Exclusive: Indonesia's REDD+ Boss Outlines National Strategy

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We all use palm oil every day, and nearly half the world’s supply comes from Indonesia – with devastating results for the country’s forests and the global climate. The country has also embarked on a massive and unappreciated effort to save its peat forests, and Heru Prasetyo is leading that effort. We caught up to him at his office in Jakarta.

15 May 2014 | JAKARTA | 

Heru Prasetyo may have the toughest job in climate change. The former Indonesian Director for PT Accenture, he became the inaugural head of Indonesia’s new REDD+ Management Agency in December. That means he's charged with developing a national regulatory regime for Reducing greenhouse gas Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation, plus other changes in land-use (REDD+), and that translates into a complete restructuring of the country’s forestry sector, which in turn requires a complete restructuring of the country’s agricultural economy.

It's an economy that the country built on palm oil. It did so with the blessing of a world that gobbles up palm oil by the boatload to make cookies, creams, and soaps. Consumers around the world cheered as Indonesia became the world’s leading producer of the stuff, but environmentalists jeered at the impact that achievement had on the country's forests – many of which grow in peat bogs, which store massive amounts of planet-warming carbon.

President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono imposed a moratorium on new palm oil concessions in 2009, but that didn’t effect concessions already in place – most of which had been granted by local authorities over whom the president has little control. That leaves millions of hectares of forest slated for conversion to palm oil plantation, and Prasetyo is charged with leveraging an uncertain and relatively small trickle of REDD+ finance to redirect a sector that brings in tens of billions of dollars per year, and he must do so as Yudhoyono's time in office draws to a close.

A core strategy for achieving that redirect is to persuade companies that have already received concessions to develop palm plantations on peat forest to instead shift their operations to degraded land – a task comparable to asking the corn farmers of the American Midwest to move their crops en masse to the apple orchards of the Northeast.

Indonesian environmental non-profit PT Serasi Kelola Alam (SEKALA) got a taste of the enormity of the challenge in 2009. Working with the World Resources Institute (WRI), SEKALA took a deep dive into the use of land on the Indonesian part of Borneo, known locally as Kalimantan. They found that 8.6 million hectares of Kalimantan's forested land was legally available for conversion to palm oil – and that an almost too-good-to-be-true nine million hectares of degraded land was physically suitable for palm oil development.

After an intense search, they found a palm-oil developer willing to abandon its concessions on forestland if SEKALA and WRI could find them suitable degraded land to move to. They also found an indigenous farming community willing to negotiate a swap – but when they tried to execute it, they ended up with a lesson on the stifling power of bureaucratic inertia.

Prasetyo will be tackling that inertia and the endemic corruption that comes with it, as well as illegal logging and a convoluted mishmash of maps and concessions going back to the days of Dutch rule before World War II.

We had an opportunity to sit down with Pak Heru at his office in Jakarta, and in a wide-ranging interview he spoke frankly about the challenges of lining policies on the ground up with REDD+ financing from abroad, and of scaling that financing up to a meaningful level. Here is the full interview. An edited version appears on Ecosystem Marketplace.

Steve Zwick: Is there a way to summarize in a few sentences your national REDD strategy?

Heru Prasetyo: Well, I can summarize our objective – which is what I believe to be the single greatest challenge we face – and it’s this: the bulk of our land is peat forest, and the emission factor for peat is eight times that of regular forests. That’s the big problem we have now: so many of our peat forests are slated for conversion to palm oil, and people have made investments based on those concessions. We can’t just negate those, because investors need to know they can trust us not to change the rules in the middle of the game. Also, we've spent 50 years developing this economy, and if we simply stop producing palm oil, we will be taking a massive economic hit, and production will just go elsewhere. So we have to engineer a land-swap. This means identifying degraded land that could be used for palm oil and trying to see if there is a way to persuade the people who have palm-oil concessions to switch over. But switching means you lose any initial income from logging, and maybe it means you go from a contiguous piece of land to fragmented properties. On top of that, the degraded land has claims on it, too. I see REDD+ as a tool for helping us execute this land swap, but it’s not easy.

SZ: You’ve said that a landscape approach to REDD+ is the only way to go, and that means accounting for the human drivers of deforestation on that land and the ecosystem services flowing from it. How do you plan to apply this approach in a world where the only real, measurable output is carbon?

HP: It begins by asking where you want to start: in the sky or on the ground – which means big or small – with emissions or practices? 

On the big sky level, you have the way REDD+ is evolving in the UNFCCC (United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change). There, the focus is on deforestation as a proxy for emission levels, and on national accounting instead of state or regional accounting. But it’s when you get into those regional emission levels that you start to see what is happening locally – and that’s where you can start to match up activities with emission levels, which is how you begin to take a landscape approach to REDD+.

The challenge is making sure that the national and global REDD+ mechanisms can be transposed into actions on the ground that address the drivers of deforestation locally. Only then can you have an effective REDD+ mechanism.

Read how the Brazilian state of Acre is dealing with this same issue.

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