"These orangutans will have no place to go!" said Dr. Birute Mary Galidkas. The world-renowned primatologist had just told us that the carbon offset project we were verifying was the only hope for protecting the hundreds of injured and orphaned orangutans living at her Orangutan Foundation International (OFI) Rehabilitation Center. As if combating climate change wasn't significant enough, now the offset project had the added responsibility of providing a home for orangutans.
Our team had traveled to Central Kalimantan, Indonesia, slogging across muddy palm plantations and dense peat bogs to verify the amount of greenhouse gases the peat swamps are soaking up. Galidkas and her partners aim to use the land as a carbon offset project-which would allow them to keep these trees standing to help overseas corporations compensate for emissions made elsewhere. This project would generate valuable emissions credits that would be purchased by the corporations, protecting this critical habitat from being converted into palm oil plantations.
Hong Kong-based investment firm InfiniteEARTH, worked closely with the Orangutan Foundation and Dr. Galidkas to preserve the Rimba Raya land. The Rimba Raya Biodiversity Preserve will create a buffer zone of more than 90,000 hectares (about 220,000 acres) between the existing Tanjung Puting National Park and nearby palm plantations. It is home to nearly 100 endangered species, including the orangutans. The preserve, which has already seen encroachment from eager palm oil developers, will provide a place for OFI to release rehabilitated orangutans into the wild.
Faced with pressure from well-heeled palm oil companies, Galdikas was a perfect partner for InfiniteEARTH. Proceeds from the sale of carbon credits will fund OFI's programs while Galdikas provides on-the-ground knowledge to the development team. In 1971, at the age of 25, Birute Mary Galdikas, was chosen as one of the three female proteges of world famous anthropologist, Dr. Louis Leakey. Birute Galdikas, along with Dian Fossey and Jane Goodall would form the famed trio known as "Leakey's Angels". Over the last 40 years, she has fought logging, poaching and mining but palm oil might be the greatest threat faced by the orangutans yet.
If approved, the Rimba Raya Biodiversity Preserve will be one of the first Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation (REDD) projects to be verified to the Voluntary Carbon Standard (VCS). While the United Nations has been unable to agree upon a common methodology for REDD projects since the Kyoto Protocol in 1997, the Rimba Raya project demonstrates the immediate viability of REDD projects in the voluntary carbon market. Because the project has already generated income from investors, it shows that the private sector has the potential to drive action against climate change. InfiniteEARTH orchestrated the project and stands to earn a healthy profit by selling emissions credits to Russian energy giant Gazprom and others.
Peat bogs represent one of the world's most efficient land-based carbon sinks. Peat swamps hold more carbon than most landscapes, so preserving Rimba Raya's swamps will result in saving a larger amount of carbon than similar sized offsets, generating a high value on carbon markets. Rimba Raya's peat swamps hold more than 350 million tons of carbon-approximately the annual emissions for 9 million cars. If converted into palm plantations, the forest would be cleared and this peat would be burned, releasing its carbon into the atmosphere.
The Rimba Raya project may be a drop in the bucket compared to the amount of carbon the world needs to remove from the atmosphere in order to combat global warming, but it represents a key starting point for similar projects in Indonesia. The Peat Swamp Forests in Borneo alone hold up to 70 times the carbon emitted annually by the combustion of fossil fuels world-wide.
One of the more controversial parts of REDD in Indonesia has been balancing the preservation of massive carbon stores while supporting the land rights of local communities. The Rimba Raya project is being evaluated against the Climate, Community and Biodiversity (CCB) standards, which simultaneously support sustainable development, mitigate climate change and conserve biodiversity. This project will fund clean water projects, sustainable aquaculture and mixed agro-forestry to support the 14 communities that live around the preserve.
Scientific Certification Systems is still in the process of auditing the project, which now awaits final approval. While the project is nearly complete, it needs a sign-off from the Indonesian government, which is involved in post-deadline negotiations with local interests. Meanwhile, the clock continues to tick for the climate and the orangutans' jungle habitat as the palm industry expands into the land adjacent to the Rimba Raya preserve.
Participating in the development of this project has been an adventure. In addition to navigating remote swamp, we've navigated the world of international investment firms, indigenous peoples, powerful palm oil developers, activists, scientists, and the orangutans clinging to one of their last swaths of rainforest habitat. SCS is now well positioned as REDD gains momentum. In January 2011, the world's first carbon offset project was approved, generating the first VCS REDD credits. This project and others in the pipeline signal the potential for a momentum shift in the effort to establish forest conservation as a viable method for fighting climate change.
Nick Kordesch is a Communications Associate at Scientific Certification Systems. Todd Frank manages SCS' Greenhouse Gas Verification Program.