Rimba Raya: How Carbon Offsets Are Saving a Tropical Forest

BY JESSICA WEI – APR 18

In Central Kalimantan, a province belonging to Indonesia on the island of Borneo, nearly 65,000 hectares of tropical forest have been set aside to protect one of the most endangered ecosystems on Earth. Located in an area threatened by deforestation, the Rimba Raya Biodiversity Reserve stands out as something special: It’s home to vitally important peatlands (capable of storing more carbon than any other type of vegetation), as well as the world’s largest privately funded orangutan sanctuary, and 14 villages spread out along the Seruyan River. What exists here now is a dramatic departure from what was planned more than decade ago, when the same terrain was slated to become oil palm plantations. And it’s all possible thanks to carbon offsets.

The Rimba Raya project falls in the category of nature-based carbon solutions, which (as you may have guessed by the name) help reduce the amount of harmful greenhouse gas emissions in the air by harnessing the power of nature. Many projects focus on conserving, restoring and improving existing landscapes all over the world. To make nature-based carbon solutions like Rimba Raya possible, funding often comes from carbon offsetting.

Aerial view of carbon offset project Rimba Raya village
Photo credit Rimba Raya Biodiversity Reserve, an InfiniteEARTH project.

How does that work? Essentially, individuals and organizations aspiring to be carbon neutral can balance out the emissions they cause through certain activities—like taking a plane trip, say, or powering a factory—by purchasing carbon offsets. The money then goes to projects like Rimba Raya that remove or reduce emissions. When you buy carbon offsets, you’re throwing your support behind environmental, social and technological change that might not happen without this kind of funding. (Want to know more? Read our guide to carbon offsetting.)

From deforestation to reforestation

Oftentimes, as in the case of Rimba Raya, carbon offsetting helps protect land from a pretty powerful force: deforestation. The tropical lowland island of Borneo has the world’s third-largest rainforest and, at 130 million years old, it’s also the oldest. It’s home to a wide array of wildlife, including the Sumatran rhino, the Bornean bearded pig and its most famous resident, the orangutan, genetically one of the closest cousins to humans. But while it was once thickly jungled, Borneo has experienced widespread exploitation of its natural resources for decades.

Since the 1960s, the island has seen alarming rates of deforestation due to illegal logging and the expansion of the palm oil industry. Palm oil is the world’s cheapest vegetable oil, and it’s in almost every household good you can imagine, from lipstick to boxes of mac and cheese. Nearly 90 percent of palm oil is produced in Indonesia and Malaysia, where rainforests are burned down or razed to make room for endless rows of oil palms.

Man in shorts squatting next to crops
Photo credit Rimba Raya Biodiversity Reserve, an InfiniteEARTH project.

In other words, deforestation turns mega carbon sinks into major carbon sources.

Deforestation is destructive in more ways than one. Left undisturbed, peatlands and forests absorb and lock away huge amounts of carbon in plant tissues and soil. But when all that vegetation is cut down, burnt or left to rot, not only do we lose the forest’s carbon-sequestering power, but the stored carbon is released into the atmosphere, accelerating global warming. In other words, deforestation turns mega carbon sinks into major carbon sources.

Each hectare of land converted to palm oil production releases 174 tons of carbon into the area. Between 2001 and 2017, the deforestation total in Indonesia hit 24 million hectares—almost the size of the UK. All in all, Indonesia has one of the highest deforestation rates in the world—and is also among the largest emitters of greenhouse gases on the planet.

Indonesia is now the country with the highest deforestation rate in the world—and is also the fifth-largest emitter of greenhouse gases on the planet

Simply by fending off palm oil production, illegal fires and logging, the impact of the Rimba Raya Biodiversity Reserve, which is roughly the size of Singapore, avoids 130 million tons of carbon dioxide emissions. The success of the project is also proof that protecting the environment and developing a sustainable revenue stream can go hand in hand, with benefits that extend to communities in the area.

Carbon offsets with social benefits

The funding secured through carbon credits is having a transformative effect on the local people

Beyond protecting a vital ecosystem, Rimba Raya is having a transformative effect on the local population, too. Thanks to funding secured through carbon credits, children growing up around Rimba Raya benefit from higher-quality education. Each household is now equipped with an individual water filter, clean-tech stovetops and solar panels for light and power. Villagers have access to floating clinics and libraries, too.

Woman placing eggs into trays
Photo credit Rimba Raya Biodiversity Reserve, an InfiniteEARTH project.

Women can find employment working on two chicken farms and in the production and sales of shrimp paste. Locals can get jobs helping to plant mangroves (the area has planted over a quarter million trees since 2017, with 100,000 more on deck), fight fires and patrol forests, and to rehabilitate orangutans in the sanctuary. Consider that just over a decade ago, palm oil industry was the only significant source of employment opportunities.

Rimba Raya was the first project to meet all 17 Sustainable Development Goals defined by the UN

Because of these initiatives and its impact on the environment, Rimba Raya was the first project to meet all 17 Sustainable Development Goals defined by the UN—which include everything from clean energy to zero hunger—and was the first to qualify for Verra’s Sustainable Development Verified Impact Standard register. It’s a shining example of how preserving our ecosystems for the sake of the planet can also significantly improve the lives of the people within them.

Rimba Raya is just one of the many nature-based climate solutions out there funded by carbon offsetting. You can find projects supporting all of the planet’s most important biomes, from the mangroves in Madagascar to Canada’s old-growth boreal forest. If you’re inspired to buy carbon offsets yourself, look for ones listed in reputable official registries, like Gold Standard or Verra, to ensure your money is going to the right place.

Proboscus monkeys snuggling in tree
Photo credit Rimba Raya Biodiversity Reserve, an InfiniteEARTH project.

If all goes according to plan, in 30 years, Rimba Raya won’t need to rely on funding from carbon offsets anymore. By then, the area will be self-sufficient, led by the local children currently getting an education. But in the meantime, the project exists to bridge the current reality with a future full of possibilities.

This article offers general information only and is not intended as legal, financial or other professional advice. A professional advisor should be consulted regarding your specific situation. While the information presented is believed to be factual and current, its accuracy is not guaranteed and it should not be regarded as a complete analysis of the subjects discussed. All expressions of opinion reflect the judgment of the author(s) as of the date of publication and are subject to change. No endorsement of any third parties or their advice, opinions, information, products or services is expressly given or implied by Royal Bank of Canada, RBC Ventures Inc., or its affiliates.

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