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The complexity, and simplicity, of forest restoration in Riau, Sumatra

In this post I consider what restoration means on the ground in the province of Riau, Sumatra. Shortly before the pandemic lockdown, I visited a plantation being managed by forest product firm APRIL, a major supplier to viscose company Asia Pacific Rayon. I found there are some surprising ways to protect and restore forests. 

Edge of preserved forest reserve, Sumatra, Indonesia, September 2019

The term “restoration” is used ever more frequently in the deforestation debate – indeed, 2021 to 2030 is the UN Decade of Ecosystem Restoration. According to IUCN, in 2020 “the world’s biggest forest landscape restoration (FLR) initiative reached the massive achievement of 210m hectares of degraded and deforested landscapes pledged to restoration through the Bonn Challenge”. The Bonn Challenge is an initiative that seeks to bring 150m hectares of degraded and deforested landscapes into restoration by 2020 and 350m hectares by 2030. To this end, pledged restoration is clearly a good start.

The long-term business case for forest/landscape/ecosystem restoration is clear. As academics have noted: “…scientists have estimated that restored forests could sequester up to 16% of the carbon needed to limit global warming to less than 2C above pre-industrial levels, while generating some $84bn in assets such as timber and erosion control”.

In September 2019, I visited Indonesia as a guest of APRIL and Asia Pacific Rayon (APR) to see what ecosystem protection and forest restoration looks like in practice in Riau province, Sumatra.

APRIL and APR are subsidiaries of the Royal Golden Eagle group, based in Singapore. Combining several businesses, it is the largest viscose producer in the world. Sateri is the Chinese-based viscose operation, and APR is the Indonesia-based operation of RGE, alongside RGE fibre supplier APRIL. As part of its commitment to reforestation, the company operates a project called Restorasi Ekosistem Riau (RER), which brings together groups from both private and public sectors to restore and conserve ecologically important peat forest areas on Indonesia’s Kampar peninsula. As part of APRIL’s 2030 work, this project is funded by the company’s commitment to having $1 per tonne of plantation fibre harvested go towards forest restoration and conservation.

Fisherman’s hut, close to forest preservation area

Over several days and many hours in light aircraft, off-road vehicles, small boats and on foot, I saw the new APR viscose plant at Kerinci, smallholder farmer training facilities, some of the RER forest reserves on the Kampar peninsula, community rubber plantations, bird breeding boxes, fishing grounds, villages, greenhouse gas emissions monitoring towers and a forest restoration nursery.

$100m investment

APRIL has committed $100m to protect 150,000 hectares of forest under the RER programme on the Kampar peninsula. This is as pristine as Riau natural forest gets. Upon visiting, it is clear that protecting this forest is as much about working with local communities as managing hydrology and other environmental issues.

For APRIL, there are several kinds of restoration. One is natural restoration, another is human-initiated active restoration, and a third is a mix – assisted natural regeneration. According to Craig Tribolet, sustainability operations manager at APRIL, natural restoration is, where conditions are appropriate, far more effective than the alternatives. It is simpler, cheaper and in most cases has significantly better ecological outcomes in the long term.

Big trees felled and cut, possibly left by illegal loggers some years before

The numbers show this clearly. Active restoration has resulted in the restoration of 34 hectares since 2015, whereas 58,000 hectares have begun to be restored by natural processes in the same period. Natural restoration area means fencing off the degraded forest edge and letting nature do its work. But the human factor is key here. Edges of forest are ripe for encroachment by local communities, who seek resources to make ends meet or to convert land for agriculture.

APRIL’s plan for restoration then is highly dependent on working with communities to have them value the forest, stop encroachment, and leave degraded areas alone to be revitalised naturally. The logging gangs who once cut deep and long canals into RER, to take the biggest trees, have long since departed, now that APRIL has control of the area under long-term agreements with the Indonesian government. 24-hour monitoring, in partnership with communities, means any encroachments are minor and resolved quickly.

