End of funding dims hopes for a Sumatran forest targeted by palm oil growers

The Harapan lowland rainforest in Sumatra, one of only 36 global biodiversity hotspots, could be lost to oil palm plantations within the next five years.

Its name in Indonesian means “hope,” but there seems to be little of that remaining for the Harapan rainforest, a tropical woodland oasis in an ever-expanding desert of oil palm plantations in Sumatra.

The Harapan rainforest is one of the last remaining expanses of lowland forest left on the island and could disappear in five years, swallowed up by encroaching palm plantations, after losing the main source of funding still keeping it on the map.

Its demise would mean the loss of one of just 36 IUCN-recognised global biodiversity hotspots, and the end of a key habitat for nine globally threatened species, including Sumatran tigers, with a population of around 400, and Storm’s storks, the rarest of all storks, with fewer than 500 left in the wild.Since 2011, the Danish government has been the main funder keeping the Harapan rainforest alive, providing technical assistance and financial support to the tune of $12.7 million. The money is channeled through the NGO Burung Indonesia, the local affiliate of BirdLife International, to REKI, a private company established to manage the forest. Much of the funding is spent on patrolling the forest to prevent illegal encroachment by palm farmers.

But the Danish government will cease its support at the end of this year, and there’s no other source of funding in sight to fill the gap. Rasmus Abildgaard Kristensen, the Danish ambassador to Indonesia, says the decision to end the funding has nothing to do with the project itself.

“This has to do with the general slowly phasing out [of] Danish development assistance to Indonesia,” he says. “The traditional development assistance is unfortunately being slowly being phased out, as many other countries are doing. Of course, Indonesia is becoming wealthier and you’re developing. And so at some point in time, this” — the end of financial assistance — “will have to come.”

With just a few months to go until the money dries up, Kristensen says no new donors have been found for the Harapan rainforest, and that leaves him concerned about the future of the forest.

“To be honest, I’m worried,” he says. “I’m very worried that unless we find another international donor to come in, and unless you keep paying for patrolling [to prevent encroachment], this [forest] will be gone in five years.”

Restoration project

Between 1985 and 1997, the islands of Sumatra, Sulawesi and Kalimantan, the Indonesian portion of Borneo, lost 60 per cent of their lowland forest, a region rivaling the Amazon for sheer abundance of species. Lowland rainforests have disappeared particularly fast because they are most accessible for logging, plantation and mining development. As a result, they are regarded as among the most threatened forests in the world.

Given the rates of degradation and conversion, it was predicted that the lowland forests of Sumatra would be wiped out by 2005.

Harapan beat the odds, and 13 years after its predicted expiry date still spans 769 square kilometers (300 square miles), representing 40 per cent of the remaining global habitat of this particular forest type. But in that time it’s lost a quarter of its area, largely to the relentless creep of oil palm estates.

When Denmark started funding the restoration of Harapan seven years ago, Kristensen says, there were “another three to four” similar expanses of lowland forest in the region. “Now they’re gone. They’ve all turned into palm oil, so this is the only one left,” he says.

What spared Harapan from being fully razed for plantations was its status as an ecosystem restoration concession, or ERC. The Indonesian government defines ERCs as former state-run logging concessions that private companies can license for restoration. The idea is to prevent these degraded logging sites from being permanently converted to palm plantations or smallholder farmland, by restoring them to their previous forested state.

Harapan became the first licensed ERC in Indonesia in 2008. Since then, 16 ERC licenses have been issued for a combined area of 6,230 square kilometers (2,400 square miles), representing 35 per cent of the total land that the government intends to license as ERCs.

Fire in the forest

Teguh spends her days in the Harapan forest hunting for softshell turtles and gathering rattan and dammar gum.

“We still search for food in the forest. There are still animals that we eat, such as fish. We also eat fruits and tubers,” she says.

Teguh, 39, is a member of the Batin Sembilan indigenous group, who number around 1,000 and lead a semi-nomadic life inside the Harapan forest. But the outside world eating away at the forest has also had an impact on the Batin Sembilan.

“In the past, we rarely got sick,” Teguh says. “If one of us ever got sick, we believed it was caused by the devil. But now we often fall ill because there’s often haze here. This haze is caused by the encroachers, who burn the forest every dry season.”

Slash-and-burn forest clearing has long been a hallmark of Indonesia’s palm oil industry, paving the way for vast estates of palm monoculture on land once brimming with biodiversity. The burning and resultant haze were particularly severe in 2015, the year Teguh says her entire family fell sick.

“Our eyes were burning and our throats were sore,” she recalls.

Even when the forest isn’t burning, the fires leave their mark. Like many indigenous forest communities around the world, the Batin Sembilan have a rich encyclopedic knowledge of medicinal plants, but the scorched earth yields nothing.

“Now it takes us four to five hours to look for medicinal herbs, because they only grow in forests that still have good [tree] cover and have never been burned,” Teguh says. “For forests that have been burned, there are fewer medicinal herbs.”


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