Once upon a time, Pekanbaru was a sleepy river port town on the Sungai Siak, a sluggish river that drains into the Straits of Malacca. Today, it is Indonesia’s oil capital -- and as some call it, the ‘ground zero’ of the world’s fight against climate change.
To know why, take a flight to Pekanbaru, the capital of Riau province in Sumatra. And remember to look out when the aircraft nears its destination.
Here’s what you’ll see: rows and rows of green acacia mangium plantations in near-perfect geometric pattern standing next to dark, deep tropical rainforests. The area that these plantations now occupy once belonged to the rainforests, the world’s natural carbon sinks. Every time these rainforests are cleared, heat-trapping carbon gases are released, making the battle against climate change a degree stiffer.
Indonesia -- the world’s fourth-most populous country -- has the most extensive rainforest cover in Asia, but driven by a global demand for palm oil (India is the third-largest importer of palm oil, which is found in everything from chocolate bars to biofuels) and timber products, more than 74 million hectares of forest (more than three times the size of Uttar Pradesh) have been logged, degraded, pulped in the last 50 years.
The rate of Indonesia’s forest destruction is about 1.1 million hectares a year. That's what makes it the world’s third-largest greenhouse gas emitter, after the US and China. India comes fourth.
Globally, more than one million hectares of tropical rainforests are destroyed every month, an area of forest the size of a football pitch every two seconds.
But the Copenhagen climate conference could hand out a survival kit for these forests when negotiators discuss a United Nations programme called Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation in Developing Countries (REDD).
This is how the REDD mechanism will work: when you preserve a patch of rainforest, you prevent a certain amount of carbon from entering the atmosphere. This saving can then be converted into millions of carbon-offset credits, which can be sold to rich countries and companies trying to meet their emissions reduction targets.
This new mechanism will become part of the next (post-2012) phase of the Kyoto Protocol. The UN estimates that REDD revenues could pump up to $30 billion a year into the developing world.
“Stopping forest destruction around the globe is one of the quickest and most cost-effective ways to combat climate change,” said Greenpeace Southeast Asia campaigner Bustar Maitar.
However, critics say that funds generated from the REDD mechanism should not go to afforestation and plantations, as they have doubtful carbon sequestration value, but only to stopping deforestation and then to natural regeneration of forest areas.
The Indian government supports REDD and wants it to not only cover protection of existing forests but also its afforestation programmes. A fifth of India is forest, which absorbs about 11 per cent of the country’s carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions.
“At a time when the Indian government refuses to acknowledge the rights of forest-dwellers, stamping a financial value on forests and bringing in private companies interested in earning carbon credits are an invitation to land grabbing,” warned Shankar Gopalakrishnan of the Campaign for Survival and Dignity.
Meanwhile in Riau, the fight against deforestation has run into resistance. Regular clashes between the police and activists and forest dwellers trying to stop paper and palm oil companies from destroying forests have been reported.
Stories of corruption in the forest ministry involving issuance of logging permits and companies bribing politicians have also been doing the rounds.
In November, activists and forest-dwellers took on APRIL, one of the world’s largest pulp and paper companies, to expose destruction of Riau’s forests. They forced the Indonesian government to suspend APRIL’s operations pending a review of their permits. Two weeks later, Greenpeace activists targeted APRIL rival, Sinar Mas-owned APP, and stopped their export operations in Perawang, Riau.
At Copenhagen, there will be debates over the effectiveness of REDD, its financing model and whether it should be part of a carbon trading scheme. But at the end, 54-year-old Muhamad Nasir’s question will show the way forward: “This forest belongs to the people. What would happen to our grandchildren if there was no forest?"
Or that of tribal Mustaki Kanna of Bastar, Chhattisgarh: “Without forests, we are nothing. Can we ever survive without them?”