What I’ve Learned about Protecting Indonesian Forests from Rural China

© Kyle Obermann

I work on a sustainable agriculture project in North Sumatra that aims to balance agriculture development and conservation of critical ecosystems. I recently learned some valuable lessons that could impact my work from an unexpected source: a Chinese village with remarkable similarities to my own.

Last November, I traveled to China to see how CI and partners are implementing the conservation agreement model developed by CI’s Conservation Stewards Program (CSP). The journey began with a 7-hour drive through mountains and forests to a small village called Lizhiba.

This was my first visit to China. Given its position as the world’s most populous country, I imagined the roads and villages would be packed with people. I was wrong. Besides the city of Chengdu, the places we visited were not crowded at all, and traffic was sparse. The villages were actually smaller than those in Indonesia.

Lizhiba consists of about 225 households — mostly small concrete houses that sit alongside the road surrounded by beehives and wandering chickens. The village is located inside the Baishuijiang National Nature Reserve in Gansu province; this reserve provides important habitat for the giant panda and other species.

I was surprised to find that Lizhiba is quite similar to most villages in Indonesia’s Pakpak Bharat district, where I work. All are located in mountainous regions with important ecosystem services provided by forests and clean rivers, and villagers in both areas depend on forest for their livelihoods.

In Lizhiba, deforestation was once commonplace, as communities converted forest land into tea plantations and removed firewood and wild herbs from the woods. When it was established in 2008, CSP’s conservation agreement here aimed to encourage local people to leave the forest standing by providing them with mutually determined benefits.

I was struck by how, after more than six years of engagement with the local community and the nature reserve bureau, the CSP model has succeeded in reducing deforestation around Lizhiba while empowering the local economy. After extensive discussion with communities about their needs and priorities, the program supported them with fuel-efficient firewood stoves, a tea processing machine and materials and training for alternative livelihoods such as bee- and poultry-keeping and sustainable agriculture activities to replace activities that threaten the forest.

After Lizhiba, we continued on to Xiong Er and Quan Kou villages, where new conservation agreements are now being implemented. During the trip I discussed different conservation projects with a range of people: colleagues from Shan Shui Conservation Center, protected area staff, the county forest officer, environmental experts and local community members.

From these conversations, I concluded that there are three essential ingredients for successful conservation agreements:

  1. A good understanding of local socioeconomic activity and drivers of deforestation.
  2. Building trust and good relations with community leaders.
  3. Strong engagement and support from local forest authorities.

I was particularly impressed by the optimism of the county forestry officer about the Xiong Er project. Based on the lessons learned from a previous CSP project with Mashan village, he is confident that Xiong Er will achieve its goal of reducing deforestation in the surrounding hills and valley in less than three years.

Successful environmental protection depends upon making sure that people’s incentives to protect something are stronger than their incentives to destroy it. That’s what conservation agreements are all about.

Back in Indonesia, we are in the early stage of designing such agreements with several villages in Pakpak Bharat. My experience in China helped me understand how conservation agreements enable us to work with such communities, and also reminded me that these projects are a continuous learning process for all involved.

Understanding the challenges and lessons learned from Lizhiba will help us to prepare an effective community-based conservation agreement. By adapting what I learned in China, I hope that in five years, Pakpak Bharat will resemble an Indonesian version of Lizhiba.

Fitri Hasibuan is CI Indonesia’s sustainable agriculture landscape partnership project manager.