Papua forest communities offer new perspective on climate change

By Tierney Smith

The role local people have to play in responding to climate change is being given increasing focus in the international climate talks.

How communities perceive changes to their local climate and environment can help fill the gaps in climate science and provide a more comprehensive picture of the changes taking place.

In the Mamberamo Raya Regency in Papua, Indonesia, where there are only a couple of meteorological stations covering a vast territory – three million hectares – local knowledge offers a complimentary source of information.

Manuel Boissière, a researcher for the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) and Centre de coopération internationale en recherche agronomique pour le développement (CIRAD), has been working with six villages in the region – spanning from communities in mangrove, swamps, to those in mountainous regions upland.

He talks to RTCC about the information he has been gathering from the local communities, and what changes they have seen take place over the last eight years.

Six forest communities from Papua, Indonesia fed into the project aimed at looking at changes in land-use

RTCC: Why is local knowledge so important?

MB: We have worked in Mamberamo Raya Regency since 2004 and one thing that is very unique in this region is that the Regency covers a huge territory – about three million hectares – and it has a population of 20,000 inhabitants scattered across the region. The territory also has a lot of natural forests – still mostly untouched.

The local communities are shaping the territory and the landscape that we can see now, so whatever decision is made in this area, they should be part of it. They have to be included in the decisions and we need to understand more about what they think and what their priorities are.

On top of that local people in Papua in general have a strong sense of ownership so when they talk about their territory, they are very aware of who is entering in it, what they are doing and what benefit they will get from the natural resources. That is something that can indeed appear anywhere else in the world, when dealing with local people living near or in forested areas, but in Papua this feeling is particularly strong.

Lastly, whatever the biophysical data we bring on climate change – or any other change – in the end what makes the difference between making a decision or not is how it is perceived. Local perceptions can be even more important than scientific data for decision-making. Some perceptions can be biased, but the decisions that are being made – e.g., to chose one area over another to build a road or else – are based on how people perceive the effect it will have on them, their village and their natural environment.

RTCC: What changes have the communities already seen in the region?

MB: The research was actually about how to manage land uses in collaboration with local people so this includes everything that affects the local livelihoods and also the forests. It was not only about climate. Climate was something we studied as part of this research but was not the main topic.

In the end we saw that the biggest change in this specific Regency is that since 2007 there is a new local government. Before this, the Regency was part of a bigger territory that was later divided into smaller entities. From this, a new Regency was built, with a new local government and a lot of development projects. I think this was the biggest change for local people.

We were there before and after 2007 and once the new government and infrastructures were built, local people adapted to these changes very fast.

For example a new town is being built –from what was a village before. They are now having to negotiate about what part of their territory will be built on because this includes traditional land, where the roads are going to pass by. Decisions will have to be made about development in each part of the Regency – this is part of what we call land use planning.

This was the most recent change, in the context of decentralisation and political changes.

Less recently, but very important too for the forests and the environment, is a logging company operating in this area since 1992 with a 20 year permit which ends this year. This company operates on a big territory – around 660 thousand hectares, of which a fair proportion has been already exploited.

The local communities living in the concession are asking for compensation, which they have been negotiating. This has impacted the local livelihoods in certain villages and also the natural resources and biodiversity.

Climate change, on another hand, is less visible. Why is that so? There are two reasons; first because a big part of the Regency is swamps, mangroves, and this defers the effects of climate variability, so droughts – for example – are less importantly felt. El Niño drought in 1997 was not so important in Mamberamo. According to villagers, there were no forest fires in this particular region.

Second, our CIFOR-CIRAD colleague Bruno Locatelli found that seasonality is low in Papua and in this region particularly; less than in other places in the world with similar situation and climates.

That means that the average annual variation in temperature and precipitations is not so important. As a consequence, local people have perceived the differences less. For all these reasons, climate related events are seen as less important than economic or even political changes.

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RTCC: How are people already adapting to change?

