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It Pays to Grow Trees

Credit: Aidenvironment/CC BY-SA 2.0

The deforestation of a peat swamp forest for palm oil production in Indonesia. Credit: Aidenvironment/CC BY-SA 2.0

By Victoria Graham

When economic forces threaten irreplaceable ecosystems in developing countries it makes sense to employ economic incentives that place a value on forests.

Four thousand kilometres from Darwin, a tropical jungle survives nestled precariously between vast urban and agricultural expanse. The Gunung Leuser National Park in Indonesia is the last place where all four critically endangered animals – Sumatran tigers, rhinos, elephants and orang-utans – still exist.

I was fortunate enough to see this jungle in 2016 and witness a majesty that is worth saving. In 2013 the government of Aceh province put forward a development plan that slices through the heart of the supposedly protected Leuser Ecosystem – one of the most irreplaceable ecosystems in the world – which would fragment the forests and may push critically endangered species like tigers and rhinos to extinction. Conservationists responded with fervour, attracting the support of celebrities such as Leonardo DiCaprio to campaign for its protection.

While this story is shocking, it’s just one example of a much larger problem facing South-East Asia. Every year, 1.5 million hectares of forest are lost, much of it logged, burnt and replaced by agricultural, oil palm and timber estates, as well as infrastructure, in attempts to stimulate regional economic growth.

The protection of these forests is of international interest for social and environmental reasons, yet the value of forests like these remains largely unrecognised. Until this changes, this ignorance will cost us greatly.

Protecting Wild Nature

The history of formal forest protection dates back to 1872 when Yellowstone National Park became the world’s first official national park. More and more areas of natural significance have since been reserved for conservation, in recognition of their recreational and environmental value. In theory, protected areas aim to provide safe havens for biodiversity and are regulated by laws that are actively enforced.

Indonesian parks are home to many of the world’s quirkiest and most appealing species, drawing tourists from far and wide to glimpse animals of prehistoric appearance, such as the Komodo Dragon or our closest living relatives, the orang-utan. Let’s not forget weird and wonderful plants such as the titan arum, otherwise known as the “corpse flower” for its rotting stench. Travelling into these parks is often a saddening experience as visitors can witness pristine habitats being destroyed or see first-hand evidence that poachers are actively hunting nearby.

During 2010 in nearby Vietnam, the Javan rhinoceros met a tragic end when the last known wild rhino was found dead with a single bullet in its leg and its horn removed. This butchering occurred in the Cat Tien National Park, which the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) had described as the “last refuge for a lost animal”. In 2011 the WWF announced that the species is officially extinct in Vietnam. In Indonesia, “save the rhino” campaigns are striving to protect the last 100 Sumatran rhinos surviving in the wild, in an attempt to avoid the same plight of extinction.

This tragic story of illegal wildlife exploitation is unfortunately not an isolated one. But of greater concern is the mass land-clearing taking place throughout South-East Asia to support regional plans for agricultural and urban expansion. In the process, forests are being decimated and the wildlife they support is becoming threatened or even driven to extinction. The process typically starts with new roads being built. Once operational, roads provide new access to forests that are often rich in timber but were previously too remote to reach by loggers, farmers and settlers.

A recurring obstacle to ending the relentless conversion and degradation of natural habitats is money. Economic pressure drives the conversion of natural habitats in several ways. First, national plans to boost economic growth drive forest loss as additional land is cleared to increase output from agriculture and other sectors. An example is the oil palm boom in Borneo and Sumatra. In another way, poverty drives resource exploitation as communities living in and around forests often rely on forest products to survive. In developing countries like Indonesia and Vietnam there is a third pattern at play: inadequate financial support for forest conservation.

Several studies have demonstrated a severe underfunding of protected areas in South-East Asia, and found that this links with illegal forest exploitation due to weak law enforcement. Scientists have long warned us that ineffective law enforcement and poor management of protected areas will place insurmountable pressure on nature refuges to protect threatened species, ultimately driving some to extinction. However, for tropical developing nations like Indonesia, the finance required to change this is within reach.

There’s Money in Trees

In 2005 an initiative was proposed by a group of 15 countries led by Papua New Guinea and Costa Rica. This Coalition for Rainforest Nations would campaign for a market-funded mechanism to slow deforestation in tropical developing countries.

