Most governments consider establishing protected areas like national parks where human presence is forbidden as the best way to conserve tropical forests. However, given economic demands, societal pressure on land, and the cost of forest protection, protected areas are unlikely to ever constitute more than a minor part of the tropical landscape.
Some conservationists now propose combining protected areas with logging concessions to sustain larger forest landscapes than possible via protected areas alone. When logging concessions — parcels of natural forest leased out to companies to harvest natural timber — are additional to protected areas, they present an opportunity to maintain larger and better-connected forest landscapes. This approach has the merit of generating income and employment — arguably making it easier to gain political and public support for conservation.
The integration of logging concessions in a forest protection strategy makes sense in countries such as Indonesia, where management of protected areas remains weak, where the government seeks economic opportunities for its people, where the urgency for conservation action is high, and where logging concessions are de facto a kind of protected area because their conversion to plantations is prohibited.
Timber harvesting in Indonesia’s logging concessions is selective. Concession managers cut only commercially valuable trees larger than a certain diameter, leaving other trees standing for long-term regeneration. Between two and 20 trees are typically removed from each hectare of forest, once every few decades. Generally, this leaves more than 90 percent of the trees standing, and the remaining vegetation recognizably constitutes a forest.
Not only does selective logging maintain a forest structure, but also a logged tropical forest can remain a biologically rich forest. A recent global study concluded that timber extraction in tropical forests has relatively benign impacts on biodiversity, because 85 percent to 100 percent of mammal, bird, invertebrate, and plant species richness remains in forests that have been harvested once. Thus it appears that logging concessions could be used as a conservation intervention to protect Indonesian forests. These observations come with caveats, however.
We only expect logging concessions to maintain forest cover if they are not reclassified for oil palm or Acacia (paper-pulp) plantations. This is a crucial point, because although logging concession areas are officially required to keep a permanent forest cover, their classification is easily changeable. For example, between 2000 and 2010, the Indonesia national and provincial governments reclassified 25 percent of areas allocated for natural timber harvesting in Kalimantan for use as oil palm plantations, which essentially legalized deforestation.
Logged forests have also been excluded from the recent moratorium on new plantations in forested areas, so their conversion could continue. There is little doubt that the reclassification of logged forests into industrial plantations has been facilitated by the pervasive judgment that equates logged forests with “degraded” or “secondary,” undeserving of conservation concern.
If we paid greater attention to the value of logged forests, the protection gains may have been even better. Policymakers, officials and concession staff should all be encouraged to take pride in the value of well-managed logged forests and their global conservation values. The creation in 2004 of the 5,700-square-kilometer Sebangau National Park, an area logged throughout the 1990s but containing the largest contiguous orangutan population on Borneo, indicates that Government of Indonesia is recognizing the value of logged forests for biodiversity conservation. The government should go further in this direction, and designate all its remaining logging concessions as protected areas under the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) Protected Area Category VI to protect them from reclassification into plantations.
The World Database of Protected Areas contains many examples of permanent forest reserves where hardwood extraction occurs. For example, adding Kalimantan’s logging concessions to the existing protected-area network would increase the permanently protected forest in Kalimantan by 248,305 square kilometers.
Such changes would require a shift in mindset on the part of producers, governments, and conservation groups, especially because government policy presently does not guarantee timber concessions permanent status as natural forest.
Still, such a decision would have long-term benefits for wildlife and the maintenance of ecosystem services from forests, while continuing the generation of income from forests. Such changes are required to achieve sustainable forestry practices, long the stated goal of the Ministry of Forestry; moreover, a permanent and inviolate forest estate like this would also have value under the future of Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation (REDD+) programs, in which Indonesia would receive payments for reduced forest loss and damage.
Indonesia’s government has taken steps toward the long-term maintenance of its logged forests. In recognition of the importance of logging concessions for biodiversity, economic development, and social aspirations, the government launched the Ecosystem Restoration concept in 2007. The ecosystem restoration license is granted to companies for a period of 60 years and can be extended once for another 35 years. The aim is to enable heavily logged forests to recover their potential to produce commercial timber while maintaining a minimum level of ecosystem services.
The initiative has had a slow start, however, and as of 2012, only 1,005 square kilometers in two areas — about 0.9 percent of Kalimantan’s total concession area — had been granted an ecosystem restoration license.
A major impediment to the permanent protection of logged forests in Indonesia is the high economic potential of oil palm plantations. The returns on plantations are much higher than returns from timber harvesting in natural forests. The conversion of logged forests to plantations makes short-term economic sense. What may be overlooked in the political decision-making regarding such land-use conversions are the significant values of natural forests to the wellbeing of many of Kalimantan’s people. This includes not only people living close to these forests, but also the many people in downstream and coastal areas that are affected by negative environmental impacts (air pollution, temperature increases, flooding, etc.) from unsustainable land use.
For all the benefits that plantations bring to people, poor accounting of negative impacts impairs political decision-making that would maximize the wellbeing of Indonesians. Given the importance of logged (“secondary”) forests for biodiversity conservation as well as for societal aspirations, and the high rate at which these forests are reclassified to plantations, Indonesia would do well to minimize conversion of natural forests to plantations and expand forest restoration opportunities.