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How do we take this public health crisis, the loss of life, our paralyzed economies, and apply what we are learning to our equally urgent climate emergency?

The immediate crisis is painfully tangible. But that doesn’t make the profound, longer-term transformational shifts that are needed to protect our planet any less relevant to us, our economies or our financial markets.

These will just take a little longer to be seen and felt.

Three months ago, the threats of pandemic and our climate change emergency were similar. Both were problems scientists warned about but didn’t look to be happening anytime soon. They were problems for some future year and our governments did little to prepare, or were in the process of reversing protection and preparedness

Then, when the COVID-19 Pandemic started, many Governments didn’t want to take action that would damage the economy so were slow responding, allowing the virus to spread to a point where now, as I write, over 1,300,000 million people have fallen victim, at least one-third of the world’s population is in lockdown and the Pandemic is everywhere a first priority.

But what of that other, ‘future” problem, Climate Change? Might our governments, chastened by one ‘future” problem becoming a “now” problem turn their attention to Climate Change once COVID-19 is beaten? Let’s hope so because Climate Change is a far more difficult problem than the Pandemic and likely to have far more impact on humanity.

So what lessons can we learn from the pandemic that are relevant to climate? The first is that we were woefully unprepared. Despite warnings from the medical community, from scientists, expert opinion was suspect, ‘big government’ was bad and that meant it was easier to ignore.

Likewise, we are largely ignoring the warnings about climate. Science has shown that global GHG emissions must decline by about 45% from 2010 levels by 2030. They must be at net zero by mid-century if the world is to prevent catastrophic global warming. Yet we have not been able to stimulate significant global action to this end.

The Paris Agreement in 2015, the Sustainable Development Goals and agenda to alleviate poverty and protect our planet, looked like the beginning of global collective action but not enough has happened since. Governments have translated their Paris Agreement commitments into nationally determined contributions that aim to reduce emissions. But if these are, indeed, to limit global warming to 1.5°C by 2050 as they must, they would have to be five times more ambitious.

Yet the voices of courageous climate youth activists such as Greta Thunberg are drowned out by inexpert climate-denier opinion across mainstream and social media channels that allow many of our politicians, to ignore what we can plainly see in weather events, migration and other systemic shifts as we move beyond our planetary boundaries.

And how can we get around the structural political problem that politicians exist and get re-elected, where there are elections, in the short run, the time period of a pandemic, while climate change is a long-term phenomenon, albeit increasingly experienced in the short run?

The second lesson is that we have ignored the warnings. For years the wildlife markets in China and elsewhere had been seen as repositories for disease, yet the trade has continued. It’s easier to maintain status quo than act against entrenched interests. We continue to destroy our remaining forests, reducing habitat for wildlife, pushing animals and humans ever closer, and at the same time impacting our climate by reducing watershed protection, eliminating our carbon sinks. Stressed climate, habitats and animals lead to drought and disease. Yet we have failed to act, again preferring not to regulate or legislate protection.

The third lesson has to be the spectacular speed of transmission and impact on our economies of the pandemic in our globalized, hyperconnected world. There are no barriers to pathogens or to the economic consequences of our global shutdown. We are much more vulnerable than we ever imagined.

We can extrapolate to a world where GHG emissions are not curbed, where we keep burning fossil fuels, and warming is not kept within the 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels that the IPCC has warned is manageable. Indeed, we are on a trajectory currently toward a potentially catastrophic 4 or 5 degrees of warming.

We assume that we will continue living as we do, consuming as we have, but we cannot without suffering the consequences. We know from the IPCC and other scientists that we have a decade to shift our global economy or we will reach a point of no return in terms of our climatic shifts.

Perhaps our current taste of swift change will show us all that we cannot take anything for granted, that although many of us haven’t experienced anything like this moment in our lifetimes, others have experienced devastating war or disease. History is replete with sudden shifts and we are not immune.

Unchecked GHG emissions will, in the not so distant future, start to have far more permanent and disastrous impacts on all of us than the current COVID 19 pandemic but unlike a disease that swiftly slips into our communities, keeps us from jobs and kills our vulnerable and then, recedes in a year or two, impacts of our changing climate will be longer in coming and irreversible, at least in our lifetimes. There will be no vaccine for climate change other than worldwide, radical policy change today.

