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N.C. Chapter Alum Visits Indonesia

Sees climate change work happening on the ground

Travel to and around Indonesia included planes, cars, trucks, motorcycles and boats.

Story Highlights
  • TNC's climate change project in Borneo is addressing one of our top conservation priorities: protecting forests for the carbon they sequester.
  • In the past 20 years, Indonesia has lost approximately 75 million acres of natural forest.
  • Belan saw positive, tangible changes happening.

TNC has various roles to play in the Berau Program, all of which involve communicating with the local communities.

I can still remember my first project visit when I joined the Conservancy’s North Carolina Chapter in 2000. Conservancy scientist Sam Pearsall drove me a couple of hours east and we hopped on a boat into the swamps of the Roanoke River. For my first project visit as a member of the Conservancy’s Global Climate Change Team, I also headed east, but getting there from Durham took a bit more effort: about 27 hours on airplanes, spread over five separate flights, followed by several hours bumping along dirt roads and tracks in cars, pickup trucks and motorcycles, and, finally, a two hour longboat ride upriver. 

Where I ended up was the middle of a rainforest in the Berau District of Indonesia, on the island of Borneo. This is where the Conservancy is addressing one of its top conservation priorities—protecting forests for the carbon they sequester—through a partnership called the Berau Forest Carbon Program. Along with three others who work to raise money for the Conservancy’s global climate change projects (including another NC Chapter alum, Amy Tidovsky), I went to Berau in October 2011 to meet with our Indonesia staff and learn more about this innovative program.

In the past 20 years, Indonesia has lost approximately 75 million acres of natural forest, driven by surging global demand for timber, minerals and agricultural products like palm oil. But the island nation of 240 million people also has made a commitment to changing business as usual. The Berau Forest Carbon Program is an attempt to do just that, in a district the size of Belize, by bringing together government officials from all levels, empowering communities to sustainably use the natural resources they have and changing the way companies do business—all with an eye toward reducing carbon emissions while protecting the country’s amazingly rich tropical forests. 

What we saw over the course of several days was impressive.

  • On the Lesan River, a small community of indigenous Dayak people was developing a mix of rubber, cacao and vegetable production to meet their community needs and bring in income
  • On a huge logging concession, the owners were reducing the impact of their work on the environment by building narrower logging roads and learning to identify hollow trees before they are cut and left to rot (and send their carbon into the atmosphere)
  • In a coastal village, the local people had formed a community organization to protect Labhuan Cermin—a beautiful secluded lake that provided drinking water for the entire village

In each of these cases, the Conservancy has a role to play as part of the Berau Program in the form of support, training and planning.

If what's going on in Borneo seems more like economic development than conservation….the two aren’t as separate as you might think. There just isn’t any way to effectively battle a problem as big as climate change without accounting for the needs of people. The world’s tropical forests are the lungs of our planet, but they are also the source of food, water and livelihoods for millions of people. What I learned in Berau was that the very best way to accomplish our mission of protecting forests and holding carbon out of the atmosphere is to work on all levels – with local district governments, with big companies and with the small communities that dot the rainforest. Everyone has a stake in protecting these resources and ensuring that they continue to function. 

Make no mistake, there are plenty of challenges. It’s hard for our staff to get around Berau. The local government can be a fickle partner. Logging, conversion of land for palm oil production and coal mining are serious threats to the forest. But I was heartened by the outlook of all the people who patiently and generously spent time with us and told us their stories—Berau is their home, and they want to make sure its forests and rivers stay healthy for their children. 

 

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