19 June 2018

NGO at UCPH seminar: Why did the Danish political focus on SDG goal 15 disappear?

At a seminar at University of Copenhagen NGOs, senior researcher Ida Theilade and an Indonesian government official called for more focus and collaboration on the Sustainable Development goal 15 “Life on Land”.

”Now is the time to do something,” it sounded from the audience at the seminar called Protecting the Tropical Forest and its Biodiversity – the case of Borneo and the Orangutan on June 6. Up to that moment of resolution, several speakers had made their contributions on the rostrum to inform about preservation of the orangutan and its habitat.

Researchers and other stakeholders work in these days to affect the Danish political agenda up to the high-level political forum on sustainable development in July. While others may try to highlight one of the other 17 Sustainable Development Goals, this event focused on creating a more ambitious Danish plan for preserving biodiversity: goal 15 – “Life on land”.

“I really do worry if we do not put a pressure on the SDG 15 it will not be a part of our delegations,” Ida Theilade, senior researcher at UCPH and organizer of the event, told the audience.

Hanne Gürtler, Director at Save the Orangutan, shares this worry. She believes there has been a negative development in political awareness on biodiversity since the Convention on Biological Diversity in 1993. “Now 25 years later, scientists are warning that we are facing maybe the next mass extinction… I mean, what happened in these 25 years?” Hanne Gürtler says and continues: “In Denmark we had a very high profile in the beginning of the convention (…) but nature lost to climate change, CSR, human rights and a lot of other agendas.”

Biodiversity and the orangutan

To put biodiversity back on the agenda the orangutan was the central focus of the day. Its case illustrates how saving one species demands preserving a whole forest of life. Furthermore, its preservation depend on humans to find new and more sustainable ways of doing things, especially one of the keyspeakers, Marie Sigvardt, Head of Programs at Save the Orangutan Foundation in Denmark, explained. Save the Orangutan Foundation have undertaken innovative measures to save the orangutan in the Mawas forest in Indonesia.

Mawas is the size of the Danish island Fyn and has “a unique ecosystem,” Marie Sigvard tells the audience. She continues by explaining how the forest has been troubled especially since the mid-1990s when the Indonesian government decided they wanted to be self-sufficient in rice production. Drainage and irrigation canals for the rice paddies were built and trees cut down only later to discover that the area was not suitable for rice farming. This degradation made the area flood prone as the soil no longer could retain the water. “Over the last few years, there has been an average of six floods in a month each one of these floods can last a week maybe even a month and these floods are several meters high,” Marie Sigvard explains and adds, the dry soil also make the forest more prone to forest fires. The canals also cause trouble because they are used to transport illegally cut down timber out of the forest.

Orangutan, picture from Pixabay
Orangutan, picture from Pixabay

Apart from fires, floods and illegal logging, mining and rural activites in the Mawas area cause problems for the orangutans and the locals. Plantation owners think of orangutans as a pest and hunt them and illegal goldmining is “becoming an increasing problem” because they use mercury to extract the gold. This mercury contaminate the water, which is a problem for orangutans, the forest and the locals, Marie Sigvard tells.

Creating new solutions

As a solution to the human caused damage, Save the Orangutan Foundation has taught locals about the ecology and importance of the forest and the orangutans. There are incentives among locals to protect the forest as forest fires, floods and illegal business activities cause problems for the locals. One of the measures, Save the Orangutan Foundation has introduced, is warning systems among local communities to mitigate forest fires. Other measures are that locals participate in planting trees and block canals for illegal loggers. Working together with the Borneo Orangutan Survival (BOS) Foundation’s Mawas-program, the livelihoods and interests of the locals are taken into consideration. When for example fishing from canals no longer is possible because they are polluted or blocked, locals instead are offered small-scale loans, improved market access and new fishponds are established on land.

Furthermore, mapping the area has shown useful: “The local ownership provides incentives to protect the national resources just mapping the land makes them feel a need to protect their area – their villages,” Marie Sigvardt highlights.

The story of Mawas’ degradation does not stand-alone. As the BOS Foundation’s CEO, Dr. Jamartin Sihite told during his presentation 80 percent of the orangutan’s habitat is destroyed by humans on a world scale. The greatest sinners in the destruction of the orangutan habitat are oil palm plantations and mines. Dr. Jamartin Sihite adds, that the BOS Foundation today create partnerships with mining companies and oil palm tree plantations. “You were a part of the problem – now you can be a part of the solution” he says to the companies. One of these solutions is to create areas inside plantations to keep harmed orangutans, which cannot yet survive in the forest. Furthermore, the BOS Foundation has purchased more than 2000 ha land from 2007-2017 to create sanctuaries for orangutans.

Returning to the introduction to this article, an atmosphere of resolution had built up in the seminar room at University of Copenhagen. “There is a changing discourse in Denmark,” the antropologist from Hvalkof Consultingin, Søren Hvalkof, said from his chair in the audience. He participated in a recent political meeting called “naturmødet” and have in genereal experienced that there is a momentum for goal 15 as politicians now discuss wild nature and biodiversity more vividly and openly. To use this momentum and affect the Danish political agenda, seminar participants were invited to contribute to a letter with recommendations, which will be send to the Danish Government.

Written by: Julie Lykke-Nedergaard


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