The Battle to Save Indonesia’s Disappearing Forests

Zubaidah Nazeer – Straits Times Indonesia | February 23, 2011

Imagine 400 football fields of trees disappearing during the duration of a soccer match. That was the rate of deforestation in Indonesia just a few years ago, between 2000 and 2006.

After bans by European countries on imports of illegally logged timber products, the rate of destruction has halved – to about 1 million hectares a year. But this is still considered high, and urgent action is needed, say researchers, analysts and environmental activists. If nothing is done, Indonesia’s unprotected natural forests will be depleted in about 35 years, said Bustar Maitar of Greenpeace Indonesia.

The consequences have been stark. In the 1950s, over 85 percent of the country was forested land. Today, it is down to under 47 per cent, according to World Bank figures.

Forests are a source of fresh oxygen. The trees and the soil under them also absorb a huge amount of climate-warming carbon dioxide. When large swathes of forests are felled, the chemical exchanges are disrupted, the locked-in carbon is released into the atmosphere, and climate change is sped up.

In 2007, local NGO Pelangi Energi Abadi Citra Enviro – whose report was funded by the World Bank and the UK Department for International Development – ranked Indonesia as the third largest carbon emitter in the world, after the US and China.

Most of Indonesia’s deforestation occurs in areas like Jambi, South Sumatra, West and Central Kalimantan, Riau, and Papua in East Indonesia.

Activists say there is no accurate map showing the extent of the deforestation because of incomplete information given by local provinces, and the inaccessibility of the archipelago’s remote and rugged terrain. Satellite imagery is also hindered by heavy cloud cover throughout the year.

But what is clear is that deforestation began as early as the 1960s, when the export of timber was seen as a quick way of bringing in revenue. With few regulations, illegal logging soon grew out of hand, said Dr Maria Monica Wihardja, an associate research fellow at Indonesia’s Center for International and Strategic Studies.

By the late 1990s, an estimated three million hectares of forest land were being cleared each year, said Dr Krystof Obidzinski at the Centre for International Forestry Research. Decentralized approval of land permits and rampant corruption made it harder to stop runaway forest destruction. Also, large- scale clearing by fire, with its resulting haze, added to the environmental damage.

The cost has manifested itself in other ways.

Animal life has been affected. For example, reports estimated the number of orangutans in Borneo has dropped by over half in the past 60 years, with the loss of their habitat. In Sumatra, their number is just one-fifth of what it was 75 years ago.

At least 78 rivers have reportedly been polluted by activities from palm oil plantations that displaced the forests, disrupting the supply of water to those living nearby.

“There have been cases of increased flooding in some areas which previously had forests because plantations do not have water retention ability like the forest trees,” said Dr Krystof.

Mass logging by timber companies and oil palm plantations has also displaced the Orang Rimba people who live in Sumatra’s Jambi forest. With their homes gone, they have had to be relocated to a state-controlled park.

Jakarta has sought to rein in the problem by amending forestry regulations several times since the 1980s. But experts say these efforts are being undercut by strong lobby groups, corruption, loopholes in the law, and simply, a lack of monitoring and implementation.

A Human Rights Watch report released last month estimated that Indonesia lost $2 billion year from 2003 to 2006 to illegal logging, unpaid taxes as well as hidden subsidies for timber companies. That figure did not include the billions likely lost each year from unreported timber smuggled abroad.

Surging prices for coal and other minerals have also intensified pressure to clear more forest land for mining, said Dr Maria.

Lax law enforcement is also making efforts to save Indonesia’s forests harder. A Chatham House report last July noted that while Indonesia has made great improvement in cracking down on illegal logging, enforcement has been poor, with only a quarter of illegal logging cases successfully prosecuted.

A renewed effort is under way to preserve forest lands through a United Nations scheme called Redd (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation).

Through Redd, Norway has pledged to give Indonesia up to $1 billion if it can prove a reduction in its carbon emissions and halt deforestation.

How successful it will be is still unclear, given the complex network of economic conditions influencing deforestation, the multiple stakeholders involved, and the perennial problem of corruption.

Said the Nature Conservancy’s Dr Dicky Simorangki: “People are still struggling to understand how it works. There has to be an institutional framework, legal mechanisms as well as administrative ones, and a decision over who gets what in the financial incentives.”

Dr Krystof said: “It’s a good concept, but let’s see how well and how far it can be implemented.”

Reprinted courtesy of Straits Times Indonesia. To subscribe to Straits Times Indonesia and/or the Jakarta Globe call 2553 5055.

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