The positive that we should take from our current moment is that there can be swift change. The Chinese government has announced a ban on the wildlife trade, people have stayed home to protect the more vulnerable from disease and companies have encouraged work from home arrangements that will help slow the spread. Governments have rolled out stimulus packages to protect workers and companies. Policy makers and scientists are working collectively to gather data, model the spread of the pandemic, push for new drugs, vaccines and formulate appropriate responses.

The pandemic has kept us at home, slowed our pace, kept us from any travel that wasn’t absolutely necessary. It has made us conscious of unnecessary buying, of hoarding. We have been shamed, at least in Hong Kong, for not wearing masks, for leaving our homes when quarantined, for acting against the public good.

We must not think that, once the pandemic fades, we can return to old consumption patterns. Rather let’s consider what is necessary in our lives and how we help reshape a society that is less consumptive, more centered, innovative and collective, one that no longer taxes our planet and its biodiversity.

We must think about how we invest to promote sustainability, how our supply chains will produce to protect, not encourage, destruction of our important forests and biodiversity, and promote worker rights. It is to our governments that we look in a time of crisis and it is up to our elected officials also to act to protect us not only from this pandemic but also from our climate tragedy.

The collective response to the pandemic has been swift, perhaps not swift enough, but hopefully the four months since December when the coronavirus was first identified in Wuhan has been sufficiently dramatic and impactful to show that we can act locally and globally to stem another existential challenge: Our climate emergency

IMG_1285ADM Capital and ADM Capital Foundation (ADMCF) have received a grant from Toronto-based Convergence to support the design of the Tropical Landscapes Finance Facility (TLFF) and Tropical Landscapes Bond (TLB), which are being developed in partnership with UNEP, ICRAF, and BNP Paribas.

The TLFF will provide long-term financing for projects that improve access to rural electricity, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and enhance smallholder farmers’ livelihoods in Indonesia.

The country is globally the fourth-biggest emitter of carbon, much of this from deforestation. Extreme poverty and a chronic education gap affect many rural areas. An estimated 13,000 villages (out of 75,000) have no power. Hoping to remedy the shortfall in electricity, the government’s current 5-year plan calls for 35 GW of new power of which 8GW is alternative energy.

An estimated USD 16 bn is required to fund this, much of which should be long-term debt yet current delivery platforms could not come close to making such amounts available.

The TLFF will have a strong focus on social and environmental outcomes and the emphasis  on debt ensures local promoters and developers have an aligned interest in project success.

The TLFF structure is such that once projects mature and produce cashflows, they will be parceled up and sold to the private sector in the form of bonds, which will be pass through notes and will only have recourse to the underlying projects.

The design grant is part of Convergence’s efforts to surface the next generation of blended finance models and foster market-wide learning to drive the field forward. Convergence will award a minimum of CAD 10M in design grants over the next five years, and this initial funding is provided by the Government of Canada.

ADM Capital/ADMCF will use the Convergence proof of concept funding to help finalize the overall design of the TLFF, which will also include a grant fund, and structure initial projects that will be funded by the TLFF.

Convergence is an independent institution that helps public, philanthropic, and private investors find and connect with each other to co-invest in blended finance deals in emerging markets. It offers grant funding for practitioners to design innovative blended finance instruments that address a key development need but would otherwise be too risky or complex to pursue.

To share what grantees have learned through their design process, Convergence, in partnership with the Bertha Centre for Social Innovation and Entrepreneurship at the University of Cape Town’s Graduate School of Business, will create learning briefs that outline key decisions and outcomes from the design processes to ensure practitioners considering similar instruments have access to design best practices.

The full press release can be found here.

 

Lisa and Charly Kleissner

Sophisticated Investors like to think their portfolio risk has been carefully mitigated and hedged. For the average portfolio, however, standard risk calculations don’t necessarily include analysis relative to environmental and social  issues an investee company potentially faces, or even resource consumption analysis, yet all can have a significant impact on returns. This is particularly true of a long-term “buy and hold” investment strategy.

By contrast, impact investors believe not only that these factors weigh on a company’s returns, but also a positive screen for companies actively managing these risks can improve a portfolio’s performance.

