Saving the Indonesian Peat Forests, One Basket at at Time

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Harrison Ford travels by elephant in Indonesia. (Photo: The Years Project/Showtime).

In the first episode of the Showtime global warming series "Years of Living Dangerously," Harrison Ford investigates the widespread deforestation of peat swamp forests in Borneo, the worldwide implications of this loss, and the inability of the Indonesian government to do much to stop it. But the situation is not entirely bleak, thanks in part to the efforts of the Katingan Project.

"Peatland forests in Borneo have been the target for conversion for oil palm plantations, resulting in greenhouse gas emissions in addition to loss of biodiversity," says Rezal Kusumaatmadja, COO of the Katingan Project, which aims to restore a 200,000-hectare peat swamp forest in Indonesian Borneo. "The project aims to reduce carbon emissions, protect biodiversity and create sustainable economic development opportunities that improve the lives of rural communities. It's based on the premise that we can still save large areas of peat swamp forest, offer local people sustainable sources of income, tackle global climate change — and base this on a solid business model. What defines us is a no-nonsense, transparent and result-oriented approach to land-use and conservation in a part of the world where this is needed most."

Peat swamp forests store huge amounts of carbon, so when these lands are cleared and burned, the carbon is released into the atmosphere. At its core, the project is financed by what it achieves in terms of sequestering and avoiding the emissions of carbon dioxide, according the website.

Although it began in 2008, The Katingan Project got its ecosystem restoration license from the Ministry of Forestry in late 2013 via a partnership with the Indonesian company PT Rimba Makmur Utama or PT RMU, which grants the tenure rights to protect and restore 108,00 hectares of peat swamp for 60 years. "PT RMU has been working with partners to develop community livelihood programs, restore the ecological integrity of the forests through planting of native tree species, prevent forest fires, etc.," says Kusumaatmadja.

A smaller but equally important part of the Katingan Project is providing livelihood alternatives for the local villagers to replace illegal logging, and that's where Emily Readett-Bayley comes in. Her 15 years of work with a Balinese rice farming cooperative and background in designing and marketing ethically sourced handicrafts and furniture fit right in with the project's mission.

Emily Readett Bayley poses with rattan weavers
Emily Readett-Bayley (second from right) poses with rattan weavers in Borneo. Emily Readett-Bayley Ltd.

"I heard about the project from Rezal and Ann McBride Norton, founder of Photovoices, when we met in Bali. Photovoices had recorded — through photography — detailed feedback from the communities in the project area. It was clear that there were very limited means of income in the area since the end of legal logging in 1990s and that employment on the palm oil plantations was generally given to migrant workers who had no history or connections in the area," Readett-Bayley says.

"The local Dayak communities had a long history of growing rattan in 'gardens' in the forest, but the market price for the raw material was so low it was hardly worth filling the tank and taking a boat out into the jungle to harvest the material. I visited the forest area in 2012 and also met with the owners of the last two rattan workshops in Sampit, the main town on the edge of the project area. They were catering to the local market, but I saw that the traditional working baskets used in the forest to collect rubber, fruits and stones were incredibly strong and made from an amazing range of mixed colored rattan. They said, 'This is the waste rattan we cannot sell to the brokers supplying the rattan factories, they want it all the same color.' So these beautiful, unique and super-strong baskets are now being made in workshops in the area and are shipped direct from the jungle via the container port based near Sampit. [Unlike other baskets], they have no long journey via a factory in Java or China to be processed with toxic chemicals and re-dyed to look antique. They come direct from the jungle."

A rattan weaver

Readett-Bayley continues, "I am hoping that as I sell more rattan and salvaged products made in the area, the workshops will provide an alternative and sustainable income to the communities so that there will be less pressure on the forests from illegal logging, the trade of endangered species and other destructive activities. We also plan to develop eco-tourism in the area, so visitors can be aware of the project and what it is achieving and contribute to the local economy."

Having a spotlight focused on the issue via "Years of Living Dangerously" can only help. "The 'Years' has brought attention to the project. It was important for Harrison Ford to visit the Katingan Project because he is a well-known individual in Indonesia, as well as around the world, to bring attention to the issues of deforestation to decision makers within and outside the country," says Kusumaatmadja. "In response to the deforestation crisis in Indonesia, there is a need to involve all stakeholders at many levels including campaign, policy reform, private sector investments, as well as the grassroots approach."

"Harrison visited the rattan workshops when he was in Katingan. Sadly, I was in Borneo in July 2013 and the visit, which was confirmed at the last minute, was in September 2013 so the timing was wrong," notes Readett-Bayley. "But by strange coincidence l have just sold 26 sets of baskets to go on the set of the next 'Star Wars' movie in production at Pinewood Studios, so Harrison may yet see the baskets again!"

Harrison Ford watches rattan weavers work in Borneo
Harrison Ford visits a rattan workshop in Katingan as weavers work. PT Rimba Makmur Utama

About the future, she says, "The next big sales opportunity will be when we exhibit the baskets at The Chelsea Flower Show, a major British social event taking place this in May in Central London, and the Indonesian ambassador to London is visiting my stand. I am hoping to ship a container load of baskets to the U.S. in the fall and include some smaller gift baskets suitable for the festive season."

"We need to make consumers aware that their everyday choices can make a difference," adds Kusumaatmadja. "The next step is to continue to provide high-quality products so that consumers can be aware of the issues while at the same time contribute to the solution. It's great that we can be a part of the solution rather than just be a passive observer."