The proposal led to the REDD+ scheme, which is focused on Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation, plus conserving and sustainably managing forests and enhancing forest carbon stocks. REDD+ aims to provide the economic incentives needed to conserve forests by linking financial payments with carbon stored in trees (from either reducing forest-based emissions or enhancing forest carbon stocks). The goal of the United Nations-backed initiative is to lower carbon emissions in developing countries by paying to keep forests alive and standing, or by planting more forests.

The momentous support the scheme has attracted since its inception is largely due to the way it recognises the financial value of the carbon storage and sequestration function of healthy tropical forests. After all, tropical forests hold around half of the carbon stored in forests worldwide, and their destruction contributed to ~15% of anthropogenic carbon emissions between 1990 and 2010. REDD+ has already attracted more than US$7.3 billion from countries including Norway and Australia, marking a serious investment in climate mitigation.

In a recent article in Environmental Research Letters my colleagues and I drew attention to the financial and carbon gains of projects that reduce forest-based emissions in South-East Asia through REDD+. Our study found that financing improved management of protected areas, which reduces emissions from illegal deforestation and supports biodiversity conservation, was highly cost-effective. On average US$13 could reduce 1 tonne of carbon emissions. The new finance contributed to hiring additional park staff, infrastructure, education and training programs to prevent illegal logging and agricultural encroachment.

Another cost-effective opportunity for REDD+ was removing carbon from the atmosphere through tropical reforestation, costing on average US$9 per tonne of carbon. Furthermore, the scope for reforestation is vast, with millions of hectares of degraded land in Indonesia currently sitting idle. Reforesting this total area could achieve a carbon gain of 965 million tonnes of carbon over 30 years. The fact that these cost-effective opportunities for lowering forest carbon emissions even exist is extremely promising and must be better recognised.

An important distinction of REDD+ is that it does not aim to hinder development plans, but to implement cost-effective and sustainable mitigation activities that promote the long-term, healthy management of forests, carefully planning how to use land so that forests like the Leuser Ecosystem aren’t destroyed. For example, REDD+ promotes the sustainable harvesting of timber in existing logging concessions, as timber provides vital income for local communities. However, the carbon benefit comes from enforcing sustainable logging techniques, such as pre-harvest vine cutting and directional felling to reduce wastage and residual damage during log-harvesting.

The objective of REDD+ is to balance a nation’s need for development with the daily and future needs of its people. This means planning for development and economic growth while also considering the long-term provision of natural resources. If resources run dry, it can bring poverty to a devastating number of people.

It was this problem that motivated my colleagues and I to draw attention to cost-effective climate mitigation activities and see how REDD+ finance can be harnessed to protect valuable ecosystems like Leuser. Natural systems provide vital benefits to society, including clean drinking water, climate regulation and erosion control. These are currently largely undervalued.

Our research aimed to find out which strategies were most commonly employed by REDD+ projects in South-East Asia, and see how they compare in terms of costs and carbon gains. To do this, we collected information on the location and threats being targeting at each REDD+ project site in South-East Asia. Some examples of threats included the conversion of natural forests to oil palm, timber and other crops, and illegal deforestation inside parks.

There could be several threats at each site that require different REDD+ strategies to address them. For example, the REDD+ strategy employed at a project site threatened by oil palm expansion was to buy the land and prevent the forest from being cleared and replaced by oil palm. We estimated the costs and carbon gains of each strategy by reviewing the literature.

Our research led to a few key findings. First, Indonesia was the clear regional leader in REDD+, with ~70% of projects located in Indonesia alone, predominantly on the islands of Borneo and Sumatra, which are the two islands that experienced the highest forest loss for 2000–2010. Second, more than 60% of projects were aimed at improving the management of protected areas and reforesting tropical forests, which were also the cheapest strategies. Conversely, less projects were using funds to purchase land that was planned for oil palm and timber plantations, which were the most expensive strategies.

The key take-home message of this is that cost-efficient opportunities for reducing emissions and conserving forests in South-East Asia exist and are already being tapped into, but activities could be further expanded with additional support from donor countries in recognition of the multitude of benefits attainable for both developing and developed countries.

In summary, realising the value of tropical forests will foster a healthy long-term relationship between people and forests that has huge benefits for all. Natural systems provide vital benefits to society, including clean drinking water, climate regulation and erosion control. These are currently largely undervalued. The lesson for us all is to not lose sight of the value of tropical forests or the difficulties that developing countries face in protecting them. After all, investing in forests may be the smartest investment we ever make.


Victoria Graham is a Masters candidate at James Cook University.