MB: To the political change communities adapt quite quickly because for many years they had been asking for the recognition of the Regency – the building of the new Regency– so they welcomed it when it happened. Now they are monitoring all of the decisions that are made at Regency level. To do so, they are coming to meetings, putting forward proposals for small development projects to come into their village (such as fish ponds). Adapting to this was not very difficult.

With economic changes, it is trickier because there are often money gains behind this. There are negotiations and then decisions on compensation, but in the end it is not enough, according to villagers.

Communities do not always consider the damage that is being done to their natural environment when considering the money they get as compensation. More should be done in terms of building awareness and explaining to villagers what they get in the short term and the long term.

Here I talk of climate variability over climate change because climate change occurs over a longer period and it is very difficult for local communities to assess it at the present time. In Mamberamo there is little meteorological data on long-term changes and it is difficult to see what is changing and predict what future changes will be.

Climate variability, however, is visible, for example with events like flash-floods, heatwaves or strong winds that can have a big impact on settlements. We are starting to see these impacts more often and we are trying to understand how people are reacting to them.

There are some adaptive strategies from local communities. For example the villages in the mangroves are very dependent on wells for drinking water. If there is a long dry season, the increased salinity of the wells makes the water undrinkable and people have to go further inland to find new sources of drinking water. Villages’ locations remain in the same place but villagers have to go further to look for drinking water.

Another village in the mountain area experiences flashfloods that can destroy gardens along the riverside. Increasingly the villages are trying to make their gardens on higher ground in the mountain.

Villages that move in case of floods in general tend to come back to the same location when the floods have gone because they want to secure their rights to their territory and to keep the original location of their village where it was.

Some villages do not move but they build their homes on higher stilts, so that when the flood comes it does not affect their lives and goods.

People are affected differently by climate variability and climate events and their adaptation strategies are different. It is impossible to propose one single way to adapt to climate variability that would be the same for all the Regency. We worked in six different villages in Mamberamo and in every village we found different strategies according to the ecosystems in which they were located– whether a swamp or a mountain forest.

There are 59 villages within the Regency so if we could visit every single village I am convinced we would see many more differences in the way people adapt to big changes including climate.

The biggest change seen in the region was the change in local government structure in 2007 (Source: Manuel Boissiére/CIFOR/Flickr)

RTCC: What have you learnt?

MB: Local people can be a very good complimentary source of information on the topic of climate variability and other environmental changes. Some papers about local people and climate change, are trying to show that local people can be partners in addressing climate change issues.

In Mamberamo, on one hand, there is only one or two meteorological stations, which means we lack biophysical data. The data that we get from a global climate database is not detailed enough. On the other hand, we can have more detailed data from the local people based on their ecological knowledge and this is something which needs to be built on and integrated into research on climate.

I think we could have more accurate and in-depth information by interviewing villagers because they know their territory and they know what happens in it. Local people have a very good ecological knowledge of what kind of resources they can get; if the weather is changing; if the wind is changing; if there is a change in rainfall or in tides, which will change the salinity of the water and how that could cause fresh water fish, for example, to move further inland.

This project taught us that climate for local people is not the main concern in Mamberamo. If local communities collaborate to climate-related research activities then there needs to be an incentive for them. It should not necessarily be monetary; it could be in terms of rights and negotiations for local governments regarding infrastructures or else. It is not enough by itself to come to them and say : “lets collaborate and work together to address issues about climate change”, when they do not perceive it as an important issue.

I know that in other regions of the world and even in Papua, climatic events are felt in a more acute way, they have a bigger effect on local livelihoods and local people are more aware of the damage it can have. But in Mamberamo this I not the main concern local people have at present.

RTCC: What change do people in the region want to see?

MB: This territory is split into two main land uses, on one side of the Mamberamo River is production forestland, – therefore forests where the logging company is operating and where a town is also being built – and on the other side is a protected area.

