Local stakeholders crucial to end the fight over coal in Kutai National Park

BOGOR, Indonesia (12 August, 2011)_Kutai National Park in East Kalimantan made the headlines in 2009 as a conservation area in danger of being split apart for its enormous deposits of high-grade coal. But a study by the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) has highlighted the crucial role of local stakeholders in boosting conservation and discouraging development of the resource rich area.
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Trucks haul coal in East Kalimantan. Photo by Michael Padmanaba/CIFOR

BOGOR, Indonesia (12 August, 2011)_Kutai National Park in East Kalimantan made the headlines in 2009 as a conservation area in danger of being split apart for its enormous deposits of high-grade coal. But a study by the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) has highlighted the crucial role of local stakeholders in boosting conservation and discouraging development of the resource rich area.

“Conservation in a case like Kutai National Park can only be ensured if there is a common commitment supported by a majority of the stakeholders with an interest to protect this area,” said Godwin Limberg, lead author of the 2009 study.

The necessary impetus to end the fight between developers and conservationists over the management of Kutai National Park must come from a mix of incentives and disincentives that recognize “the intrinsic value of the ecosystem and the biodiversity contained in it.”

The 200,000-hectare park — home to the endangered orangutan, 80 species of mammals, 330 species of birds and nearly 1,000 plant species — was declared a national park in 1982 and is the region’s only lowland tropical forest.

However, the resource-rich area was quick to be settled by migrating labourers employed by oil companies, plywood manufacturers and plantations in the area, with local administrations permitting the building of roads, gas stations, a bus terminal and other public facilities inside Kutai National Park.

More than 24,000 illegal squatters currently occupy about eight percent of Kutai National Park, according to data from the Ministry of Forestry and they have been seeking legal rights to the land since the mid 90’s — prompting a contentious debate that has escalated since a mining permit was issued overlapping with Kutai National Park in 1998. The area occupied by settlers has been found to contain an estimated 2.5 billion metric tons of coal, with total market value of around US$92 billion.

The district and provincial government have pushed to convert the 23,712 hectares of illegally occupied land in Kutai National Park into a separate enclave, a proposal that has initially gained some support in the Ministry of Forestry but has been dismissed by many conservationists as a ploy to make the land accessible to coal mining companies.

While the sale of land in a national park is illegal under Indonesian law, local administrations have reportedly issued land ownership certificates that threaten to place plots of land in the hands of owners who would be willing to sell to coal mining or logging companies. The state oil and gas producer PT Pertamina already has an oil exploration and exploitation concession within the Kutai National Park and has already cleared over 20 hectares of forest for exploration, oil wells and development of supporting infrastructure.

“No decision has yet been made regarding the request by the district and provincial government to change the status of the national park area where people have encroached,” said Limberg.

The protection of forests through REDD+ has been touted as a way to increase the economic benefits of conservation by placing a monetary value on carbon stocks stored in a protected area, however the study warns that these may not be significant enough compared to the economic value of coal.

“Compared to the economic incentives for coal mining, the monetary values associated with conservation benefits derived from the park ecosystems are miniscule. Kutai National park is an extreme example of how much local stakeholders can financially gain from abandoning the park and how few incentives there are in support of conservation.”

Land speculation has been fueled by stories from other parts of East Kalimantan where coal mine companies paid compensation for land acquisition at rates of 35-100 million rupiah per hectare. The three-year study published in the International Journal of Biodiversity Science & Management warns that if there is no drastic change in enforcement, some 100 hectares will be sold annually.

To combat this, the authors propose the granting of land management rights to residents of the park and creating a special-use zone for agricultural purposes, in a hope to keep the area out of the hands of coal mining companies.

“This would mean no coal exploitation would be possible,” said Limberg. “The best hope is to provide management rights to people who actually live in the park and depend on the land they cultivate.”

The study concluded the main disincentive for keeping mining and logging activities out of Kutai National Park must be strict law enforcement that would include patrolling the area and investigating and prosecuting illegal activities, specifically targeting the financial actors who would encourage conversion of the protected area.

The authors urge the national and local government to assert their authority to ensure the survival of Kutai National Park and increased collaboration among park management officials, local government, people residing in the park, non governmental organizations and the support of local businesses and large companies alike.

A recent decision to prohibit a planned school and other development projects inside the park seems to bode well for conservationists’ efforts to protect the region’s only extensive lowland tropical forest.

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