Conservation group gets into the rubber business to save the rainforest

Indonesian rainforest
© WWF Indonesia/Samsul Komar

100,000 acres of Sumatran rainforest to be protected in Indonesia by a new type of zoning, which will generate sustainable revenue from non-timber forest products.

Indonesia has one of the highest rates of deforestation of any country in the world. According to Global Forest Watch, the country lost 16.88 million hectares of rainforest between 2001 and 2013, a chunk of forest nearly the size of France.

Deforestation is not only a serious problem for global climate change, but it’s also a problem for the communities of people who make the forests their home. The same goes for animals, and many of the species found in the Sumatran rainforest of Indonesia are increasingly threatened with extinction.

But yesterday, WWF and a handful of partners announced some good news. The government of Indonesia has granted conservationists a 100,000-acre concession of forest in Bukit Tigapuluh, also called Thirty Hills, for the purpose of ecosystem restoration. The announcement effectively expands the protected area of Bukit Tigapuluh National Park by 25 percent. Part of the concession had previously been granted to a logging company, which has since abandoned the site. Although some of the forest is degraded from logging activities, logging has not occurred there for many years and much of the forest remains intact.

WWF Indonesia concession map© WWF

The project has also gotten some big-name endorsement and funding from the Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation. “I am honored that my Foundation was a part of this effort,” the actor said in a press release.

But the new concession isn’t going to be managed like a national park. Instead, WWF, the Frankfurt Zoological Society and The Orangutan Project have set up a commercial company that will work with indigenous forest groups to harvest products from the forest without damaging it. These non-timber products include rubber, honey and rattan.

“This is a whole new approach,” said Jan Vertefeuille, Head of Campaigns for WWF, in an interview with TreeHugger. “We’re seeing it as a new model of innovative financing married with traditional conservation.” She explained that the revenue from forest products will help with the restoration process as well as help protect it.

“Working very closely with the local communities is key to this, we see them as equal partners,” said Vertefeuille. There are two indigenous forest-dwelling tribes who live in this forest: the Oramg Rumba, a nomadic tribe, and the Talang Mamak, a group that lives in forest villages.

Although these tribes have been marginalized by commercial concessions in the past, working with forest peoples is a smart conservation strategy. Considerable research has shown that forest communities who have land tenure can in fact be more effective at preventing deforestation than other types of management plans. “We very much want to make sure that their land tenure is understood, and we’ve been mapping the concession to understand what parts of the forest are most important to them,” said Vertefeuille.

WWF has already created a partnership with Michelin tires, which operates a nearby rubber concession, and the local groups. Vertefeuille explains that natural rubber can be harvested without harming the trees or the surrounding forest, much like shade-grown coffee. Michelin has not only committed to purchasing this rubber, but also to helping the communities improve their tree-tapping techniques, so that they can sell a higher quality product and increase their revenue.

The announcement is also good news for critically endangered Sumatran tigers and elephants, two species that have suffered from habitat loss. Thirty Hills is also home to the only project in the world that has successfully reintroduced Sumatran orangutans back into the wild after they have been rescued from the illegal pet trade.

“Between the tigers, the orangutans and the elephants there it is quite a spectacular rainforest,” said Vertefeuille.

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