Indonesia — Like goldfish, people seem to have a memory span that is all too short. This tendency might be forgiven in love — which can not only cause blindness but a faltering memory. But in other matters, like environmental destruction and deforestation, can we afford to makes the same mistakes ad nauseum.
Not a year goes by without a “natural” disaster that is in part caused by deforestation. Floods and landslides are common during the rainy season, while fires, especially forest fires, are a hazard of the dry season.
Just a few days into the new year, more than 100 people had died in floods in East Java and West Java, and thousands of others were forced to evacuate to higher ground. Government officials blamed abnormally high precipitation and other such occurrences, but experts said that despite natural phenomena, it all boiled down to forest crime.
“The precipitation is indeed high, but the level of absorption is low due to deforestation,” said Hariadi Kartodihardjo, environmental activist and former deputy of the state minister of the environment, in a discussion Thursday.
The rate of deforestation is rapidly increasing, from 1.7 million hectares per year in the 1990s to a staggering 2.83 million hectares per year at present, placing the country among those with the highest rates of tropical forest loss. The remaining 120.35 million hectares of forested area in the country are threatened by forest concessionaires, primary forest conversion — land clearing but no reforestation, and rampant illegal logging, with over 50 million cubic meters of timber being stolen and smuggled out of the country every year.
Togu Manurung of Forest Watch Indonesia said the government was a major threat for forest conservation as it had let the problem go on for years, with limited legal action against the perpetrators.
“We know that illegal logging is an organized crime, everybody is aware that it is backed by individuals from the police and military, but it continues to go on. A number of recommendations have been made to the government, but they’re not implemented,” he told the discussion. Had the government been able to overcome the problem, he added, the state would not be losing around US$3 to $4 billion a year.
Activists and experts are particularly concerned about forested areas of Java, where 80 percent of the total of three million hectares of forest is in critical condition. With over 60 percent, or around 130 million people, of Indonesia’s population living on the island, there is a high risk of human fatalities in deforestation-related natural disasters.
Between 1999 and 2003, at least 26 floods and landslides occurred. More disasters are predicted as the road network in the southern part of the island expands.
“Data shows roads built in Indonesia post-1980s are not aimed at advancing the goods and services industry and increasing export. They only benefit investors. While the environmental and social impacts are high,” said political scientist Andrinof Chaniago of the Habibie Center.
Hariadi said that it all boiled down to structural problems in the government, whereby every department and state-owned company was required to generate income.
“It’s all about commodities — short-term profit — but there is no sustainability. If we just let the forest be — it already benefits us — but the ‘green GDP’ (gross domestic product) has never been calculated,” he said.
Togu said illegal logging was a crime and the only way to address it from outside Indonesia was to bring in new legislation prohibiting illegally sourced timber and wood products from entering into the markets of the European Union, Japan, North America and other importers. He said importing countries that ignored forest crime in Indonesia were paving the way for forest destruction.
“But Indonesia has the main responsibility since the crime is happening in its territory. Real commitment and action are necessary to combat illegal logging and log smuggling. “We are in a crisis, emergency and radical measures need to be taken now, as we are indeed running out of time,” he said.