Apr 22, 2024 Last Updated 1:12 AM, Apr 19, 2024

Selling the wind

Selling the wind

Environmental Justice and Governance Research Lab

Scarred remnants on the edge of the forest, Ulu Masem
Environmental Justice and Governance Research Lab

In 2009, Aceh’s governor, the former Free Aceh Movement rebel, Irwandi Yusuf, announced the Ulu Masen REDD (Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation) Plus demonstration project. Spread over six districts and covering an area of 739,788 hectares, much of which consists of dense forest, the project was one of the most ambitious experiments with REDD yet trialled in Indonesia. Conceived by the Government of Aceh in cooperation with project developer and broker Carbon Conservation Pty. Ltd., together with international NGO Fauna and Flora International (FFI), it aimed to preserve a large chunk or Aceh’s forests and to do so in a way that would mean that part of the financial benefits for doing so would flow through to local people.

Confusion and disagreement over who should control or own Aceh’s forests is widely seen as the underlying source of many, if not most, of the challenges facing Aceh in managing its forest estate and in implementing REDD. Add to this the pressures for exploitation of Aceh’s vast natural resource wealth, which includes minerals such as gold, copper, and iron ore, and we can see all the ingredients for continuing deforestation in Aceh, one of Indonesia’s most heavily forested provinces. But REDD now also offers the prospect of substantial sums of money being made available by the international community for the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions that result from the clearing, logging and degradation of forests. There is an expectation that the money will be spent to permanently protect forests, and the carbon that they store and sequester over time, to assist global efforts to combat climate change. This is something quite new in Aceh, and yet to be fully understood by local communities.

Much international fanfare has surrounded the establishement of the Ulu Masen project, yet it appears that the integrity of the project is critically undermined by its failure to obtain the free, prior and informed consent of local communities through a process of consultation and negotiation. Yet for REDD to work effectively, it is crucially important that local people are integrally involved. In the REDD concept, local people are at the centre of the project, and expected to be transformed from forest destroyers to guardians of the forest. This transformation will be rewarded by a a share of the windfall that rich world companies and governments will pay for carbon offsets.

Talking to local leaders

This brief article is based on questionnaire style interviews with 69 leaders of mukim (a mukim is part of Aceh’s traditional governance structure, and consists of several villages). The interviews were conducted by local researchers in January 2011. Of the 69 mukim leaders interviewed, 61 were from areas within the Ulu Masen project area, while the remaining eight were from jurisdictions that border it.

The results of our survey show a critical lack of access to information and a chronically low level of REDD literacy. Of the 69 mukim leaders interviewed, 67 said they didn’t clearly understand the REDD concept, nor the socio-economic impact it potentially would have on their communities. None had been involved in a meeting with the Aceh government convened specifically to enter into consultation, nor to negotiate the terms and conditions of REDD in their local area.

Our survey shows a critical lack of access to information and a chronically low level of REDD literacy

Twenty five mukim leaders, largely from Aceh Jaya district, with some from Aceh Besar and Pidie Jaya, report being involved in meetings with FFI during which REDD was included on the agenda. However, as one mukim leader recalled, ‘These discussions were mainly about not cutting the forest down, and the importance of preserving it for our children’s future. The issue of carbon was included at the end, but only briefly.’ Of the remaining mukim, 33 said they received information on the project from NGOs other than FFI, and 11 from the media.

Traditional government

The mukim structure is part of Aceh’s traditional socio-cultural system. A mukim is a legal entity usually comprising several villages, and it comes under the direct authority of the subdistrict chief. It is a positive development that the Aceh government has chosen the mukim structure as the mechanism through which to coordinate with local communities about REDD. By doing so, the government has acknowledged the important role this adat (customary) entity could play in building community support for the project.

Yet despite formally recognising communities and their traditional governance structures as major stakeholders in the project, the government seems to have overlooked the role these grassroot actors should play in the planning, negotiation, and promotion of REDD in Ulu Masen. For example, none of the mukim heads in Aceh Besar our team talked to had ever been consulted during the project planning process, and all asked questions about what would their role be. It seems the mukim heads have been tasked with conveying to communities decisions that had already been made elsewhere, and of ensuring that REDD compliance takes place at the local level.This has not only created confusion, but anger: ‘They [the government] think they can tell the international community the mukim of Aceh agree with their project in order to receive much money. Well, we will only agree if we want to agree, and for now we are unsure’, commented a mukim head in Aceh Besar.

