Defer and Pass on: Anticipating Accuracy for Carbon


To be presented at Supply & Command: Encoding Logistics, Labor, and the Mediation of Making
April 19-20, 2018 at the Department of Media, Culture, and Communication, New York University

New methods of modelling, planning, and visualizing the future of natural resources and environments have flourished in contemporary environmental politics. In the arena of environmental futures, forest carbon stock is one such example. My fieldwork in the past two summers looks at how geodesists, environmentalists, and technicians in Indonesia scramble to map what’s left of their forests. They act upon carbon futures with the help of scenario planning, models, and maps, extracting, aggregating, and synchronizing data streams from statistical reports, satellite and drone imagery, and technical documents. Such practices around data are integral to the Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation Plus (REDD+) program, a global climate initiative that treats forest carbon as a metric for financing a country’s performance in forest conservation. Under REDD+, the Indonesian state coordinates sustainable forest management practices, acting as the insurer of forest at risk of deforestation. In this sense, the value of forest carbon is less directly tied to individual landowners, but instead on a regional or national level, with the state having to demonstrate the country’s preparedness for REDD+. Crucial in Indonesia’s performance of readiness is the creation of an accurate landcover base map under One Map Policy.

Never is the pursuit for accuracy more evident than in the enrolment of environmentalists and subcontracted mapping technicians in One Map Policy. In 2011, following attempts to bring the restive region of Borneo within the national fold, Indonesia’s Ministry of Forestry and Ministry of Environment compared maps of primary forest to calculate areas eligible for REDD+. The maps, laid on top of the other, showed primary forest boundaries that did not match, stirring uncertainty on the future of climate finance in Indonesia. Environmentalists viewed this mismatch as an opportunity to make more accurate images with drones. Mapping and surveying technicians, eager to redress inaccurate and outdated data for policy-making, retrain themselves to better identify forests from non-forests. Both groups contribute heavily, yet invisibly, to President Joko Widodo’s (2014 –) decree for the acceleration of One Map Policy in 2016 – an integrated “super databank” for spatial data across Indonesia’s 18, 309 islands. 85 thematic maps will be remade according to a single base map to detail environmental risk and inform decision making.

In effect, an accurate map today underpins a plausible future carbon trade on the ground, providing information to carbon investors to calculate risk and reward from such transactions. One Map appears at once, an attempt by the Indonesian state to anticipate a share of international climate finance in a horizon where more forest carbon await. In this talk, I show how maps format and create the context in which the future of forest life is realized through a state of anticipation. Anticipation, following Michelle Murphy’s (2017) study of infrastructures aimed at governing population for the national economy, can be thought as the “dizzying, abstract heights” of maps and models, and at the same time, “a lived embodied state of expectation, aspiration and anxiety”. It is in this desire and struggle of achieving accuracy that anticipation is reproduced in recursion – a closed loop – demanding its citizens to map now even if the technical pursuit bears little impact for Indonesia’s environment.