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Not so, say its equally passionate critics. Conservationists agree that our remaining forests must be saved, and quickly. Where they disagree is how REDD is funded. Many are fundamentally opposed to a carbon-offset system that only safeguards forests by allowing rich nations to pollute. "We need to find ways to stop burning fossil fuels, not create massive new loopholes to allow the pollution to continue," says Jakarta-based Chris Lang, who runs the website REDD-Monitor. "Carbon-trading does not reduce emissions." Lang believes funding REDD schemes through offsets or other market-based mechanisms would be a "disaster." Still, if all goes to plan, Ulu Masen could be the first REDD scheme to sell forest credits.
Into the Wild
There are several unique aspects to Aceh that have allowed the scheme's creators to blaze a trail. First, a decades-long separatist insurgency by the Free Aceh Movement (GAM) saved the province from the logging frenzy seen across the rest of Sumatra. "If you went into the forest back then there was a chance you'd get shot," says Matthew Linkie, an FFI technical manager based in the province's capital Banda Aceh.
GAM signed a historic peace deal with the Indonesian government in 2005, in the wake of the devastating Indian Ocean tsunami, which claimed about 160,000 lives in Aceh alone. Today, Aceh's governor is a tsunami survivor and former GAM rebel called Irwandi Yusuf, whose background seems tailor-made for REDD: he was trained as a veterinarian and once worked for FFI. "He's one of the few Indonesian politicians who gets it," says Linkie. "He's thinking way beyond his five-year electoral term." In June 2007 Irwandi banned commercial logging in his province, "an unprecedented environmental act" for Indonesia, says Linkie.
Named after a 7,840-ft.-high (2,390 m) mountain within its borders, Ulu Masen is only slightly smaller than Yellowstone National Park, or about 10 times the size of Singapore. It is patrolled by forest rangers employed by the provincial government and by FFI-funded community rangers, many of them once with GAM. Ulu Masen has helped solve a major challenge for postconflict Aceh: finding jobs for ex-combatants. "In theory," says Linkie, "you've got a pool of well-trained forest experts with jungle skills. They make great rangers."
I joined the rangers near the remote village of Geumpang. It is a six-hour drive from the provincial capital Banda Aceh along a semipaved mountain road winding up through dense forest. In places, a line of vehicles backs up as mechanical diggers clear rockfalls. Troupes of long-tailed macaques tumble down from the trees to beg from passing motorists.
Geumpang sits in a valley of rice fields at the heart of Ulu Masen. It is famous for its fertile soil and the gold sometimes found in its rivers. Raked by clouds, it is also famously wet: some people joke that the name Geumpang is a contraction of gerimis panjang, the Indonesian for "constant drizzle." A no-go area during the conflict GAM rebels passed through there on their way between Aceh's east and west coasts it is now a peaceful place. Children walk to school past paddy fields of ripening rice, while glistening water buffalo wallow in pools of mud.
An hour from Geumpang is an FFI camp manned by 10 so-called community rangers, all trained and salaried by FFI, all former poachers, loggers or GAM guerrillas. Keeping them company are five mahouts and their elephants, which are employed for jungle patrols. The camp was set up a year ago. Conditions are basic. The rangers live in tents near a shallow river flowing past overgrown farmland abandoned during the conflict but now slowly being recultivated by returning locals. Insects shriek from the thick jungle beyond. The rangers have discovered that they can get a weak signal just enough to send text messages to family or friends if they strap their cell phones to lengths of bamboo driven into the ground at certain points around the camp. So outside every tent there are phones on sticks, like tribal totems.
FFI has already trained 45 community rangers and hopes to have a total of 150 protecting Ulu Masen by the end of next year. They are paid about $160 a month. Over 10 days, the recruits are taught survival skills, navigation, climbing and search and rescue. A graduation ceremony is held in a river at night, lit by flaming torches, where they are dunked beneath the water then hugged by their trainers. "It's like they've been cleansed, absolved of their pasts," says Linkie.
The Human Touch
Kamarullah, 43, once carried an ak-47 assault rifle through this forest. Today, he grips four fireworks in one hand and a disposable lighter in the other, to scare off wild elephants. Kamarullah, who goes by a single name, is a lithe, taciturn man who spent eight years fighting for GAM; one of his five daughters was born in hiding in the jungle. How many enemy troops did he kill? "I didn't count," he says, grinning shyly.
A week after the 2005 peace deal was signed, Kamarullah emerged from the jungle to rejoin his family, but struggled to support them until joining the rangers. In GAM, he says, "we had an ideology and a purpose." With the rangers, this expert navigator with an intimate knowledge of the area now feels like he is fighting for his homeland again. "I want to protect the animals," he says. "I'm worried they're dying out. We used to find deer near the village, but now they're gone." Still, the rangers are having an impact. "Before, there were maybe 40 people logging in this area," estimates Kamarullah. "Now there are only 10."