Speaking in Hong Kong about their own 13-year journey toward an “Impact Portfolio” were Lisa and Charly Kleissner, founders of the KL Felicitas Foundation. As part of their mission, the Kleissners have urged audiences globally to think about how we can better deploy capital to help better steward the planet’s resources. On Tuesday, they spoke at a forum organized by the RS Group, hoping to advance the discussion in Hong Kong.

Today, the Kleissner’s foundation and personal portfolios, managed by San Francisco-based Sonen Capital, are more than 93 percent allocated across four different asset classes to “Impact Investments”, which signal the intent to generate both financial return and “purposeful, measurable, positive social or environmental impact”.

According to “Evolution of an Impact Portfolio: From Implementation to Results“, a report published by Sonen in October last year, the Kleissner’s portfolios have achieved index-competitive risk-adjusted returns, illustrating that, “impact investments can compete with and, at times, outperform, traditional asset allocation strategies, while simultaneously pursuing meaningful and measurable social and environmental impact”.

Their journey toward impact has not been easy, according to the Kleissners, Silicon valley denizens who both worked under Steve Jobs at Apple, among other firms. The process began with dim looks from early investment managers who wanted to focus only on returns.

“We wanted to know about the positive upside for communities, for the environment, from our investments,” Lisa said. “We wanted to make money and have positive impact but our early investment advisors had no idea how to achieve this.”

They sought an advisor who cared about impact. “We didn’t want someone who saw this as simply a job,” Charly said. “We want to change the world not just make money and our investment advisor needed to be a partner in this.”

The results were far-reaching, meaning investment policies needed to become impact investment policies, due diligence restructured, term sheets re-written, new monitoring and exit strategies developed. Sonen Capital was founded in response to this need.

The portfolios the Kleissners ended up with are far from US-centric, with more than 50 percent of investments made globally. Among those are holdings in renewable timber, carbon offsets, water and land use that is respectful of biodiversity. In other words, the Kleissners invest in companies that reflect positive impact. They have opted not to invest in coal-fired power plants or extractive industries.

Three percent of their assets are in early stage direct investments, reflecting their silicon valley, entrepreneurial background. Indeed, the Kleissners efforts to promote the impact sector has included investments of money and their own time in social enterprise incubators. These, and others, the Kleissners like to think of as “catalytic” investments that can lead to change.

Beyond the incubator model to support social enterprise development, the Kleissners  also have invested in helping to build networks of like-minded investors to share due diligence as well as in promoting intermediaries to help develop the impact sector.

“Development of these investor resources is critical,” Charly said, “We want people anywhere to be able to tap into the knowledge”, which is available on the KL Felicitas website.

Measurement, always a difficult discussion, is rigorous across the portfolios, captures trends across the sectors and then includes qualitative analysis, which involves telling the story from the numbers and more.

Charly spoke of impact investment as often an evolution of smarter philanthropy. He also spoke of the importance of collaboration between grantmaking and investment to widen impact, pointing to microfinance as an example of this and to social enterprises that can start life as a nonprofit but move into a more commercial space over time using blended capital.

Speaking in Hong Kong, the Kleissners said, was a learning for them, that having worked with an incubator in India over a number of years, the entrepreneurial context there was more familiar.

In China, where the environmental challenges are substantial and polluting companies numerous, an audience member pointed out that impact might also come from working with conventional companies to change their environmental and social practices, rather than shunning them altogether.

Forest Impact Bonds:

Lisa Genasci —  January 4, 2012 — Leave a comment

We have been thinking a lot about Social Impact bonds and how the concept might apply to conservation finance, which is something about which we ponder a great deal.

Why not a Forest Impact Bond, issued against promised aid streams from sovereign development banks wanting to mitigate climate change and/or promote forest conservation?

These could work in circumstances where communities are key to protecting High Conservation Value forest.

FIBs would be focused on impact-driven community development (schools, livelihoods, health, education) but linked also to real conservation outcomes.

Time is slipping as we try to establish the best way to protect ourselves at scale from climate change, manage and protect our forests for future generations.

The multiple challenges around forest conservation is something we’ve written about previously in this blog here and here.

In essence, the problem is how to compensate governments and landholders for the huge rewards they reap cutting trees from native tropical forests; how to balance development with conservation.

Since 57 percent of the world’s forests are located in developing countries, it is hard to make the economic argument that these areas should not be developed for the benefit of the national population.  Indeed, timber revenues represent the major, sometimes only, export commodity of a country.

