If the ground beneath my feet last week could talk, it could tell a long story of land and logging, crime and conservation — the kind of story that defines rainforest politics.
I had come to Sebangau National Park in Central Kalimantan, Indonesia to learn about its potential to protect the Bornean orangutan, a species whose total population is so small it could not fill all the seats at a World Cup football stadium.
The park is immense. It covers over half a million hectares of former logging concessions and though it is far from pristine it is home to around 7,000 orangutans — more than live anywhere else.
A race is on to restore the park’s vegetation and ecology so it can support these apes, but the scale of deforestation and the nature of the land make this job immense.
When timber companies controlled the area they took advantage of the fact that much of it was waterlogged peat swamp.
They dug deep a network of canals, totalling more than 4,000 kilometres in length, so they could float the logs towards their saw mills and the sea.
After the legal loggers left (between 1990 and 2000), illegal ones moved in and stole what was left of the biggest, most valuable trees. For a while the situation was out of control.
Dr Agus Djoko Ismanto worked for the ministry of forestry at that time. He told me how, by blocking the main canals in 2006, he once confiscated a million logs that had been illegally felled in the area.
But the missing trees were only part of the park’s problems. Water was missing too.
A peat swamp is like a giant sponge and its tree species like it that way. They have evolved to enjoy drinking the swamp’s dark, acidic water through their roots and many are found nowhere else on the planet.
But the canals bled the swamp dry and carried its water out of the forest and into the rivers and then the sea.
As the swamp dried out, more of its trees died and its deposits of peat — in places nine metres deep –became the perfect fuel for forest fires.
Soon vast areas were ablaze and the air was choked with a thick haze. The entire ancient ecosystem risked going up in smoke.
Since 2004 when Indonesia turned the area into a national park, staff have tried to rehabilitate the forest by blocking canals to re-wet the peat and by planting trees that orang-utans can one day use.
I visited the park last week with a group of specialists who had come together to share lessons about how to protect apes, reduce human poverty and limit climate change — ideally all at once.
The national park managers showed us before and after photographs that revealed how they were slowly turning a wasteland into something that once more resembled a forest. Since 2005, they have planted more than a million trees on 5,000 hectares of the burnt and deforested land. In 2012, they aim to plant trees on another 2,000 hectares.
This is just a start. Because forests like that at Sebangau store vast quantities of carbon below ground in their buried peat and above ground in their trees, they can play an important role in limiting climate change.
It means that efforts to reforest Sebangau could be among the first projects in line for funding under an international scheme called REDD+ that will allow polluting companies and countries to offset their carbon emissions by paying to plant trees and protect forests.
This makes clear economic and environmental sense. A recent report from the UN Great Apes Survival Partnership (GRASP) calculated the carbon value of swamp forests in Sumatra, Indonesia to be US$7,420-US$22,090 per hectare over 25 years. Converting forests to oil palm plantations, which is the most productive alternative land use in Indonesia, would only yield US$7,832 per hectare. (Read more at CIFOR’s blog)
For REDD+ to become real, the companies, countries and even individuals who emit the most greenhouse gases will need to accept that their activities contribute to climate change and be willing to pay for their pollution. If so, they could fund large-scale reforestation in places like Sebangau.
When I went there I visited an area where such as REDD+ project could take off. And after years of studying, writing about (and, yes, even hugging) trees, I finally got around to planting one myself.
What good is one little tree in a land that has lost several million?
Well, it is a tree fit for an ape, an ape that will disperse thousands of other seeds of other trees in its lifetime, and just the idea that one day an orangutan might visit the tree I planted is enough for me. And it is special because I know it is just the first of many I will plant.
If the ground beneath my feet last week could talk, it could tell a long story with hope at its heart — a story whose ending will be decided by us all.