Rimba Raya Project in Rapid Decline (Source: Timothy G. Laman, National Geographic)

Indonesia’s flagship Rimba Raya REDD project was registered this year under one of the Voluntary Carbon Standard’s REDD methodologies, aiming to preserve “91,215 hectares of tropical peat swamp forest,” equivalent to an emissions reduction of 104,886,254 tonnes of CO2e over the crediting period of 30 years, according to the registration documents.

The project has long been an exemplar of early action on REDD, hoping to bring the field in to the carbon markets. Indeed many expected it to be the first to issue REDD based carbon credits in the voluntary markets, but this title was taken by the Kenya Kasigau Corridor Project earlier this year. Despite the early success, a recent report by Reuters outlines how hopes for the Rimba Raya project have declined rapidly over the course of the past year.

Back-pedalling and contradictions

At the heart of the controversy is a decision by the Indonesian Ministry of Forestry to cut the project area in just over half, and grant development rights to a palm oil company for some, if not all, of the newly available land, resulting in the economic viability of the project  now coming under review.

The reason for the decision is, unsurprisingly, unclear, but interviews by Reuters suggest that land ownership and competing potential uses of land were root causes for the sudden reversal. Indeed Reuters reports that the decree allocating the project’s land area to the REDD project developers was never formally signed by a Minister, allowing the original claimants – PT Best, a palm oil company – the development rights of the land that was originally allocated to them.

Most of those involved seem to be genuinely startled by the sudden turnaround of the government, particularly given the decision’s seeming opposition to the government’s purported stance. It appears to highlight deep divisions between the national government and the civil service, or perhaps even amongst ministers themselves, on the level of action needed to stop deforestation.

It all comes down to price

More importantly, however, it draws attention to the magnitude of the political risk faced by those investing in a new, politically unstable market, and demonstrates with painstaking lucidity the potential losses facing an investor, should a project either not sit well with the government or should there be more profitable, competing uses of the land. And herein lies the fundamental problem: the existence of more profitable uses for land often result in REDD offset credits being unable to compete with the alternative uses of land, since profits are dependent on a low carbon price.

The number of participants, presence of willing buyers and the involvement of Gazprom all seem to suggest that, over the 30 year crediting period, the project is likely to be profitable. But the Ministry of Forestry seems to disagree, exemplified by the Secretary-General of the Ministry of Forestry, asking “who will pay for the dream of Rimba Raya? Who will pay? Nobody, sir!” Although a legitimate question to ask, this apparent rationale does beg the question of how the government expects the project to pay for itself if it is slashed in half.

Nevertheless, it seems that the Rimba Raya project may have fallen victim to the whims of political infighting. Irrespective of the reason, the presence of an economic case that argues against the implementation of a REDD project will never sit well with governments handing out permits. Perhaps more importantly, it allows any number of potentially illegitimate reasons for derailing the halt of deforestation to mask behind this inconvenient – albeit legitimate – concern.

Finally, turning back to the price, it is worth reiterating an obvious but important point: if the carbon price were at a level that demonstrates clear economic viability for REDD projects over and above alternative environmentally destructive uses of the land, these kind of problems would be far less likely to arise in the first place.

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