The Commission on Climate and Tropical Forests has estimated  that 17 percent of greenhouse gas emissions – an amount equal to the transportation sector – are from deforestation.

At the same time, the scale of financing required to halve deforestation will reach US$30 billion annually by 2020, the U.S.-based commission estimated in the same report.

Only turning to the global capital markets will provide sufficient funding to meet the challenge deforestation presents today.  That strategy could include the use of bonds, which would allow the desperately needed investment at scale.

Communities and Livelihoods the Key to Conservation

Key to this discussion is that not only do governments and landholders need to be compensated for not chopping forests for timber, but local livelihoods are also often linked to forests.

Nearly 90 percent of the 1.2 billion people living in extreme poverty worldwide depend on forests, which provide them with building materials, food, coffee, cocoa, medicinal plants and income from other sources.

Without access to the forests not only do many of these people lose livelihoods but they also may lose their crops to droughts or floods as climates change with deforestation.

Thus communities living in and around forested areas are key to their protection.

Still, even with access to forests, local populations who face the immediate need of supporting their families often don’t recognize the value of conserving forests for the longer term because they cannot meet their immediate needs for food, housing, clothing and education, among others.

Thus, local communities need both education on the value of long-term forest conservation to their own lives (livelihoods, water etc) and help establishing alternative and sustainable income sources.

At the same time, battling to defeat poverty, poor nations argue they cannot be expected to forfeit income from economic activities that lead to deforestation, particularly since there are global  benefits from developing world forest services – carbon, water etc.

They have argued collectively that if global powers want to preserve the rainforests and their natural services provided then those must be paid for.


Rainforest Bonds Not a New Conversation

Indeed, for many years now there has been talk of rainforest bonds, which would help pay the large upfront capital expenditure required to invest in development, livelihoods, conservation to maintain the forests.

Under conventional thought, either forest carbon revenue or other sources of income such those generated by sustainable timber, agriculture or ecosystem service markets (water, biodiversity for example,) would repay investors.

But the conversation around REDD carbon has stalled with regulatory uncertainty. Additionally, in Asia certainly, we are a long way from any scalable ecosystem markets, while the significant upfront investment needed to promote agriculture as an alternative or to build local livelihoods to protect forests is just not available philanthropically.

And that’s just it…the bond conversation has gone on for years with significant players like the Prince’s Rainforest Trust and others eventually pulling back given the difficulties in identifying revenue streams that would work.

Turning to Forest Impact Bonds

So why not step back entirely from the conversation around how to make forests pay and look instead to the large sums promised by sovereign development banks at Copenhagen (US$4.5 billion) and other aid that has yet to find a home for want of knowledge of how to invest those funds with surety and with impact.

And that’s not surprising. Over the past two decades, substantial funds have flooded into Indonesian conservation  (usually to secure national parks or protect wildlife and its habitat) without corresponding transformational change. Over the same period, deforestation has only accelerated, fueled by burgeoning consumption, population explosion and massive urbanization.

So the problem remains, how to ensure that limited funding for conservation is spent with measurable and significant impact? How to balance development and conservation and raise the funds from global capital markets to pay for both?

Indeed, we must increase the availability of performance-linked finance to protect forests for local communities and local governments, in order to maintain them for global biodiversity and as carbon sinks.

In 2007, a similar discussion emerged in the UK around improving social outcomes and reducing uncertainty of funding for social services.

Shortly thereafter, London-based Social Finance introduced the concept of social impact bonds, which target funds to specific projects with measurable results.

If the identified targets are reached, the UK government saves on social programs and those savings are used to repay bond investors, in certain cases with interest. If targets are not reached, bond investors lose out as they would in any junk bond investment.

Turning to the U.S, in last year’s  budget speech, President Obama announced that he had set aside US$100 million for social impact bonds and at the same time two Boston-based companies have recently been established to apply the UK social impact bond concept to the U.S. context.

Why could this innovative approach to generating social impact in the UK and the U.S. not work also to protect forests in Indonesia, targeting communities and livelihoods but at the same time generating extra and measurable impact in conservation?

Given the argument above, and the lack of current appetite for REDD+ and other forms of eco-securitisation backed by forest assets or credits, might we then apply the social impact bond example to community development initiatives in a country like Indonesia?