Local people are concerned about what their rights will be in the future whether their village is in the conservation area or in the production forest area. This is something they want more clarity on and a say in what decisions will be made.

Some villages are in the middle of the protected area and they are not able, in principle, to sell forest products. They are envious of their neighbours who can sell their forest products, have roads etc. They resent this as something unbalanced between conservation and development. Many say “ok we can be in a protected area but we want compensation for that and for the activities we can not do anymore”.

They want to see more infrastructure; more services like health and education; they want access to goods and to markets; and they even want more decentralisation and to see institutions being built in their village so they get access to more services wherever the village is located, even if it is within a protected area.

This needs to be negotiated and discussed to see what is feasible and at what cost.

RTCC: What help would benefit the communities?

MB: In our project, we tried to build a bridge between the Regency decision-makers and local communities and I think local communities and local government were very supportive. As researchers we are not working for a development organisation and cannot build a bridge or a road or bring services villagers need, but what we can do is find ways so that local communities are taken into account in decisions made in the future.

This is something that is still missing. We are moving in the right direction; the head of this new Regency was elected and there is therefore a sense of ownership on the local government. Villagers say “we elected you so now you have to listen to us”.

But there is still a long way until the wishes of local communities are met, their priorities are taken into consideration. Sometimes it needs compromises: you cannot do everything that local communities want – some even wanted an international airport in their village!

Discussions need to be engaged, I think, to improve communication between who is taking the decision, i.e., the local government that is very powerful, and the local community.

Now, for example, the national level, the provincial level and the Regency have each of them a role, but the Regency has a lot of power. It can decide to open a logging or mining company and it would be very hard for the provincial level or national level to prevent that, unless it is in a protected area.

Bringing in the local communities and giving them more of a voice would be very interesting and beneficial for the future of this area.

RTCC: How easy or difficult was it to communicate with local communities? How much did they understand climate/forestry?

MB: Communicating with local people about issues related to deforestation and logging companies is not a problem because they feel concerned. Some villagers want to protect the forest but others want to make sure that they will get a fair share from its exploitation.

However, climate variability is a difficult concept to explain, even in Indonesia, which is at the forefront of climate policies. When we talk about it with villagers, we talk about seasons – normal seasons and what is unexpected and what sometimes happens every 10 to 20 years, and for which villagers would need help because the village would be degraded or destroyed.

When you talk about climate change it is even worse because it is something that needs a longer time pace in order to be felt, for example 10, 50, or even 100 years. It requires a lot of time and explanation. We need to try and bring it back to something that local people are doing in a year, when they are doing it, during what season – dry or rainy – and what changes they saw lately.

Related to REDD. There were some discussions about REDD in the Mamberamo Regency a while ago but they didn’t take off. People begun to think about REDD but I don’t think they had the correct information or they didn’t understand it very well. They thought REDD was going to benefit only to the logging company and not to the local communities, so they rejected it.

In any projects we need to communicate a lot with local communities, and when I say a lot, I do not just mean at the beginning of your research and then at the end, but it should be daily.

When we begun our research we had a community meeting at the very beginning but then after a few days new people would arrive and say they did not understand what we were doing so we had to do it again and again. It is about repetition and building a relationship with local communities and showing that what you promise to do, you will do it.

You also need to take the results back to villagers, to build a long term relationship with them. This should be the baseline for any research, whether REDD, climate change, or a development project or work on deforestation. Scientists, NGOs need to come back and to show the results to villagers, and to ask them for permission to use these results, because they are based on information they gave.

Manuel Boissière, is a researcher for the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) and Centre de coopération internationale en recherche agronomique pour le développement (CIRAD).

He has been working in collaboration with his colleagues Michael Padmanaba, from CIFOR and Ermayanti from Conservation International (CI), with six villages in the region – spanning from communities in mangrove, swamps, to those in mountainous regions upland. This research was supported by the Agence Française pour le Développement (AFD).

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