The cost of an orangutan’s forest

The Tripa peat swamp-forest in Indonesia is one of the few remaining Sumatran orangutan habitats but its situation is conflicted: it is designated as part of the Leuser Ecosystem Zone but also as ‘non-forest use’ and experiences persistent development of oil palm plantations, say Hesti Lestari Tata, Atiek Widayati, Meine van Noordwijk and Elok Mulyoutami



In Aceh Province, Sumatra, Indonesia, there is a remnant peat swamp-forest in the Tripa area that is an important habitat for Sumatran orangutan (Pongo abelii), an endangered species on the International Union for the Conservation of Nature Red List.

Orangutan, nest, Tripa, forest, threatened species, deforestation

Orangutan nest in Tripa forest. Photo: ICRAF/Rahayu Oktaviani

Tripa peat swamp is known for its deep peat soil, even though the forest is not designated as ‘forest’ but instead is categorised as non-forest, ‘other land-use area’ (Area Penggunaan Lain). It is also classified as  a nature conservation area that is part of the Leuser Ecosystem Zone (Kawasan Ekosistem Leuser), enacted by presidential decree in 1998.

This kind of conflicting designation by different Government bodies at different levels is common under Indonesia’s ‘pluralistic’ governance system. Partly as a result of this lack of clarity, Tripa continues to experience heavy pressure for conversion of its forests to oil palm plantations and other agricultural production.

The average rate of oil palm expansion since most of the Hak Guna Usaha or concession rights were issued in the mid-1990s to 2009 was 1500 hectare per year. The highest loss rate of forest to oil palm plantations was 3300 hectare per year during 2005–2009.

Local people have tended to establish smallholding oil-palm plots because the crop’s profitability is very high compared with other commodities in Tripa thanks to a robust global market for palm oil as vegetable oil and biofuel. A steep increase in the amount of smallholding oil palm in Tripa was primarily caused by the high profitability of the crop and several accessible mills in the area.

The high profitability also causes a high ‘opportunity cost’ for avoiding forest conversion. ‘Opportunity cost’ has been defined as the value of something that must be given up to achieve something else. Since everything, including land and forests, can be used in alternative ways, every change to a forest, such as its removal so that other activities can take place on the land, has an associated opportunity cost.

Opportunity cost is one of three cost categories for REDD+ schemes. In this case, it is the ratio of the changes in profitability (USD per hectare) and the changes in carbon stock, which can be expressed as emissions (tonnes of carbon-dioxide equivalent per hectare or tCO2e/ha).

At a carbon price threshold of USD 5 per tCO2e, only about 41% of carbon emissions from land use, including forest conversion, in Tripa could be avoided. The price of carbon would have to increase to avoid all forest conversion, assuming that a REDD+ scheme was actually functioning and paying people to give up conversions in favour of other activities. Adding in belowground carbon emissions from peat would increase the total emissions, and the cost of avoiding them, by around 25%.

If a comprehensive approach is adopted to land-based emissions that does not depend on institutional definitions of ‘forest’, a feasible reduction in emissions could be achieved in Tripa that fits with international rules for REDD+ and the ‘forest plus peat’ interpretation that has been used for the 2010 Letter of Intent between Norway and Indonesia to assist with reducing emissions.

With total cost levels at USD 5–15 per tCO2e, depending on the type of intervention, we conclude that REDD+ schemes could be feasible but would require a commitment to ‘top up’ the purely efficiency-based carbon-market prices.

Contributing to the survival of the Sumatran orangutan (especially in the more costly corridor options for Tripa) might be sufficient reason for the voluntary carbon market to stimulate investment in schemes that restrict forest conversion or rehabilitate degraded areas but that would require that biodiversity and reduction of emissions are seen as equally important (rather than one as a ‘co-benefit’ of the other).

Deforestation, Tripa, peat, swamp, forest, Aceh

Deforestation in Tripa peat swamp-forest. Photo: ICRAF/Rahayu Oktaviani

The results so far show that beyond opportunity costs, the issue of ‘in-landscape’ employment is the key to any success in conservation. Alternative employment in Tripa might have to be created.

The ‘ecosystem services’ provided by the forests that we examined were quantified only as ‘carbon stock’ and ‘tree diversity’. Water, which is measureable and has economic value as an energy source and for drinking and other domestic and industrial uses, was not evaluated. If the value to users of water is taken into account then it would likely challenge the ‘additionality’ of reducing emissions (that is, what might have happened if no REDD intervention took place) because it could be an alternative funding source for smallholders.

The last possible option is oil palm land swaps. If this is part of the solution, further analysis is needed of the areas to which oil palm could be moved and how this would interact with the rest of the landscape.

Tripa is a complex situation where current practices involve multiple actors and interests that contradict conservation imperatives. Even though, on paper, the Tripa area is already protected, the situation shows that existing public policy commitments to support conservation in the Leuser Ecosystem Zone have not had tangible impact and a strong case can be made for ‘de facto additionality’ of new efforts to reduce emissions.

Even after the moratorium on issuing of new concession rights on peatland was declared by the president in 2011 (INPRES 10/2011), a new permit was issued by the Governor of Aceh over a forest block in Tripa in August 2011. The company holding the permit cleared about 90% of the 1862 hectare of forest by burning. Given that this was against the law, the case was heard before the court of state administration in Banda Aceh and the permit was revoked.

However, the new Government in Aceh is now pushing for changes to the spatial planning law that will result in revoking the ban on logging and clearing a further 1.2 million hectare, including Tripa.


Edited by Robert Finlayson


Read the policy briefs

Tata HL, van Noordwijk M, Mulyoutami E, Widayati A. 2012. Economics versus conservation: a case study of Tripa peatland. Tripa Series Brief 34. 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. Tripa Series Brief 33. Bogor, Indonesia: World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF) Southeast Asia Regional Program.

 Minang PA, van Noordwijk M, Meyfroidt P, Agus F, Dewi S. 2010. Emissions embodied in trade (EET) and land use in tropical forest margins. ASB Policy Brief  7. Nairobi: ASB Partnership for the Tropical Forest Margins.



This work is associated with the CGIAR Research Program on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry



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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