In this scenario, international government funds, funds from multi-laterals with an interest in combating climate change and conserving  forests for future generations pool funds in an SPV that are then allocated to community development initiatives with specific parameters and measures of impact.

The key would be to persuade the local government to join what would essentially be billed as a development initiative but with additional conservation benefits.

The SPV funds would be available to repay investors in the event that the community development programs, livelihood initiatives, the conservation targets achieve desired results. In this way, the pooled funds are used only if they have been effective and only after impact has been achieved and quantified.

Country funds would likely have to be established separately, with their own fund administrators (local country officials?)  and project monitors.

An initial pilot would likely include just one country – Indonesia perhaps – and one specific target: perhaps livelihoods and education around several conservation areas.

For in-country implementing partners we could draw on local NGOs to support conservation (research and protection) and identify appropriate targets. Microfinance institutions could support business initiatives where appropriate and rural development organizations would help build agricultural businesses that local communities in Indonesia want to generate income.

Legal organisations would need to be employed to help sort out land-titling to establish a legal basis to land ownership. Education NGOs could be employed to boost local knowledge around conservation, while healthcare providers could support rural health development.

This would then be associated by local communities, along with improved education, for example, with conservation of their local forests.

So rather than trying to pry an uncertain financial return out of forest services or REDD+ (although if these markets develop in the future, certainly these could be added to SPV funds) we are trying  to achieve only effective allocation of government/multilateral resources  and measurable impact.

At the same time, however, there could be a return on investor depending on the effectiveness of the programs., while a tranche structure with different risk/return profiles could be used to simultaneously appeal to both groups.

The difference with the UK Social Impact Bond, of course, would be the potential for shared savings. Although it would be important to have local governments as key participants, it is unlikely their own development investments would make this worthwhile.

Who would buy Forest Impact Bonds?

There is growing interest on the part of institutional investors in markets where there are environmental and social as well as financial returns or where there are at least screens for negative impact.

According to Eurosif, total SRI assets under management increased dramatically from €2.7 trillion to €5 trillion, as of December 31, 2009. This represents spectacular growth of about 87% since 2007.

The sense is that when environmental social and governance issues start to affect share price or impact bottom lines boardrooms will take note.

Increasingly, SRI is a mainstream criterion in equity analysis and several stock exchanges have launched tradable indices that track SRI companies or ESG alongside financial performance.  And ratings agencies are emerging to rank companies on their ESG performance.

At the same time, part of the consideration around forests is that they have long carried appeal to institutional investors.

According to an article in The Banker from 2007, more than US$30 billion globally is invested in forest assets, although mostly through funds and largely in the US.

These investments generally offer competitive returns with low or negative correlation to traditional asset classes making them a counter-cyclical hedge.

In Summary…

  • A FIB is a contract with the public sector in which it commits to pay for improved environmental and social outcomes
  • On the back of this contract, investment is raised from investors motivated perhaps not only by commercial but also by environmental and social returns.
  • This investment is used to pay for a range of social outcomes such as poverty alleviation of local communities, improved health and education, all tied to and contingent on conservation of an area of high-conservation value local forest
  • The financial returns investors receive are dependent on the degree to which outcomes improve i.e, they may receive part or all of the initial investment back, and in some cases additional financial returns.
  • A FIB shifts emphasis from paying for inputs and outputs to paying for impacts
  • In its purest form, a FIB has a risk profile more similar to an equity investment than a debt investment

I’ve been thinking recently about Fiduciary responsibility and what that has come to mean over the past two decades of rapid growth.

I’ve been thinking about how and why the interpretation that has crept into investment culture over that period – simply to maximize rates of return  – has slowed an appreciation of investment that doesn’t cause social or environmental harm.

It goes without saying that this has also slowed investment that promotes social good as well as generating returns.

I’ve also been thinking that by itself  this narrow interpretation ignores both business risk and opportunity  – neither of which should be ignored considering the dictionary definition of fiduciary duty:  to act prudently.

Writing in a Capital Institute blog, Stephen Viederman, former president of the US-based Jessie Smith Noyes Foundation, argues that foundations should align program work with investment strategy – something that is all too rare.

“Foundation fiduciaries have an obligation to seek  ‘good’ and ‘competitive’ returns, not necessarily to maximize them,” he says.

