What could stop the conversion of the last orangutan habitat peat-swamps to oil palm in Tripa, Indonesia?

A mix of regulations, international incentives and consumer pressure might be enough, say Hesti Lestari Tata, Meine van Noordwijk, Denis Ruysschaert, Rachmat Mulia, Subekti Rahayu, Elok Mulyoutami, Atiek Widayati, Andree Ekadinata, Riswan Zen, Adji Darsoyo, Rahayu Oktaviani, Sonya Dewi


The Tripa forest in the province of Aceh in Indonesia is the last remaining peat swamp that harbours a viable Sumatran orangutan (Pongo abelii) sub-population. The habitat is in a formally, but not effectively, protected area.

Stopping the loss of this type of habitat is what the world expected when Indonesia committed to the international mechanism to reduce emissions from deforestation and forest degradation plus conservation (aka REDD+) and to a two-year moratorium on issuance of permits to convert primary forests and peatlands to other land uses (typically oil-palm plantations). Indeed, in May 2011, parts of Tripa were included in the moratorium, which has been extended until May 2015 according to the Instruction of the President of the Republic of Indonesia no. 6/2013.

Tripa, aerial, orangutan, Indonesia

Aerial mapping of the Tripa peat-swamp forest and nearby land uses. Photo: World Agroforestry Centre/Meine van Noordwijk

Earlier, in 2010, a number of food-processing companies announced they’d cancelled contracts with oil-palm companies publicly associated with deforestation in Indonesia. As a consequence of public pressure, driven partly by the threat to the habitat of the iconic orangutan, it seemed that it might no longer be economically viable for an oil-palm company to convert primary forests on deep peat-swamp that were orangutan habitat. Even if the company had the formal right to do so and the conversion was outside of the reach of REDD+. At least, not if they wanted to maintain market share in Europe or North America. International consumer pressure had thus become a third element in the public–private dynamic: one that was beyond government regulation and positive incentives.

Despite these types of external pressure, in August 2011, the Governor of Aceh nevertheless signed a permit for further oil-palm development in the Tripa area covered by the moratorium. Three months later, in November 2011, the moratorium map was revised and Tripa was taken out of the reach of the presidential decree. But the permit of August was still illegal and subsequently was taken to court. It also became a test case of how the different authorities and government levels in Indonesia interacted. The court recently decided to support conservation of the area and the international pressure focussed the attention of the governmental task force aimed at streamlining cross-scale and cross-sectoral government procedures.

As part of the background to this complex situation, we wanted to find out whether it was economically viable, within the context of REDD+ and the many other factors, to conserve the orangutan habitat. Using a range of methodologies and field research, we found that the area under natural forest had declined (54% in 1995, 18% in 2009) while oil palm had increased 4–39%. From 1990 to 2009, this translated into average annual emissions of 14.5 Mg of carbon dioxide equivalent per hectare per year. While 41% of these emissions yielded less than USD 5 of current economic benefits per Mg CO2e emitted and might be compensated by REDD+, nearly all new emissions derived from a breach of existing laws, regulations and voluntary palm-oil standards. Substantial investment in alternative employment is needed, rather than carbon payments per se, to support livelihoods in a low carbon emissions economy.

In such a scenario, the necessary economic incentives to protect the remaining peat-swamp forest might not necessarily mean direct cash payments to all people living in the district. Part of any funds could be used to finance activities to secure different environmental services—for example, carbon storage, biodiversity conservation, fish ponds, water retention, wood supply—that the peat swamps provided.

To help preserve biodiversity, for example, activities could include promotion of tourism. Rehabilitation of the degraded peat swamp for fish ponds and water retention could be done through careful watertable management and selective reforestation.

The need for funds could also be partially internally generated through the direct contribution of the peat-swamp forest to the local economy, for example, fish, fresh water and non-timber forest products.

As for who should pay, we looked to who is responsible and who most benefits. For biodiversity and carbon storage, international donors might have to be the biggest contributors. When it comes to providing secure local livelihoods, government agencies might be ultimately responsible, along with local communities and a private sector that benefits from a well-functioning ecosystem, for example, for the microclimate important for agriculture, including large oil-palm plantations.


Edited by Robert Finlayson


Read more

Tata HL, van Noordwijk M, Ruysschaert D, Mulia R, Rahayu S, Mulyoutami E, Widayati A, Ekadinata A, Zen R, Darsoyo A, Oktaviani R, Dewi S. 2013. Will funding to Reduce Emissions from Deforestation and (forest) Degradation (REDD+) stop conversion of peat swamps to oil palm in orangutan habitat in Tripa in Aceh, Indonesia? Mitigation and Adaptation Strategies for Global Change DOI 10.1007/s11027-013-9524-5.

Tata HL, van Noordwijk M, Mulyoutami E, Widayati A. 2012. Economics versus conservation: a case study of Tripa peatland. Policy brief 34. Tripa series. Bogor, Indonesia: World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF) Southeast Asia Regional Program.

Widayati A, Tata HL, Rahayu S, Said Z. 2012. Conversion of the Tripa peat swamp forest and the effect on Sumatran orangutan (Pongo abelii) habitat and aboveground carbon loss. Policy brief 33. Tripa series. Bogor, Indonesia: World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF) Southeast Asia Regional Program.

Tata MH, van Noordwijk M, Mulyoutami E, Rahayu S, Widayati A, Mulia R. 2010. Human livelihoods, ecosystem services and the habitat of the Sumatran orangutan: Rapid assessment in Batang Toru and Tripa. Project Report. Bogor, Indonesia: World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF) Southeast Asia Regional Program.

Rahayu S, Oktaviani R, Tata HL, van Noordwijk M. 2010. Carbon stock and tree diversity in Tripa peat swamp forest. Paper presented at the 2nd International Symposium of Indonesian Wood Research Society, Bali, Indonesia. nl: Indonesian Wood Research Society.

Rob Finlayson

Robert Finlayson is the Southeast Asia program's regional communications specialist. As well as writing stories for the Centre's website, he devises and supervises strategies for projects and the countries in the Southeast Asia region, including scripting and producing videos, supervising editors and translators and also assisting with resource mobilization.

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