Jocelyn Ford reports on the efforts of a former rebel turned governor to stop deforestation in the Indonesian province of Aceh.
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KATY CLARK: A scourge of another sort is plaguing Indonesia â€“ deforestation. The island nation is home to some of the world's largest remaining tracts of virgin rainforest, but the trees are rapidly falling to logging and agriculture. In the province of Aceh, though, on the island of Sumatra, a former rebel turned governor has innovative and controversial plans to tackle deforestation. The efforts focus less on the forest's value as wildlife habitat and more on its value to humans. Jocelyn Ford has our report.
JOCELYN FORD: Not long ago, Irwandi Yusuf was a rebel commander in Aceh. Today, he speaks before local parliament as governor of the formerly restive province. Irwandi was elected soon after a 2005 peace agreement with the Indonesian government, and one of the first things he did in office was declare a moratorium on logging.
IRWANDI YUSUF: We have obligation, the political will, to protect the forest. By issuing the moratorium on logging, this is the first step.
FORD: Irwandi understands the value of forests, and not just because his fighters once hid in them. He is a trained elephant veterinarian and was a founding member of the Aceh office of the conservation group Fauna and Flora International. And he takes protecting the jungle very personally. I hear you get into the car yourself and chase illegal loggers. How many have you caught?
IRWANDI: Many. But I expect to catch big player; instead I caught only petty player.
FORD: When he's not trying to catch illegal loggers himself, Irwandi is working on the bigger picture. The governor's team is mapping the largest remaining block of rainforest on the entire island of Sumatra. It's an area larger than the state of Maryland, and home to endangered species like orangutans and the Sumatran Rhino. The goal is to come up with the region's first comprehensive plan for sustainable development, but that plan is likely to ruffle a lot of feathers.
DEDE SUHENDRA: This is very brave.
FORD: Dede Suhendra is forestry officer for the Aceh office of the World Wide Fund for Nature.
DEDE: ...because the first time in Indonesia, the first governor to fight with the central government in policy level. They fight with the big company.
FORD: You were surprised?
SUHENDRA: Yes. Surprised, very surprised.
FORD: Dede says it's common for politicians and forest officials in Indonesia to enrich themselves by handing out concessions for logging or plantations. Those who pose obstacles have been known to get death threats. But Dede and other local environmentalists believe that Governor Irwandi's strong political leadership, together with growing grass roots support, present the best chance ever for protecting Aceh's forests. An hour's drive from the capital city Banda Aceh, in Jantoh, a hilly village at the edge of the jungle, local rice farmers have mobilized a volunteer team of forest rangers. Abdullah Salam, a 31-year-old village leader, says the motivation sprouted from the town's rice fields. Abdullah says there's not enough well water in Jantoh to irrigate the fields, so several years ago the World Bank funded a pipe to bring water to the village from a nearby river that flows out of the forest. Now, farmers can get two rice crops a year instead of one. And for the first time, homes here have running water so families no longer have to carry it for miles to wash dishes or scrub the mud off their shoes. Abdullah says villagers know that without the forests, their river will run dry. The forest near the river is threatened by
illegal logging, he says. So villagers started patrolling and with back-up from the local government have successfully enforced the logging ban. Defending the forests benefits more than local residents. Back in the capital Banda Aceh, an assistant to Governor Irwandi, Wibisono Elarious has crunched the numbers and says it also makes financial sense. He says that as forests disappear, flooding increases, and the cost to the government can be huge. The Aceh government spends as much recovering from natural disasters like floods, he says, as it gets from forestry taxes and fees. So the government sees no overall economic benefit to cutting the trees. Wibisono is also helping develop Irwandi's Green Aceh Plan, and he hopes the reward for forest preservation will get even sweeter through the emerging international market in carbon credits. The carbon credits market is part of the growing global effort to provide financial incentives to cut greenhouse gas emissions. A system is now being developed to apply carbon credits to preserving forests. Forests suck up CO2 and their destruction is responsible for an estimated one-fifth of all carbon dioxide emissions. Conservationist and former oilman Michael Griffiths is involved with a carbon trading plan for Aceh's Leuser ecosystem.
MICHAEL GRIFFITHS: There is a general consensus that preserving forest we have in addition planting new ones or restoring old ones, is a very important factor in reducing the rate of climate change.
FORD: In the carbon credits system under discussion, power plants and other sources of carbon dioxide in the US or elsewhere could offset some of their emissions by purchasing credits from Aceh. Aceh, in turn, would make sure its jungles don't fall to the chainsaw.
GRIFFITHS: It's basically like paying someone to protect the forest. If they do a good job, they get their money. If they do a bad job and they lose forest, they actually have to pay money back to the people who bought those credits.
FORD: Governor Irwandi's office says the carbon value for all of Aceh's forests could reach $240 million dollars a year. Michael Griffiths believes such sums could turn the tide in favor of the forests.
GRIFFITHS: Once we get money coming in, I think people will say, â€œWait a minute. Why are we clearing these forests? We're getting rid of our golden goose. This is not smart.â€
FORD: Of course there are plenty of possible pitfalls, not at least of which are Indonesia's chronic corruption and mistrust between government officials and local people. And there are broader concerns that carbon offsets don't actually help cut overall emissions.
GRIFFITHS: The devil is always in the details. How do we make this system work?
FORD: But environmentalists here in Aceh believe that Governor Irwandi's logging moratorium and the emerging carbon market have opened a rare window of opportunity. They say that if Irwandi can complete his green development plan before his term ends in three years, future leaders might find it more difficult to return to forest destruction as usual. For The World, I'm Jocelyn Ford, Aceh, Indonesia.