“Thank God for the Norwegians”, a Jakarta-based environmental aid official said to me in March 2011, in awe of the game-changing impact that Norway’s billion-dollar International Climate and Forest Initiative was having on the Indonesian forest conservation scene. Ten months earlier, the Indonesia-Norway REDD+ Partnership had been signed into being through a Letter of Intent (LoI) between the two governments. Suddenly, it seemed, a new ending had been written for the story of Indonesia’s forests, after decades of frustration, inaction, corruption, deforestation and carbon emissions, otherwise known as ‘business as usual’. President Yudhoyono was fully engaged, keen young and forceful older Indonesians were assigned to reform the old system, while the provinces were falling over each other to cooperate. It was a good time to lead the first review of the Indonesia-Norway REDD+ Partnership .
Indonesian forests and peatlands have long been degraded by demand for forest products and plantation land, with the pressures made worse by a changing climate and the fire-proneness of damaged and desiccated ecosystems. It was always going to be a challenge to reduce emissions from land use here, or to increase security of biodiversity, natural ecosystems and traditional ways of life, all of them vital to reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation (REDD)+. But in 2009, the country’s leadership realised the scale of Indonesia’s contribution to climate change, and its vulnerability to the consequences. With Norway keen to support tropical REDD+, it wasn’t long before they began to talk, and the result was the LoI in which Indonesia agreed to attempt forestry reforms and Norway promised up to a billion dollars to enable and reward success. The LoI envisioned three phases: (1) for establishing institutions and capacity, (2) for transforming forest management and governance, and (3) for delivering verified emission reductions. None was expected to be simple or quick.
By the time I went back to lead the second review of the Partnership in 2013 , things were looking good. There had been rapid progress on a moratorium on new forest concessions for logging and plantations in primary forests, on national and sub-national REDD+ strategies, on a publicly-accessible database (‘One Map’) with 85 data layers, including all forests, peatlands and concessions (unprecedented in the secretive forest sector), and on establishing a ministerial-level REDD+ Agency. The latter was set up in August 2013, and became a real powerhouse of Indonesian conservation talent, thought and energy. In my career I have been privileged to visit several institutions in the full flush of their youth and enthusiasm: the ASEAN Centre for Biodiversity in the Philippines, the Iwokrama International Centre for Rainforest Conservation and Development in Guyana, the National Biodiversity Institute in Costa Rica; well, Indonesia’s REDD+ Agency was like that.
It led the LoI process until early 2015, but it couldn’t last. It was becoming very effective, but it was outside the Indonesian bureaucracy and not remotely sustainable. It could have done with another year or two to consolidate some things, but the newly-elected President Widodo ordered the ministries of environment and forestry to become one Ministry of Environment and Forestry (KLHK), which would absorb the REDD+ Agency and disperse its responsibilities throughout the new institution. The challenges of merging these two very different ministries caused a severe loss of Phase 2 momentum during 2015-16. The third review of the LoI process was also delayed, and only in 2018 did I have the opportunity to understand the previous five years, and to describe the current position . It turned out that although staff of the former REDD+ Agency had largely scattered, ecological events had put many of the things that they had been working on back on the national agenda. Thus, forest and peatland fires in late 2015 caused immense damage in Indonesia and led to a strong response in the forms of new and enhanced regulations, a new Peatland Restoration Agency (BRG), and increased policy priority for fire prevention, One Map, law enforcement, social forestry, and land reform. Meanwhile, the LoI had been automatically renewed at the end of 2016, while Norway continued to support its various Indonesian partners, by such means as funding the new BRG and delivering capacity-building support to KLHK and others. So the Partnership remained very much alive.
Moreover, essential parts of an agreed system for accounting, earning, receiving and managing payments for verified emission reductions could only be put in place by government, and these were now nearing completion. Better, after all the investment in mapping and monitoring, there was good evidence that the loss of Indonesian forest cover in 2017 was less than in 2016. We suggested having a look at the numbers again in early 2020, to confirm a real trend in reducing forest loss and hopefully justifying a huge party on the tenth anniversary of the LoI on 26 May 2020. But the data were good enough already, and on 16 February 2019 ministers for the two Partners announced that reduced deforestation in Indonesia had triggered the first payment for results – nearly five million tonnes of reduced emissions! . This good news validates the long-term strategy of both Partners, which is based on the truth that solving complex environmental problems requires sustained effort and flexible investment, involves many stakeholders and relationships, and makes it necessary to accept that there may only be slow directional change over a long period, with fewer dramatic breakthroughs than one might like.
© Julian Caldecott