Helping Indonesia’s poorest people could save the nation’s forests, too, a new study shows.
Indonesia is one of the most rapidly deforested places on Earth, and nearly 10% of the population lives below the poverty line.
These struggles are not separate, conflicting issues — but deeply intertwined — the study from Science Advances says.
The study shows that where people received services from a national anti-poverty program, 30% fewer trees were cleared — and about half of the saved forests were old-growth.
“These are the beautiful rainforests everybody thinks of when they think of rainforests that are ecologically and economically the most valuable.”
“These are the beautiful rainforests everybody thinks of when they think of rainforests that are ecologically and economically the most valuable,” said Paul Ferraro, a professor at Johns Hopkins University’s Carey Business School and the study’s co-author.
“What's most surprising is the effect is roughly similar to the size of the effects that people have estimated for explicit conservation projects,” Ferraro said. “Like national parks or payments conditional on protecting the environment.”
The payments came from one of the biggest poverty alleviation programs in the world, called Program Keluarga Harapan (PKH) — which means the Family Hopes Program. The program, which started in 2007, provides six years of quarterly payments to households on the condition that families will register with health clinics and send their kids to school.
“In the long term, the program wants to break the vicious cycle [of poverty], particularly for the next generation,” said Vivi Yulaswati, a senior adviser to the Ministry of Planning in Indonesia, specializing in poverty reduction. She helped roll out the program in Indonesia.
The cash payments came with no environmental conditions, but “exploring how this program works for deforestation would be very useful because deforestation is a big problem,” said Yulaswati.
Indonesia is the third-most forested country in the world, and it’s losing its valuable rainforests at an alarming rate, said Rhita Simorangkir at the National University of Singapore, who is a co-author of the recent study.
“Indonesia [has] the highest forest loss in terms of primary forests in the world, and, of course, that is devastating. The consequences of forest loss are carbon emissions and loss of biodiversity.”
“Indonesia [has] the highest forest loss in terms of primary forests in the world, and, of course, that is devastating,” she said. “The consequences of forest loss are carbon emissions and loss of biodiversity.”
Forests are often cleared using fire, which can also be harmful to human health.
In another study, scientists estimated that in 2015, the smoke from forest fires in Indonesia (both intentionally set and resulting from weather conditions) may have contributed to more than 100,000 deaths in Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore.
The largest drivers of deforestation in Indonesia are forest fires and clearing for large-scale farming (such as oil palms) and mining. However, small-scale farming and clearing are a significant driver of deforestation as well, potentially contributing to around 25% of deforestation in Indonesia.
For many Indonesians facing poverty, cutting down trees is a form of insurance. They clear land to expand their farms when they fear the harvest won’t be enough. They also sell timber for extra income. With the federal cash payments, people are more secure and don’t need to cut the trees, Simorangkir said.
“When the government transfers cash to them, they make their budget more flexible. I think, this is like giving them options.”
“When the government transfers cash to them, they make their budget more flexible,” she said. “I think, this is like giving them options.”
Fighting poverty and protecting the environment are often seen as conflicting priorities, though. And there’s some evidence to support that. A 2013 study in Mexico found that cash transfers to alleviate poverty resulted in increased deforestation. The study’s authors believe it was likely because when given more cash, people could afford more beef, and they cleared more land for cattle.
Ferraro says many nongovernmental organizations and researchers are focused on one or the other and often debate their relative importance.
“These debates come from those different groups who believe that it's a zero-sum game, that if money goes to anti-poverty, that's at the expense of the environment or if money goes to the environment, that's at the expense of reducing poverty,” Ferraro said. “We hope that our study gives people some hope that these twin goals that we have globally don't necessarily need to be at odds.”
The idea that addressing poverty helps the environment is not surprising to Monica Nirmala, senior health adviser at Alam Sehat Lestari, which is partnered with Health In Harmony and trades health care for forest protection in communities near two national parks on the island of Borneo.
Nirmala said the study’s findings confirm her team’s experience over the span of 14 years there.
“What we have found, clearly over and over again, is that these people really want the forest for the future, she said. “They do not want to cut down these forests. They know it’s important for their children and future generations. And they want to protect them, but often they don’t have the choice to do so.”