Part of the problem has been the accompanying  “myth of financial underperformance from ‘social investing,’ a myth that still lies at the heart of the problem for finance committees who conveniently forget that two-thirds of traditional active managers underperform their benchmarks every year,” Viederman says.

“Yet the profit-maximizing argument–that you will underperform if you do sustainable investing–comes up time and time again in conversations and is never examined by the people who are making it.”

Indeed, most investors are not considering the business risk associated with investing, for example, in a power company, a textile operation or mining business in a region that is water scarce.

Most ignore the reputational risks associated with investing in factories or plants that are polluting, overly consumptive of resources, or engaged in bad labor practices.

“All investments are about the future, but most investment decisions are made on retrospective data, which as fund offerings make clear, are not predictors of future earnings,” says Viederman.

“We need to ask about …  ‘predictable surprises,’ which include climate change, the BP Gulf disaster and the financial bubble among others. …Any institutional investor who ignores them is in breach of their fiduciary duty. To be prudent, as in the prudent person, is in its original meaning, to be farseeing.”

The ADM Capital Foundation launched a web portal, China Water Risk, in October to provide investors and companies with information about water scarcity and pollution in China.

Part of the thesis behind the initiative is that better investment decisions produce better returns in the long run and these usually come with more information – and not the information investors traditionally have sought.

But, certainly, few could disagree that the regulatory environment is changing to reflect resource consumption and that water pricing in the near future will reflect scarcity.

Few could disagree that NGOs are increasingly sophisticated in exposing pollution incidents (see my blog posts on IPE’s Ma Jun and Apple, on Greenpeace’s Dirty Laundry and other reports) and that local protests in China are growing around pollution incidents.

Workers are no longer content to suffer exposure to hazardous chemicals silently, or work extraordinarily long hours without proper compensation.

All are, potentially, a drag on profits. Would it not then make sense for fiduciary duty to include analysis of  such risk?

Fully Risk-Adjusted Returns (FRR), as they might be called, should certainly not be lower as a result, indeed given the current and future challenges the world faces, they could even be enhanced by additional information.

For those who missed this, one company that is looking to consider the impact of production is PUMA, which earlier this year announced the results of an unprecedented environmental profit and loss screening.

This was a big step toward assigning economic value to resources consumed and to emissions. The value assigned was also a step toward determining the true cost of production of PUMA apparel and shoes.

Results from PUMA's Environmental Profit and Loss Analysis

The analysis showed that raw material production accounted for the highest relative impact of Greenhouse Gas Emissions and water consumption within PUMA’s operations and supply chain.

According to PUMA’s report, the direct ecological impact of company operations translated to the equivalent of 7.2 million euros of the overall impact valuation. An additional 87.2 million euros was distributed along the four-tier supply chain.

Thus, the overall environmental impact of GHG and water consumption amounted to 94.4 million euros. That compares to a third-quarter net profit of 82 million euros.

“By putting a monetary value on the environmental impacts, PUMA is preparing for potential future legislation such as disclosure requirements,” the company said.

“By identifying the most significant environmental impacts, PUMA will develop solutions to address these issues, consequently minimizing both business risks and environmental effects.”

Finally, a new and important report from IESE Business school, “In Search of Gama, an Unconventional Perspective on Impact Investing,” steps into the discussion with questions such as:

  • By focusing exclusively on the creation of financial wealth for individuals are financial markets destroying value for society?
  • Is social responsibility a component of investment that is necessarily detrimental to financial return?
  • Should changes be made in the taxation and supervision of financial transactions to account for financial markets’ responsibility to society?

Clearly, business as usual is no longer smart business and change is imminent. Considering the impact of investments and reconsidering how we make investment decisions will be the way forward.

Let’s start  by redefining fiduciary responsibility, considering Fully Risked Returns. Clearly, returns may actually be enhanced either when viewed through the lens of an appropriate risk framework/weighting or in reality as a result of a superior business environment.

Last week we spent some days plowing through one of the most important areas of tropical rainforest in Borneo,  central Kalimantan’s Sabangau, looking for Orangutans, gibbons, Langurs and other primates as well as learning about the ecology of the peatland habitat.

