Rainforest in Borneo being destroyed to make way for an oil palm plantation.

Once labelled a destroyer of pristine forest, Indonesia’s Asia Pulp & Paper Group is now working towards zero deforestation, and has initiated an independent foundation to help direct public and private sector finance straight to local communities engaged in conservation. Environmentalist Tony Juniper explains why this is good news for conservation.

The climate change agreement that emerged from the COP21 negotiations in Paris could prove a turning point in global efforts to curb deforestation, especially in the tropical countries where so much has been lost during recent decades.

This is even more likely to be the case as nations from across the world agreed in Paris to pursue efforts to limit the overall global average temperature increase to 1.5 degrees Celsius (from the previous 2°C). If we are to have any chance of meeting this very ambitious goal, the role of forests will be pivotal.

There are many good reasons for conserving natural forests. As well as soaking up vast amounts of carbon they are home to most of the Earth’s terrestrial wildlife diversity, they support the livelihoods of hundreds of millions of people, are vital in the water cycle and mitigate floods. All of that has huge practical value and thus, for good reason, reducing deforestation has been a focal point for countries and the international community for many years, including the question of how to raise the money to do that.

The challenge with forest conservation and restoration has, however, and perhaps surprisingly, not always been about a lack of finance, but in many instances more the absence of effective mechanisms to implement programs on the ground in and around forests. While billions of dollars have been pledged around the globe for forest conservation in recent years, much of this has gone unspent and the money that has been deployed has often failed to make the kind of impact intended or needed.

Of course, there are numerous reasons why efforts to date have proved insufficient, not least the incredible complexity that prevails at the frontier of deforestation. In Indonesia, for example, a single plot of forested land might have multiple claims upon it, or be under threat from illegal logging and illegal clearance. In most places there is the additional and persistent threat of forest fires and more often than not local community wishes for economic development in conflict with conservation goals. All of that sits below the practical difficulties of trying to bring everyone together to implement a single plan, making progress a real challenge.

So what might be the solution for dealing with such complexity? One answer is the development of new mechanisms that can facilitate consensus between different interests at the level of landscapes so as to find the best fit between economic and ecological goals. Landscapes embrace multiple land uses and many different actors and offer the prospect of achieving better outcomes than are possible through more fragmented approaches.

The Belantara Foundation seeks to do this by putting finance directly to programs working on the ground across Indonesia, implementing landscape-scale conservation action plans that are conceived to unite diverse interests behind a single scheme.

Landscape-level planning is not only necessary to engage diverse interest groups but is also an essential aspect of successful conservation because substantial areas of habitat are needed by large animals such as tigers, elephant and orang-utans. Furthermore, keeping carbon in the ground and out of the sky requires landscape scale plans too. However, in landscapes bisected by the multiple straight lines of concession boundaries the management of ecosystems at the scale needed is often impossible, making collaboration essential in the fight to save what remains of Indonesia’s natural forests.

Having spent the last 25 years engaged in efforts to conserve tropical forest, I have high hopes for Belantara and what it can do. The opportunity to involve the private sector, all levels of Indonesian government, local communities and conservation groups gives me optimism that it can add something new and useful, and in so doing make a material difference to forest conservation.

Belantara, along with its partners, has identified 10 landscapes that will forms the organisation’s initial focus – two in Kalimantan and eight in Sumatra, including in the Berbak Sembilang landscape where among many other things it’s notable for holding the last remaining large areas of mangrove forest in western Indonesia.

Mapping of community uses of the land is going to be an important task. So will be fire control and the enforcement of protected areas. Another critical job will be the building of consensus between the different stakeholder groups.

As Belantara opens its doors for business and the hard work begins, I would urge others to join us. Forest conservation and restoration is not just the responsibility of the producers or producing countries, it’s the responsibility of society globally, including those who have historically benefited from deforestation.

If Belantara works as intended it will not only be of benefit to the forests in the target landscapes in Indonesia, but potentially tropical forests across the world, as we learn the power of collective action through joined up, integrated and participatory planning.

Tony Juniper is an environmentalist and member of the Belantara Foundation Advisory Board.