make protection and sustainable management of forests pay for itself through carbon markets:

  • A carbon price of  $16 per ton of CO2 would make forest conversion less lucrative than forest conservation, according to research by The Nature Conservancy and other groups.
     
  • And for forests growing in Indonesia's extensive peat soils — which contain large amounts of carbon — a carbon price of only $6/ton would make conservation economically competitive with even the most profitable agro-industrial developments.

Most of Kalimantan’s remaining orangutans occur in these peat-soil forests. And whereas sustainable agriculture on drained peat soils is a myth, forest conservation can provide economic benefits for a very long time.

How Orangutan Conservation Could Help

Current conversion plans for Indonesia's peat swamps as well as its mineral-soil forests pose a grave threat to orangutans and the climate.

This is where the orangutan comes into the picture. By protecting orangutans, the Indonesian government would make a major contribution towards reducing global carbon emissions.

And if payments for avoided deforestation become an official mechanism in global climate agreements, then carbon buyers will likely compensate Indonesia for its forest protection. Protecting orangutans will then lead to increased Indonesian economic development.

Such a triple-win situation is not a dream. With some political will, it can soon be reality.
Previous commitments, even at a presidential level under Soeharto, were not backed by real action steps and supporting legislation.

But now the Indonesian government is taking orangutan conservation seriously: In December, the president of Indonesia launched the Indonesian Orangutan Conservation Action Plan.

The plan is the first road map in 30 years of orangutan conservation efforts that works towards stopping the continuous loss of orangutan habitat and carbon-rich forests. The plan is not just words on paper: It clearly defines the roles and responsibilities in orangutan conservation for both government and non-governmental organizations.

The Conservancy has pledged $1 million to this effort. With this plan, the Indonesian government is taking the in situ and ex situ management of one of their protected species seriously.

A Global Canary in the Coal Mine

As a globally recognizable species, the orangutan is a compelling icon for sound stewardship of Earth’s resources. With respect to climate change, the fate of the orangutan in tropical forests — as with that of the polar bear in the Arctic — is a global "canary in the coal mine."

But unlike polar bears, which can only wait and hope that somehow humanity will stop their icy hunting grounds from disappearing, orangutans are a living symbol of a direct solution.

Polar bears represent the problem; orangutans are the symbol of what we can do about it. Saving orangutan habitats and other forest lands has the potential to make a major contribution towards reducing global warming.

(2007)

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