I mentioned bird nest boxes earlier. Some of the villages I saw there have stacks of large birdhouses next to the villagers’ houses. These are for swiftlets to nest in. When chicks have been hatched and depart, those birds’ nests are sold to Chinese traders by the villagers for bird’s nest soup, popular in China. The price can be as high as $1,000 per kilo. This clearly helps the villagers value the forest, where the birds feed, and creates a kind of ecosystem services payment for them to farm the nests sustainably. This is an excellent example of the sorts of local innovation necessary to create the incentives to keep forests standing and drive the cultural changes needed, persuading local communities to value standing forest rather than simply cutting it down.

This is not the only way to create a local business case for forest/ecosystem restoration. Fire management in Indonesia has made global headlines since 2015. Thousands have died across the region, mainly in Indonesia.

The author, in makeshift jungle kit, September 2019

From fire free to sustainable rural development

Fire management in practice, on the ground in Riau, close to Singapore geographically, has taught APRIL valuable lessons in how to create incentives for communities to value nature and seek sustainable crop and income diversification, rather than focusing on land conversion alone.

Here’s how it works. Rather than telling villagers not to set fires, APRIL, through their Fire Free Villages programme, which now covers 750,000 hectares, works with communities to understand better the dangers of haze, for children in particular. Once that message is understood, a community meeting is called to decide how to address practically the root causes of smoke haze. One main reason for the haze-causing burning is land preparation for crop planting. A solution to that is assisting farmers with mechanised land preparation, which means they don’t need to burn that land. Training in sustainable agriculture is also offered, which also helps persuade farmers that burning is not required.

As part of the discussion, the community is asked what kind of local infrastructure APRIL can fund for them as an incentive for not setting fires. The agreement is that the community sets no fires during the all-important dry season. In return, some form of local infrastructure will be funded by the company. The result is that since 2013/14, land burning by communities has been reduced by 90%.

Honey from bees feeding on Acacia plantations. These stingless bees help villagers diversify income on the edge of the forest, ringed by plantations for pulp and paper

Many of these initiatives began before the terrible fire season of 2015, and much has been learned since that time. Craig Tribolet says that within two years of offering an incentive (a road, a bridge or a mosque, for example), the conversation with the community changes. As a result of agricultural training and access to better tools, many of them value their land differently. The conversation changes from one about not burning land, which they understand, to one about crop diversification and issues around sustainable rural development, without burning land. That’s when the company can apply further resources, in partnership with others, to assist communities to gain better market and product marketing access for the increased number of crops or products they can grow or make. Acacia honey is another example of an additional product.

Moving forwards, the focus is on having communities valuing land and what they have, and the forest and areas marked for restoration, much more than in the past. From comic books to civil society leaders backing the value of unburned land, education has been a critical factor in creating a more sophisticated conversation, Tribolet says.

“For about two years, we will need to pay a community fee or incentive for forest protection, but if we get the programme right, within those two years, that incentive will not be the key driver,” he notes. Social pressure will be key. Villagers have pride in their improved communities. “We haven’t quite got there yet … that behavioural change on forest protection, but studies are showing us the potential for this approach.”

This example of how the fire-free village programme can create non-cash incentives and drive cultural change, shows that, in turn, they can help communities value unconverted land and can be persuaded to set it set aside for natural restoration on the edges of existing forest. This approach is not just for forest edges and is also applied to patches of remaining forest around where communities live.

Smallholder farmer training facility, Sumatra, Indonesia, September 2019

Return on investment

APRIL has found there is a huge return on investment with regard to fire protection. Tribolet says: “A rough initial estimate was $1 spent could see $5 in savings – reduced firefighting and equipment maintenance costs and reduced lost or damaged assets. While the actual amount varies year to year due to the varying nature of fires annually, we have seen savings in any one year from baseline ranging from $15 to $25 per $1 spent.” He notes too that the regulatory environment, led by the Indonesian government in response to the 2015 fire crisis, has also had a significant impact on reducing unmanaged fire use.

That business case has helped APRIL and APR develop the longer-term strategy and business case for investing in assisting communities to become more resilient, ultimately delivering forest protection. “We haven’t had one single land claim in our fire-free villages in the last seven years,” Tribolet says – due to working closely with communities.

There are other examples that I came across of this combination of incentives and cultural change helping protect and restore forest while allowing for continued traditional forest uses that are sustainable. There are five villages with around 17,000 villagers on the Kampar river on the southern border of the RER project.

