Today’s Solutions: January 28, 2023

Indonesia has the third-largest area of rainforest in the world, but it also bears one of the highest deforestation rates on the globe, especially of primary forests – undisturbed, mature tropical forests that are important for biodiversity and carbon storage, among other benefits.

Over the last three years, however, the country’s bleak rate of deforestation has slowed in pace. And according to a new study, one reason for the turnaround may be the country’s antipoverty program – an initiative associated with a 30 percent reduction in tree cover loss in villages.

In 2007, Indonesia introduced a program that gives money to its poorest residents under certain conditions, such as requiring people to keep kids in school or get regular medical care.

Such social programs, called conditional cash transfers (CCTs), are designed to reduce inequality and break the cycle of poverty. Sometimes, however, CCTs can actually negatively affect environmental protection because as people get more money, some of them may clear more land for agricultural needs. In Indonesia, this was not the case.

After analyzing satellite data showing annual forest loss from 2008 to 2012 in more than 7,000 forested villages across multiple islands, scientists from the National University of Singapore discovered that the program was actually associated with a 30 percent reduction in deforestation.

One likely explanation is that the rural poor are using the money as makeshift insurance policies against inclement weather. Typically, if rains are delayed, people may clear land to plant more rice to supplement their harvests, but with CCTs, individuals can use the money to supplement their harvests instead.

Essentially, the new study presents “good evidence” that, at least in rural villages in Indonesia, giving people a helping hand helps them cut down fewer trees.

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