Jakarta. Since the APRIL Group, a major pulp and paper producer, started an ecosystem restoration program in Riau six years ago, wildlife has been returning to the forest, while most ecological functions have been restored and forest fires reduced to the lowest point in four years.
The Jakarta Globe had an opportunity recently to speak with Nyoman Iswarayoga, external affairs director at Restorasi Ekosistem Riau (RER), a private sector-led collaborative project to restore and conserve peat forest areas in the province.
Nyoman was previously with the Indonesian chapter of the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), where he started and managed its climate and energy program before becoming director of communication and advocacy.
RER recently released its annual report detailing progress in the program. In a concession area twice the size of Singapore – 150,000 hectares – the RER team continues its work to restore the hydrological functions of the forest, with the support of local communities
The following is an edited and condensed version of the conversation.
Let's talk about RER; what exactly needs to be restored?
The government, when it comes to forest management, has a lot that needs to be protected, and there are some areas that have been identified as 'degraded,' therefore the government has given an opportunity to companies to help restore ecosystems that are considered degraded.
In the context of RER, there is a wide variety of degradation levels in peatlands, where the forest coverage no longer exists due to logging, be it legal or otherwise. In the case of peatland, it can also degrade if it was never managed in the first place, it becomes dry.
Why did it dry out? Because when the area was used for logging, canals had to be created to transport the lumber. So there's a lot of [manmade] canals in the forest that lead to the rivers.
In the context of peatland restoration in RER, this is exactly what needs to be restored, recovering the hydrological functions while we are also returning the forest cover, so the forest ecosystem can be restored and moisture can return.
And that is what it means to restore the hydrological functions of the forest?
Precisely, the water surface and humidity levels of the peatland itself; naturally the forest stores moisture and when the moisture evaporates, the forest debris become dry and prone to burning during the dry season.
What was the lowest point of degradation of the forest?
The first license of ecosystem restoration under RER program was issued in 2012, RER area was previously licensed under Access to Forest Rights [HPH]. So that was the condition of the forest when it was handed to us; the forest coverage was not necessarily in dire condition, there were patches where it was clearly used for logging, which we eventually helped recover, but overall, about 70 percent of the forest was in moderate to good condition.
We did do some replanting, not necessarily hard planting, but our efforts were more focused on helping the forest recover by itself. The scientific term for this is 'assisted natural regeneration,' because natural forests have this ability.
But one of our main concerns is also restoring the hydrological functions, as I have said before.
Since we started the operations for ecosystem restoration in 2013, up until now, we have identified 44 canals with a combined length of 172 kilometers. One of our main tasks is to close those canals. On paper, 170 kilometers might be as long as a trip from Jakarta to Bogor [in West Java] and back, and that would be a trip made on clear and open roads, but if we take a look at the restoration area, reaching some of the deepest parts of the forest especially in peatland. is no small feat, and the only route we can take is via the river, so closing the canals is one of our greatest challenges.
We've closed about 38 percent of the canals, or around 65 kilometers, using our method, which involves starting from the outermost area and continuing deeper [into the forest], so we can't really hope going forward that this number will increase exponentially, because the deeper we go, the harder it is to reach these areas, and our progress will become slower. We managed to accomplish what we did because the initial areas were relatively easy to reach.
Furthermore, we use sandbags to close the canals. Each bag weighs around 25 to 30 kilograms, and the team must carry them by hand. About 200 bags are needed for each canal we close. Mobilizing the materials to the location for the damming to accomplish this is a challenge in itself.
Is RER working with any other company besides APRIL Group?
APRIL is what we would call the initiator; they started the RER program and helped us with restoration and conservation experts. We're working with two other parties, the first being Fauna & Flora International, who helps in assessing the assessment of biodiversity and carbon stock in RER. We are also working with Bidara to build a working program with the community.
What is RER’s top priority when it comes to conservation?
We have four approaches, which is protect, assess, restore and manage. Our main priority is to protect, because if we don't protect [the forest], people might abuse it. Before we can restore the balance in the forest ecosystem and have it assessed by the Ministry of Environment and Forestry, not a single tree is to be cut down.
Despite our best efforts, there will always be some people that seek to open a plot, use fire to clear land, and that's what we need to protect it from. Meanwhile, we've also found that our restoration area is home to diverse species of animals and plants, some of which are endangered.
Which endangered animals inhabit the RER area?
Some of the animals that were captured on our camera traps were Sumatran tigers and Sunda pangolins – both are classified as critically endangered and still hunted [by poachers] for selling. Riau is known as a source to these poachers; there is still high demand for pangolins, for example. Most of these animals end up in East Asia, where a belief persists that pangolin meat has special properties.
And there is no specific method to find these animals?
These animals were identified using our camera traps. We then were able to identify the presence of the Sumatran tiger, along with other smaller wild cats.
We rotate the placement of the cameras, moving them from one place to another to identify the various species inhabiting the RER area. Once we know where certain species are located, we can start to concentrate on those areas for more assessment of the identified species, because we still don't know precisely which areas these animals inhabit.
There is a technique, but it's not necessarily easy to pull off in the forest, because we search for these animals by looking for their tracks, urine stains and scratch marks. And in the peatland forest, the tracks usually disappear within an hour, unlike in dryer areas, where the tracks can be visible for up to a day. This is why it's harder to encounter these animals.
How are the fire prevention efforts going?
Thankfully, since 2015 until today, there has been no forest fire, although there are still dry areas prone to burning. This is due to our production-protection landscape approach, protection in this context is the ecosystem restoration, while production refers to the APRIL Group's concession areas.
If we take a look at our map here, the darkest green represents the conservation area that has been assessed and holds a high conservation value, while the lighter green area surrounding it is the APRIL Group's concession area, so we're helped for the protection by having the concession area as an additional layer of protection for the conservation area.
Additionally, there are no communities living within the restoration or conservation area; there are some fishermen who fish on the Kampar River, but the threat is minimal and we monitor who enters and leaves the river and we're working together with the fisherman to help identify the species of fish that inhabit the river. But we've also been prohibiting any items that might potentially start fires, such as stoves and matches, because human negligence is not something we can predict.