Villagers fish in the forest rivers, often remaining in the forest for two or three weeks at a time. In the past, they have used fire to clear forest vegetation to increase fishing access, poisons and/or electric shock to make it easier and faster to catch more fish. In the long run, however, this harmed their livelihood through over-fishing and killing young stock, not to mention being illegal. With long and consistent engagement to develop trust, formal agreements have been developed and monitored to ensure these harmful and unsustainable methods are no longer used and to value the fresh, clean water resources provided by the forest, which leads to more abundant and healthy fish stocks.

Nursery for forest restoration, with various species, Sumatra, September 2019

These examples may sound trite, small scale and specific to this region. They are, though, vitally important in two ways. Firstly, to create those economic incentives to value forest land and its edges, where natural restoration can take place over years or decades. Secondly, to drive that cultural change in terms of local people understanding their value, and taking pride in their protection.

The company’s long-term goal is to create ever more sustainable communities on its concession borders (all land in Indonesia is owned by the state). These can help protect the forest by acting as living human-oriented buffer zones to protect forest edges and incentivise rehabilitating patchwork forest areas in and around communities. Here, the time horizons are far beyond the three to five years many companies plan for in more developed nations. This is a decades-long strategy, with production/protection at its heart, and using the “nature needs half” paradigm increasingly in use around land planning. That approach says as its headline: “protect 50% of the planet by 2030”. APRIL and APR’s 2030 plan is aligned with this.

APRIL and APR have shared their work with other big companies working in other landscapes in Indonesia. Approaches cannot be cut and pasted, but the principles and lessons learned to date have been used by companies elsewhere on the issue of fire prevention. The question now is how should this next set of lessons be best shared, as the companies operating in Sumatra shift from fire-free villages to forest positive communities.

Forest GHG monitoring tower. These 50 meter towers allow accurate measurement of GHGs from natural forest, Sumatra, Indonesia, September 2019

And so what?….

APRIL’s work, you might argue, is highly specific to their region. Their innovations that lead to understanding how restoration is possible certainly are, and should be, locally centred. But what this example shows is the possibilities to create workable plans to restore forests by focusing on the wider issues at play in making that happen. The way to drive forest and ecosystem restoration may not be to focus on it as a narrow goal, as with the concerns about strategies that value CO2 above everything else.

The economist John Kay calls this approach “obliquity” and summarises it thus: “If you want to go in one direction, the best route may involve going in the other. Paradoxical as it sounds, goals are more likely to be achieved when pursued indirectly. So, the most profitable companies are not the most profit-oriented, and the happiest people are not those who make happiness their main aim.” Forest management, Kay writes, “illustrates obliquity: the preservation of the forest is not best pursued directly, but managed through a holistic approach that considers and balances multiple objectives”.

This felt much more than 50m in height. Looking down on the edge of forest reserve, Sumatra, Indonesia, September 2019

The example of APRIL and APR’s work to date clearly shows this to be true: to restore and protect forests, we must focus on making the lives of communities sustainably prosperous. As a result, we can restore nature far more effectively.

This raises important issues about forest assessment methodologies used to understand the deforestation impacts of the viscose supply chain. Methodologies developed by some NGOs appear to penalise producers in countries such as Indonesia, where deforestation is more recent by comparison with those in much of Europe, where deforestation happened centuries ago.

By taking a more nuanced view of deforestation, brands sourcing viscose from well-managed suppliers in countries such as Indonesia could also positively impact implementation of sustainable development more broadly. Therefore, the key sourcing decision should be based on the supply chain practices of individual suppliers rather than on broad-brush assessment methodologies of countries as a whole.

Here’s a short video with Brad Sanders, APRIL’s head of operations, on the edge of forest reserve, discussing GHG monitoring of forests in Sumatra via GHG towers.

Here’s another short video looking at species and restoration of forests in the same area. Also with Brad Sanders. Both by the author.

Here also is a podcast I recorded with Brad, in the middle of the forest, about why we were there, and the work they are doing protecting what is left, and restoring what they can.

This is an excerpt from Innovation Forum’s Sustainable Apparel Barometer 2021, which you can find in full here:

*APRIL is a customer of Innovation Forum and sponsors events and research that we produce. I’d suggest that their financial support does not influence what I write but you can make up your own mind, having read the above.