The Jakarta Declaration aims to strengthen rights to environmental information in Indonesia, China, Japan, Mongolia, the Philippines, and Thailand. Photo credit: Luca Bruno/Flickr
While the struggle to protect the Tripa peat forest will likely continue, it illustrates a positive message for Indonesia’s forests. Photo credit: CIFOR/Flickr

Earlier this year, an Indonesian court found palm oil company PT Kallista Alam guilty of illegally draining and burning large swaths of the Tripa peat forest in the province of Aceh. The forest is part of the Leuser Ecosystem, the last shared habitat of the tiger, elephant, rhino, and Sumatran orangutan. The court found that the company was working under an illegal permit and ordered it to pay 114.3 billion rupiah (US$9.4 million) in compensation and 251.7 billion rupiah (US$20.8 million) for restoration of the area.

This ruling is the second victory for Indonesia NGO WAHLI and the Indonesian Ministry of Environment, which has challenged PT Kallista Alam’s rights to clear 4,000 acres in Tripa through two separate cases since 2012. The first victory came from WAHLI’s case, when the former governor of Aceh, Irwandi Yusuf, admitted that it was “morally wrong” of him to have granted the illegal permit to PT Kallista Alam. Critics say the concession was granted in violation of Indonesia’s forest moratorium.

While the struggle to protect the Tripa peat forest will likely continue, the story illustrates a positive message for Indonesia’s forests and others throughout the world. There are both institutions and mechanisms—no matter how compromised they may sometimes seem—that can hold government actors and those they favor accountable for land-use decisions.

Meeting Accountability Challenges

Difficult decisions about land use—where land should be developed, and by whom—are made in every country across the globe. In a new issue brief, Using Accountability: Why REDD+ Needs To Be More Than An Economic Incentive, WRI looked closely at Brazilian and Indonesian cases where civil society participated in, and ultimately challenged, their governments’ land-use decisions. As with the Kallista Alam case, these communities used reputational tools (reports and media), economic incentives, and, ultimately, lawsuits to change land-use decisions made through permit, licensing, and planning processes.

WRI’s goal was to try to understand what REDD+ policy designers and implementers might learn from these cases. If reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation (the goal of REDD+) is to be a serious endeavor, and not just an exercise in the margins of land-use decision-making and environmental management, it is important to understand how REDD+ can support the tools that can meet these types of accountability challenges.
While the paper lists a number of lessons, the main point our research shows is this: For land use to change and evolve in a manner that reflects environmental priorities—including REDD+—a culture of transparency, participation, and accountability must be promoted. It is the responsibility of those designing and implementing REDD+ programs to think carefully about how to make sure that accountability is increased through REDD+ programs.

As the paper shows, this is not an easy or obvious process. There are different tools, different needs, and every country will have their own mix of challenges. However, without ensuring that responsible actors can be held accountable, REDD+ will not be much more than words on paper.

The Struggle Continues

At the Tripa forest, the battle is not over. PT Kallista Alam claims that they will file an appeal. More importantly, Aceh’s forests at large are under even greater threat as the result of a new spatial planning law passed by Aceh’s parliament on December 27, 2013, and signed by Governor Zaini. It reduces the region’s forest cover target from 68 percent, as proposed by Governor Irwandi, to 45 percent—the current forest cover is 55 percent. Advocates for the protection of the Leuser Ecosystem are attempting to convince the new governor of Aceh to submit the area to UNESCO for consideration as a World Heritage Site, in the hope that it can be protected from further development by the watchful eye of the international community.

As the struggle continues to protect forests around the world, REDD+ implementers should look to cultivate and strengthen institutions and mechanisms of accountability as they work to reduce emissions from deforestation. Though REDD+ already includes an international accountability mechanism, the Tripa case and others demonstrate that this will probably be insufficient for achieving REDD+ goals. To actually change land-use decisions that impact forests, strong accountability tools at the national and subnational levels are necessary.

In the coming years, WRI’s Governance of Forests Initiative will look closely at what accountability means in the context of REDD+. Any and all activities that can improve the way we implement REDD+ and other land-use processes will be a step towards a sustainable future for forests.