Timescales can be tricky in forest restoration. We might have the best arguments in the world for why it makes environmental and economic sense to plant trees and let them grow. But most people don’t have the financial flexibility to invest time and resources into planting and then wait years – or decades – for the benefits to start rolling in.
“If we want to restore a landscape,” says Fitri Aini, a scientist at the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR), “we also have to think about the outcomes for the local community in the surrounding area. If it doesn’t give them quick benefits, one day they’ll return to the forest and cut it down because they need the cash to survive.”
That’s why Fitri and her colleagues at CIFOR, alongside Siti Maemunah from Muhammadiyah University, are exploring ways of planting tree crops for bio-energy that deliver both short- and long-term benefits for communities.
A FRESH EYE FOR ABANDONED LANDS
Central Kalimantan is one of five Indonesian provinces on the island of Borneo. It hosts dense tropical forests, remote and hard-to-reach highland areas, and vast areas of low-lying peatland swamps. Its fast-growing population consists of a collection of culturally-distinct indigenous groups known collectively as the Dayak – many of whom continue to practice traditional farming methods such as shifting cultivation and slash-and-burn techniques.
The area also has the largest area of degraded land of any province in Indonesia: around 7.2 million hectares. This is largely due to forest conversion for other types of land use, such as agriculture and open-cast mining. In recent years, the increasing incidence of forest fire has escalated land degradation in Central Kalimantan, and most of the burned land – including peatland – has been left abandoned as the soil’s fertility has declined.
Deforestation is a leading cause of global carbon emissions, and peatland degradation is particularly dire; these ecosystems store vast amounts of carbon underground, which is released into the atmosphere when they are burned or drained. As such, reforesting peatlands makes a lot of sense from a climate-change-mitigation perspective
In this project, the scientists were also curious as to whether the degraded lands could prove a useful site for growing bioenergy crops. The Indonesian government aims to boost the country’s biodiesel and bioethanol energy share to 30 percent and 20 percent, respectively, by 2025. Currently the amount of biofuel production in the country falls far short of that. So here lies an opportunity: can degraded, abandoned peatlands like Central Kalimantan’s provide useful sites for bioenergy crops– even sequestering more carbon underground in the process?
« a number of NGOs have already visited…to establish [livelihood] programs…but not all of those programs gave good results »
CAN TAMANU TICK ALL THE BOXES?
The scientists tested out a number of tree species that might have all the attributes they need: high bio-energy yield, the ability to thrive in degraded peatland, and the provision of other options for income generation.
One species that stood out was tamanu [Calophyllum inophyllum].
Called ‘nyamplung’ by locals, the tree yields up to 20 tons of crude oil per hectare every year. Its timber has been used in Indonesia since ancient times, most famously for ships’ masts as it grows straight and tall in sandy, rocky coastal soil.
But the tree’s profile has risen of late as cosmetics companies switch on to the moisturizing and skin-healing properties of the tamanu kernels’ thick, fragrant deep-green oil. Its newfound popularity as a cosmetic product is such that, despite tamanu being native to Indonesia, the country is now a net importer of the oil. “So there’s a market here, if we can access it,” says Aini
What’s more, the tree is also a favorite for bees, with honey production using tamanu plantations having already proven to be extremely profitable in another CIFOR study in Wonogiri District, Java.
ONCE BITTEN, TWICE SHY
In the Central Kalimantan study, the researchers approached local communities that had recently been granted management of degraded peatlands from the government, and proposed planting an experimental plot of tamanu trees.
“Restoration belongs to the community, as they are owners of the peatlands,” says Aini. And initially, community members were skeptical. “It’s not easy, because a number of NGOs have already visited them there and tried to establish [livelihood] programs,” she explains, “but not all of those programs gave good results. So we had to discuss it with them in great detail and provide a lot of information about what we have found in previous research and what benefits they are likely to gain in the future.”
« …there’s a market here, if we can access it »
Local farmers agreed to set aside 50 hectares of degraded peatland for planting tamanu in January 2019. Pak Misran, one of these farmers, told Aini that he is interested in joining the program because he hopes to have additional income from nyamplung in the future. The farmers and partners will still need to cultivate ten times that area – around 500 hectares – to gain the income required to build a processing factory and extract bioenergy. “But before that happens, there are some other benefits that the local farmers will be able to enjoy much earlier on,” says Aini. “They can set up beehives and sell honey, and they can also sell small quantities of the oil for high prices to cosmetics companies.”
It’s not yet clear how fruitful the crops will prove as a bioenergy source: there’s a chance the tamanu trees may not produce enough kernels to make bioenergy production viable, says Aini, due to the waterlogged condition of the soil. “So we still have to wait until next year when we get the fruit,” she notes.
However, even if all the other economic possibilities fall through, the farmers will still be able to fell the trees for their valuable wood – though the scientists, of course, are hoping it doesn’t come to that. Whatever the case, in this particular project, “the benefit to the local community is the most important part,” reiterates Aini. “And we’re pretty sure that it will increase community awareness [about the benefits of reforestation] along the way as well.”