A government programme, called Aceh Green, aims to integrate former combatants into society.

For decades, the vast jungle interior that blankets the northern Indonesian province of Aceh provided a haven for thousands of rebel foot soldiers fighting a war of independence. Now, still marginalised and largely unemployed despite nearly five years of peace, many former separatists have fled back into the forest, this time to chop it down.

“I spoke to an old rebel captain recently, and I asked him why he continued to illegally log Aceh's forests,” said Mohammad Nur Djuli, head of the Aceh Reintegration Body, an organisation set up by the provincial government in 2006 to help former combatants rejoin society.

“He said, ‘OK, you feed my 200 men and I'll throw this chain saw into the river.' What can I say to that?”

A government programme, called Aceh Green, hopes to provide an answer. Five years after an earthquake and tsunami laid waste to much of Aceh province, killing 1,70,000 people, the provincial government has begun to institute a strategy of economic development. It aims to incorporate sustainable development, integrate former combatants into society and create jobs that fulfil the goal of the former separatist movement: ensuring that revenue from natural resources benefits local people.

The Aceh Green programme, although still in its early stages, has already yielded some results. Hundreds of former rebels, who know the Ulu Masen jungle perhaps better than anyone, are being trained and recast as forest rangers by Fauna and Flora International, one of the oldest international environmental groups in Aceh. The new rangers trek through the woods, armed with compasses and climbing rope, on the lookout for illegal loggers and poachers.

The rangers are picked by their local communities and act as an independent group supplementing an existing but small forest police force — their former adversaries. The former rebels are trained for 10 days by Fauna and Flora International.

Their graduation ceremony looks like an episode of “Survivor.” Exhausted and dirty, they stand in a river surrounded by flaming torches to receive their diplomas, which come in the form of hugs. As in a baptism, they are dunked one by one in the river by their “master trainer” and given a clean uniform to begin their new lives.

“A lot of them cry,” said Matthew Linkie, programme manager for Fauna and Flora International's Aceh branch. “It is amazing to see that among these hardened men. These guys are going from criminals to heroes. They are becoming our eyes and ears. They let us know what is going on in very remote parts of the jungle, places that are normally very difficult to monitor.”

Aceh Green is the brainchild of Irwandi Yusuf, who is a former rebel as well as a U.S.-trained veterinarian and founder of Fauna and Flora International's Aceh branch. He presented Aceh Green to the world at the 2007 U.N. Climate Change Conference in Bali, where, to the applause of the world's environmentalists, he declared that he intended to turn his province into a worldwide model of sustainability.

Analysts have largely praised the spirit of the programme, which hints at a potentially bright future for a region known for disaster and conflict. Several months after the Bali conference, the governor declared a moratorium on all logging in the Ulu Masen forest and began the ranger programme with Fauna and Flora.

In February 2008, Ulu Masen became the first forest to be internationally recognised as protected under the U.N. programme called REDD, for Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation in Developing Countries. The system allows rich countries to offset their carbon output by paying poor countries to preserve their forests. The project could net Aceh an estimated $26 million in carbon credits if it can successfully protect the entire 1.9-million-acre Ulu Masen jungle.

“Aceh Green is the articulation of a vision that Pak Irwandi has had for a long time,” said Lilianne Fan, a former aid worker who is now serving as an adviser to the governor on Aceh Green, using an Indonesian courtesy title before the governor's name.

Aceh, which covers the northern tip of Sumatra Island and supports a population of more than 4 million, has some of the world's richest stores of natural wealth, including natural gas, oil, coal, gold, iron, copper, tin and hardwood timber. It was the struggle to control revenue from these natural resources that prompted the long-running separatist rebellion.

Now, the provincial government, empowered by a 2005 peace agreement that gives it limited autonomy from Jakarta, Indonesia's capital, hopes to extract those resources in a sustainable manner and for the benefit of its residents.

Critics say that although Aceh Green is a good idea, the province lacks the government infrastructure and overall willpower to make it effective.

Some aid workers jokingly refer to the programme as “Aceh Brown,” pointing out that in the remote areas where they work, the sounds of chain saws have grown louder than ever in spite of Aceh Green and the logging moratorium. In response, the government says it is not yet capable of monitoring the whole forest.

One of the forces behind Aceh Green is an urgent need to improve Aceh's economy. Analysts say growth is essential for maintaining peace, but the economy is faltering as the multibillion-dollar reconstruction effort after the 2004 tsunami winds down. Local environmentalists now fear that, in the rush to compensate for the unemployment that has come with the end of international aid projects, the spirit of Aceh Green will be diluted.

The governor “supports the investors, not the environment,” said Arifsyah Nasution, coordinator for Kuala, an umbrella organisation representing 25 local environmental groups. “The governor says they are doing it in a ‘green way,' but we have yet to see any results. To us it is all just jargon, a way to attract large-scale investment.''

At the heart of Aceh Green's difficulties is the lack of a fully functioning government in much of the region. More than 30 years of conflict and the tsunami have left provincial and local governments in tatters. Corruption, especially at the local level, remains prevalent, according to anti-corruption watchdogs like Transparency International.

“The Aceh Green team works alone,” Nasution said about the governor's team, which works out of Banda Aceh, the provincial capital. “There is very little coordination or understanding among other sectors of government.”

“There are a lot of conflicting regulations coming from various levels of government,” he added. “It's a mess.”

Fan said that the governor's Aceh Green team planned to spend the next two years strengthening governing skills among local and provincial leaders. They are reviewing forest policy as well as resource extraction. Several projects are in the works, Fan said, including a partnership between the Indonesian government and the German development bank KfW to develop geothermal resources.

For some, including the rebels-turned-rangers, Aceh Green has become a new sort of provincial doctrine.

Kamarullah, 32, a former rebel fighter and illegal logger, said he now considered himself an environmental activist. “Now I understand the importance of the forest. I will always protect it, its wildlife and the environment as a whole from now on, even if I am no longer a ranger.” — New York Times News Service

Keywords: AcheIndonesian province

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