Not only has the project failed to gain the consent of local communities, but there appears to be an identity disconnect. Many of the mukim residents in Aceh Besar identify with the Seulawah Mountain forest rather than with Ulu Masen. As one explained: ‘Why do we want to be part of Ulu Masen, we are very proud to be known as from Seulawah.’ Similarly, residents of several mukim in Pidie say they would rather identify with Peut Sagoe Mountain than with Ulu Masen. Ulu Masen is the name of a mountain in Aceh Besar, but it is unclear why this name was chosen to designate the entire area.

Local livelihoods

The 982,000 people who live within the boundaries of the Ulu Masen project area are largely dependent on the forest. Yet nobody seems to know much about the impact the REDD project will have on local livelihoods, and the social and cultural way of life of these forest dependent communites. As one mukim leader commented: ‘Our biggest worry is that we don’t understand REDD or how it will affect us’.

According to Aceh government data, there are at least 155 illegal logging sites within the REDD demonstration project area. Furthermore, several thousand people are thought to be engaged in illegal logging, mining, and other forest crimes in Ulu Masen every day. If the REDD project is to work, and preserve the carbon reservoir of these forests, these activities will need to stop.

Yet for many forest edge communities, these illegal activities form the basis of a subsistence living. They are afraid they will lose this under REDD, and say that they are not convinced that the benefits they currently enjoy from farming, hunting, logging, mining, collecting firewood and other actitivities in the forests will be replaced by money from this project to ‘sell the wind’ (which is how some local people describe the carbon trading concept).

REDD project proponents will need to present strong incentives to lure people away from their traditional exploitative relationship with the forests which pose a real and ongoing threat to the integrity of the project. But to date, local communities have not been consulted about what economic incentives can be created to protect, conserve, restore, and create forests. To be sure, the project is ostensibly giving more decision-making and enforcement power to the local communities via the mukim. Yet the implications of this increased share in responsibility on social justice, transparency and accountability are as yet unknown.

Accusations that REDD is no more than a ‘get rich quick scheme’ are common in many parts of Aceh. As many as 52 of the mukim heads we interviewed said they and their communities feel they are denied their statutory rights of ownership of or access to forests while mining companies and plantation concession holders are able to bribe members of the government to ‘fast track’ concession application processes and allow far more destructive activities in the forests. Many also fear that REDD is simply another way of locking up the forest and preventing access by local people; the project thus has the potential to exacerbate existing grievances about unfair access to natural resources in Aceh, and thus create new conflicts in this fragile post-war society. It is true that efforts have begun to address this issue in Aceh, and to provide local people with a sense of ownership of their own natural resources, but there remains a long way to go before the long history of exclusion is finally ended. If REDD funds are seen to be in the hands of elites such as those in the provincial government, resentment due to perceptions of inequality and mismanagement of funds will also create conflict and potentially jeopardise the success of the entire project.

The Aceh REDD Task Force, established by the governor to oversee the coordination and the design of the REDD project in Aceh, has decided to utilise the mukim structure as the project’s conflict resolution mechanism, citing the fact that local communities will respond much better to a mechanism that is familiar to them and which they trust. However, a lack of transparency in the government’s decision-making processes and an essentially exclusive process may constrain the mukim as a conflict resolution mechanism, leaving the project potentially exposed to problems of jealousy, false expectations, and accusations of corruption.

Getting local people involved

The mukim structure is an ideal channel through which information about REDD could flow between the Aceh government and the local communities in the project area. It is also the mechanism by which communities should be able to negotiate their rights, responsibilities and benefit sharing in the project. Yet from the start the project design was almost wholly in the hands of the project proponents: the Aceh government and Carbon Conservation, in close collaboration with FFI.

Whether, and to what extent the forest communities of Ulu Masen become genuinely part of the REDD process will determine the effectiveness and ultimately the success of the project. Ownership of the project must lie with the communities. If, for example, people feel that rules about accessing the forest are not being applied equally, they are likely to operate outside the law, and may become perpetrators of forest crimes, thus jeopardising the integrity of the carbon sequestration and the benefits that would result.

A continuous and broad-based consultation process must begin without delay. As one mukim leader explained: ‘What we want is quite simple. We ask that we are involved in discussions on ownership of the carbon stocks, benefit-sharing options, developing conflict resolution mechanism, and other issues. And, the government must come to us to ask our consent for this project that will affect the lives of our communities. We are still waiting.’

The Environmental Justice and Governance Research Lab (ejg@ejg-researchlab.org) is a newly established centre conducting research and advocacy on the governance of natural resources in Indonesia and beyond. The EJG is based in Banda Aceh.

Inside Indonesia 105: Jul-Sep 2011

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