For two days we started at 4:30 am in the dark, wearing headlamps, looking for the elusive apes. Although boards (built on a former logging railway) run for some kilometers through the 45-hectare grid within which the researchers we were visiting spend most of their time, much of the forest walking was through deep peat swamp that occasionally reached mid-thigh! See the photo above of  intrepid ADM Capital partner Robert Appleby taking the measure of the peat’s depth!

The walk, more often a run, as over hours we chased to reach the spot where a gibbon grouping or orangutan had been spotted by the Dayak or foreign teams working the forest, was often a challenge but incredibly rewarding nonetheless.   Seeing the majestic creatures in the wild was truly breathtaking. The gibbon photo above was taken by the OuTrop crew.

We were visiting Oxford Primatologist Dr. Susan Cheyne who along with other senior wildlife conservationists leads a team of young researchers working out of an old logging camp situated in the designated Sabangau “Natural Laboratory” about an hour and  a half by road, boat and foot from Palangka Raya. The Laboratory sits within the 500,000 hectare Sabangau National Park, which actually is not yet officially a national park.

This year ADMCF has provided support to Dr. Cheyne through Oxford University’s Wildlife Conservation Unit (WildCRU), which also backs the conservation and research effort. Dr. Cheyne and her team monitor the distribution, population status, behaviour and ecology of the forest’s primates, carry out biodiversity and forestry research, and work with local partners to implement conservation solutions.

The team is sponsored in Indonesia by the Center for International Cooperation in Sustainable Management of Tropical Peatland (CIMTROP), which is responsible for conservation of the important 50,000 hectare peatland forest.

That involves mostly ranging and firefighting, although there is also an ongoing effort to dam the many canals built through the forest that were used to transport the illegal logs to the river and are now drying up the swamp. Estimates are that the peatland, as deep as  19 meters in some spots, is sinking with the lowered water table and this of course threatens the trees and amazing wildlife, which is just beginning to recover from logging.

Sabangau was turned over to conservation  in the late 1990s after Orangutan Tropical Peatland Project (OuTrop) research managed to document the incredible biodiversity of the forest and establish clear records of substantial populations of primates, clouded leopards and other endangered species.

Previously Sabangau was a logging concession, although luckily it was only selectively cut. More destructive though was the illegal logging that followed in the late 1990s – when the canals were cut through the swamp and more of the forest was chopped. Still, the research team has shown that surprisingly primates are returning to the peatland forest, which also has regenerated well.

Estimates are that the Sabangau previously hosted populations of about 14,000 orangutans and 40,000 gibbons and now numbers of each are at about half that amount, according to Dr. Cheyne.

Along with Dr. Cheyne, two other senior OuTrop primate researchers work from the Setia Alam camp: Simon Husson and Helen Morrogh-Bernard, who were among the first to identify the orangutan populations in  Sabangau and set up the camp with CIMTROP early last decade. OuTrop has been excellent at attracting paying volunteers and research interns to help survey the primates and biodiversity in the peat forest. Each individual seems to play a strong role in helping to build a portrait of the unique ecology of Sabangau. Certainly, more help is always needed for this important work, which is critical to inform conservation and indeed learn about the behavior of the animals.

To illustrate the importance, previous research establishing that the populations of apes lived in the forest was enough to persuade the Indonesian government that the area should be conservation forest. Now, new research is showing that adult male orangutans might need much larger range areas than previously believed, while gibbon family groupings perhaps also need more dispersal space in order to establish healthy populations.

The teams also believe that because food (flowers and fruits)  in the acidic peat swamps is not as plentiful as in regular tropical forest, apes may develop sophisticated mental maps of so-called “destination trees” and return to these in season to maximize their travel efficiency. The concern is that if these large feeding trees disappear so will the feeders.

Out of curiosity, we visited Block C of the Mega-Rice project. Which was indeed a sorry sight: So many kilometers of barren land subject to annual and devastating fires on the peatland where nothing now grows but scrub.

In the last days of the Soeharto era, Indonesia’s corrupt leader apparently handed logging concessions equal to about 1.4 million hectares to two sons and declared an ambitious plan to convert the Kalimantan peatland forest into rice padi, to be farmed by migrant workers from Java. The idea was to make Indonesia self-sustainable in rice production.

But the Project was a failure because acidic peatland was completely unsuitable for growing rice. Huge canals were built in the peat, ostensibly to control water-levels but instead drained the once-flooded swamps. Of course, the sons profited handsomely from the logging concessions, which many believe was the real motivation behind the Project.

