Indonesia: Hope for the future (and fish) in a Sumatran rainforest

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One of the most exciting conservation initiatives in Asia at the moment is the Harapan Rainforest Initiative in central Sumatra, where I have just stayed for a week.

One of the most exciting conservation initiatives in Asia at the moment is the Harapan Rainforest Initiative in central Sumatra, administered by a trust formed of the RSPB, BirdLife International and Burung Indonesia. I’ve been fortunate to have just stayed there for a week, sleeping out on the forest floor with local teams while being based in their main camp.

As Sukianto Lusli, Burung Indonesia Executive Director, told me with great excitement when he first explained his crazy idea to me years ago, “It’s flat!” This may not mean much to most people, but given that conservation areas tend to be those areas with difficult access, little water, steep topography, and basically the bits that no one else wants, to be in an area managed for conservation that was (more or less) flat was wonderful.

Sixty million hectares of Indonesia (rather less than half the total national forest estate) are officially classified as permanent production forest. Although production forests are by law required to be managed sustainably, much of this forest type has been severely abused because of illegal logging, unsustainable concession management, and conversion to tree crop plantations such as oil palm and acacia. The Indonesian Forestry Department has cancelled the licences of over 163 poorly-managed concessions and suspended the operations of many others.

ImageAt the moment, about half of the production forest estate is not covered by any kind of exploitation licence, making it prone to illegal exploitation. It has thus created new policy frameworks, one of which allows existing logging concession holders to develop non-timber and environmental service-based businesses within their concessions. Another allows licenses for ecological ‘restoration’ for logged-over concessions. The three Harapan partners are now the holders of the first, and so far the only, production forest ‘restoration’ license – valid for 100 years. The total area is expected to be 100,000 hectares.

Part of my visit to Harapan was directly related to my World Bank work because we are preparing a new GEF-financed project with the Ministry of Forestry and Burung Indonesia to conserve globally significant biodiversity through enhancing the sustainability of production forest by developing alternative non-timber income sources. I’ve been speaking, reading and writing about ‘ecosystem restoration concessions’ for more than a year now, and I felt it was high time I actually visited Harapan to better understand firsthand what was required in the management and financing of the area. The Harapan camp is a great place with great people doing a pioneering and far-from-easy job. There are important questions being asked and debated about how to restore; what opportunities this type of forest status provides that a formal conservation area does not; how to work with people living around and in the concession; and how one knows when restoration has been achieved.

Almost all of what you would is expect is in the Harapan forest, which includes at least eight hornbill species and 288 other bird species, elephants, tigers, tapirs, gibbons, and sun bears. It was the last of these which my infra-red camera trap caught on video one night. Don’t blink or you’ll miss it.

The sun bear may be bumbling and short-sighted, but its long, sharp claws and unpredictability make it the most-feared forest animal among the local people.

The other part of my visit was nothing really to do with work but was to take some leave and enjoy being in lowland tropical rainforest – yet to do something useful. I thus brought along my scoop net and with the help of the camp manager, Yusup Cahyadin, and his staff I went fishing. Some years ago I produced a field guide to the fishes of the region with Maurice Kottelat, Ani Kartikasari and Soetikno Wirjoatmadjo – but I hardly ever get the chance nowadays to spend time in the water sieving out the fishes. With Harapan biodiversity staff (funded by a Darwin Initiative grant) and my son Andrew, we drove a wide range of fishes into the net including the ugly Chaca frogmouth, the bizarre halfbeak, and the elegant rasboras (see more fish pictures here). On would expect 60 species from good intensive sampling and we came away with just over 40 recorded. Not so bad.

One morning at 5 am I was aware that there was a male Agile Gibbon calling not so far away from us. Since I was not exactly comfortable adjusting my body to the lumps and sticks beneath me, I put on a wet shirt, shorts and shoes and went off with a shielded head torch. I found him only about 200 meters away from our camp and listened to his occasional piping whistle song. At almost exactly 6 am, when dawn broke, he moved to the end of his bough and launched into the space between him. The family of four then moved off to slightly higher ground and the female and male started their great call. I’ll post the video in due course.

The exciting future is one in which ‘restoration’ policy allows for the full integration of biodiversity conservation objectives into the management of Indonesian production forest. Harapan is very much a former logging concession but, in contrast with so many others which slowly but inexorably degrade, this area is moving in the other direction.

In Indonesian, ‘harapan’ means hope.


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