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Why Investing in Forests is Win-Win for Communities, Climate & Orangutans


Jakarta / Nairobi – Conserving key rainforests in Indonesia could generate revenues three times greater than felling them for palm oil plantations. In doing so, such actions can also deliver multiple Green Economy benefits from combating climate change, securing water supplies and improved livelihoods while throwing a life-line to the world’s remaining populations of critically-endangered Sumatran Orangutans.

The findings come in a new report, requested by the Republic of Indonesia, from the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), under its Great Apes Survival Partnership (GRASP).

Under the UN climate convention, governments are negotiating a mechanism to provide payments for Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation plus additional forest “”activities”” (REDD+), with the aim of halving deforestation by 2020.

It is estimated that currently close to 18% of greenhouse gas emissions – equivalent to around six Gigatonnes (Gt) of C02 – are linked with land use change, mainly through forest loss. In 2004, this amounted to more greenhouse gas emissions than those of the global transport sector.

The new report estimates that many of the coastal, peat-rich forests of Sumatra -where dense populations of the last 6,600 orangutans survive – may be worth up to a present value of $ 22,000 a hectare at current carbon prices (range $ 7,420 – $ 22,090).

Cleared for the same land may generate revenues from palm oil plantations at less than $ 7,400 a hectare.

The carbon value of avoided deforestation even in ordinary forests ranges from $ 3,711 – $ 11,185 per ha – and is much higher than other land-use practices such as agroforestry, sustainable logging and coffee.

The report, involving conservation organizations PanEco and YEL and World Agroforestry Centre, calls for more international support for REDD+ projects in key orangutan forests.

Between 2005-2010, Indonesia had accelerating forest loss compared to 2000-2005 and is within the highest five countries for percentage of primary forest loss globally. Between 1985 and 2007, nearly half of the forest on Sumatra disappeared. The two Indonesian provinces where Sumatran orangutans occur – Aceh and North Sumatra – have witnessed a total forest loss of over 22% and over 43% respectively from 1985-2008/9.

Currently, the Government of Norway is supporting the Government of Indonesia in its efforts to reduce deforestation and illegal logging under a $ 1 billion agreement that includes a two-year suspension of new concessions that convert peatlands and primary forests.

The new report, whose findings come in the run-up to the UN climate convention meeting in Durban, South Africa, indicates significant opportunities for other international donors to extend REDD+ initiatives in Indonesia’s Sumatra region as well as other tropically-forested countries.

Achim Steiner, UN Under-Secretary General and UNEP Executive Director, said, “”Prioritizing investments in sustainable forestry including REDD+ projects can, as this report demonstrates, deliver multiple Green Economy benefits and not just in respect to climate, orangutan conservation and employment in natural resource management.”

“The report indicates that in Aceh and in North Sumatra, there has been a reported 50% decline in water discharges in as many as 80% of rivers as a result of deforestation – losses that have serious implications for agriculture and food security including rice production and human health,” he added.

Deforestation is also cited in the report – “The Orangutan and Economics of Forest Conservation in Sumatra” – as a key cause for increased flooding that has impacted over 500,000 people over the last decade.

Unsustainable logging may also be linked to the over 500 fires that have impacted the Tripa swamp forests in Aceh province in the past ten years with economic losses estimated at over $ 10 billion between 2000 and 2010.

“The UN climate convention meeting in Durban needs to make progress on several fronts including REDD+ as one way of keeping a global temperature to under 2 degree C. In doing so, it can send a strong and supportive signal to Rio+20 in June 2012 in terms of accelerating and scaling up the full range of opportunities for a sustainable 21st century,” added Mr. Steiner.

Erik Solheim, Norwegian Minister of the Environment and International Development, said his government was now providing additional support to INTERPOL towards building an enhanced collaboration among United Nations agencies and others to combat illegal logging.

“We recognize that in order to make REDD+ a success, tackling illegal logging and assisting governments such as Indonesia with the capacity to combat such crime, will be important,” he said.

“This study underlines that investing and re-investing in forests and the services they provide can be far more profitable and with social and environmental outcomes than trading away our common future for short-term gains,”said Mr. Solheim.

Some Key Findings from the Report

  • The forested peatlands of Sumatra are among the most efficient carbon stores of any terrestrial ecosystem.
  • With nearly 100 million hectares of state forest, Indonesia has the world’s third largest area of tropical forest after Brazil and the Democratic Republic of Congo, and the fourth largest carbon stock globally.
  • Nearly half of Sumatra’s forests disappeared between 1985 and 2007. In the last decade, close to 80% of deforestation in the Sumatra peatlands was driven by the expansion of oil palm plantations, while over 20% was due to other land uses, such as candlenut or coffee production.
  • In the last two decades, 380,000 hectares of forest in Sumatra were lost to illegal logging each year, with an annual loss in carbon value estimated at more than US $ 1 billion.
  • Less than 6,600 Sumatran orangutans exist in the wild today, down from an estimated 85,000 in 1900 (equivalent to a 92% drop). If this rate of decline were to continue, the Sumatran orangutan may become the first of the great apes living today to go extinct in the wild. The report warns that local populations in parts of Sumatra could disappear as early as 2015.
  • Today, only around 8, 640 km2 of orangutan habitat (0.5% of Indonesia’s total area) remains on Sumatra. Of this, 78% is within the Leuser Ecosystem, often located in coastal peat swamp forests.
  • In Sumatra, the carbon value of forests on non-peatlands is estimated at $ 3,711 – $ 11,185 per hectare for a 25-year period. This value is higher than that for all other land uses assessed in the UNEP report (such as agroforestry, sustainable logging and coffee) except for oil palm, which has a value in the range of that of carbon (net present value of $ 7,832 per ha).
  • For forests on peatlands, which are densely populated by orangutans, net present values for carbon credits from avoided deforestation ($ 7,420 – $ 22,090 per hectare for a 25-year period) are sufficient to offset the opportunity costs for the conversion of primary forest to oil palm plantation.
  • The Indonesian government is working with partners to formulate the country’s first REDD+ strategy, which is founded on three basic principles: economic development, maintenance of ecological balance and intergenerational justice.
  • In 2009, the government committed to reduce Indonesia’s greenhouse gas emissions by 26%, and by up to 41% through the support of the international community by the year 2020, primarily in the forestry sector.

Key Recommendations

To chart a way forward for conserving orangutan populations in Sumatra, while enhancing opportunities for economic development, the UNEP report makes several recommendations, including:

  • Designating new forested areas in Sumatra for REDD+. These areas should be selected by taking into account the multiple benefits for carbon storage, conserving orangutan habitat and for the protection of ecosystem services.
  • Maintain a master spatial planning database on regional, provincial and national levels to map defined boundaries of protected forests to improve sustainable land use planning.
  • Further resource development, including the expansion of palm oil plantations, should be concentrated on land with low current use value. Agricultural and timber concessions on land with high conservation value should be avoided.
  • Improve the valuation of the ecosystem services provided by Sumatra’s forests and establish income-generating alternatives for areas that are important for biodiversity such as sustainable tourism.

‘The Orangutan and Economics of Forest Conservation in Sumatra’ report can be accessed at www.grida.no and www.unep.org.

Source: UNEP.