In a major drought in 1997 the peat dried out entirely, caught fire and burned for months. This resulted in a smoke haze that covered much of south-east Asia and released huge amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Burning forests in Indonesia are largely responsible for the country’s designation as the world’s third-largest emitter of greenhouse gases.

The former Mega-Rice area continues to burn annually during the dry season and is considered one of the world’s biggest environmental disasters. Luckily the Project was stopped before the Sabangau Forest itself was drained and cleared.

ADMCF recently spent time in Patna, in India’s Bihar state where we were looking at how we might work effectively with the Musahar community, which ranks at the bottom of the dalit or untouchable caste.

We found that there is apparently relatively little concrete information about or assistance given to the Musahar, whose name translates quite literally as the “rat-eaters.” Estimates of their numbers in Bihar and other states range from 2 million to as high as 5 million.

The Musahar fall so far down the well of the Indian caste system that by all accounts its people live in modern India much as they did 2,000 years ago. In an initiative that was perhaps telling about the regard in which the community is held, in 2008 the Indian government acted to help the Musahar by allowing the commercialization of rat meat.

A brief portrait of their situation gleaned from what is available online and through conversations in Bihar: In the villages around Patna in Bihar state, India, child marriage at 13 or 14 is still common, although illegal in India.

In the rural areas, Musahar are primarily bonded agricultural labourers, but often go without work for as much as eight months in a year.  Children work alongside their parents in the fields or as rag pickers, earning as little as 25 to 30 rupees daily.

The Musahar literacy rate is 3 percent, but falls below 1 percent for the women. Yet it is cast discrimination rather than parents that keep Musahari children away from schools. That said, the schools to which they have access apparently offer so little in the way of education that perception among the community is that schooling doesn’t offer them anything. And it is certainly true that even if they do manage an education certificate, discrimination means few manage to find jobs anyway.

By some estimates, as many as 85 percent of some villages of Musahars suffer from malnutrition and with access to health centres scant, diseases such as malaria and kala-azar, the most severe form of Leishmaniasis, are prevalent.

Besides eating rats, the Musahars are known for producing a good and cheap alcohol so not surprisingly alcoholism is rampant among the community, particularly the men.

Government development programs provide very little support to the Musahars. They are not recipients of housing schemes because generally they do not possess title deeds for their land. They are also the lowest number of recipients of loans from revolving funds within government schemes.  Thus the social support system bypasses them, as do private donations since so little is known about them.

The Dalit community in Bihar as a whole suffers frequent and often unpunished human rights violations. In the ten years before 2003, for example, 4243 cases of Dalit atrocities were registered in police stations, including 694 cases of murder, 1049 of rape, 1658 of severe injury and 842 cases of insult and abuse.

Into this picture walked Sudha Varghese 26 years ago, a nun who wanted to give voice to India’s dalits. The Musahars were the least advantaged of the dalits she could find and she moved into their community to truly understand their needs and way of thinking.

her organization, Nari Gunjan, was born to give voice to the Musahar women in particular. The organization now runs 72  primary education centres and a residential hostel/school for girls. Nari Gunjan promotes social, political, and economic empowerment for the women and girls. Beyond education, some of the centers provide vocational training and assist with micro-credit for Musahar women.

A decade ago, recognizing the need also to represent Musahar women in the courts, Sudha sent herself to law school and returned armed with a new skill set she has used to pursue the prosecution of ten rape cases that without her would have gone unpunished. In each case, she lead a column of Musahar women to the police stations to persuade officers to make the right arrest and in each case she has succeeded in putting the perpetrators behind bars, she says.

Known as the “bicycle nun” Sudha visits the various communities on her bicycle, and her fragile appearance belies a ferocious determination to provide Musahar children with education, self-esteem and purpose, its women with hope. For her courage, India’s national government recently awarded Sister Sudha the country’s highest civilian award, the Padmashri.

During a visit, the difference between children who attend her education centers and those who don’t was immediately apparent. Still, like any organization working in difficult circumstances that has been around for some time, achieving a constant flow of funding, even at the modest scale Nari Gunjan requires, is extremely hard. Some of the education centers have gone unfunded for 10 months although the teachers continue to work and the children appear.