Indonesia: New Hope for Orangutans

The first step toward recovery is admitting you have a problem. Indonesia has some of the best remaining natural forests on earth, which are also the fastest disappearing—due to rampant illegal logging and the increasingly profitable cultivation of rubber and palm oil. In 2008, for the second straight year in a row, Indonesia captured the Guinness World Record for the highest rate of deforestation: 52 square kilometers a day, or 300 football fields of forest every hour. The toll on wildlife has been staggering, and on none worse than the orangutan. According to the most recent population estimate, published in July by Serge Wich of Great Ape Trust of Iowa, the steeply downward trend could definitively end in 2011 with the great ape's extinction. Yet for years, Indonesia has ignored or disputed the facts. Just this month, environment minister Rachmat Witoelar rejected the Guinness recognition, maintaining that, since 2000, the deforestation rate has dropped from 2.8 million to 1.08 million hectares leveled per year.

Then, to Wich's surprise, Indonesia admitted it had a problem. Hosting the United Nations climate change conference in Bali last December, President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (SBY) recognized the value of the country's forests beyond conventional commercial uses. Forests, he said, were "indispensable carbon sinks" with "a strategic, global function." He talked about jailing illegal loggers, a costly, persistent problem that Indonesia has never previously acknowledged. "Ten years ago, the government didn't want to admit that illegal logging was going on," says Jack Hurd, director of The Nature Conservancy's Forest Trade program. Now it is "much more willing to talk about this." As little as five years ago, prospects for the orangutan were dim and fading fast; now, the species may ride a new political and economic tide away from extinction.

A big part of the solution to illegal logging is making the laws more clear. Although illegal loggers have long had a free hand, Indonesia has always had rules—they were just incoherent. With the laws wrapped in contradictions, says Hurd, "it was very difficult for even an operator who wanted to be legal to actually be legal." Now the government is signing off on a more concise set of measures, the Indonesian Timber Legality Standard, developed by The Nature Conservancy and the Indonesia Ecolabeling Institute (LEI), that will be easier both to follow and to enforce.

Though work in conservation science has been doggedly consistent in Indonesia, despite major setbacks from loss of forest, it's only under SBY that researchers have become more than pariahs in the woods. The plan set forth by the Ministry of Forestry in Bali, prepared in consultation with orangutan experts, is grounded in Wich's latest findings. It's the first action plan to ever come out of the ministry, rather than from a foreign NGO or research scientists, and just as importantly, it recognizes what scientists have known for a long time: that most orangutans live outside of protected areas—meaning that effective conservation has to involve planning in the private sector, comprised of the logging, mining and palm-oil industries. Here, too, the tide can turn, because even when it comes to revenue for the government and corporate profits, orangutans have something to offer.

As climate change alters the conditions of the market, economics may work in favor of the orangutans. Sustainably harvested timber fetches higher prices; it's also becoming the only thing developed markets will buy. If companies want top dollar for Indonesian timber in North America, Western Europe, Japan, Australia or New Zealand, says Hurd, they need third-party certification of their forestry practices from the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC). Soon, illegally harvested timber won't even be allowed in the United States, when a new amendment to the Lacey Act, covering imports of plant material goes into effect in April. Developing countries, too, are becoming more conscious of where their wood comes from. "Not everybody is going to be demanding FSC-certified timber," says Hurd, "but increasingly, countries are going to be demanding legally-verified timber. Without those legality standards it's going to be increasingly hard to trade timber globally."

Then there's the value of untouched, standing forests—the carbon value—that in the growing industry of carbon trading, now has a price tag. The value of commodities like coconut and palm oil may have risen dramatically in the last decade, but the commodity of carbon may rise even more. Wich argues that, at the rate carbon is now being traded in the Chicago Climate Exchange and its European equivalents, an acre of intact forest is worth more than its timber yield or an acre of palm oil plantation. "It's more economical to leave the forest there," he says. "And if you compare it with other carbon ideas—biofuels, or hybrid cars—trying to stop logging is quite cheap." As indicated in Bali, SBY has an eye on the expanding carbon market, which, if developed properly, could finally prove that what's good for orangutans is good for governments too.

The new economic and political horizon gives Wich hope. The year 2011 is not a hard-and-fast date, especially as a new wave of conservation initiatives on Sumatra—concerted efforts of several ministries and the World Worldlife Fund, as well as a five-year moratorium on logging imposed by the semi-autonomous regional government of Aceh—buy time. Wich is cautious with his optimism, he says, but motivated: "We have a good fighting chance now."

Indonesia: New Hope for Orangutans | News