Indonesia — Indonesia has announced it will stage a “VisitIndonesia Year” in 2008 but tourist packages may not include visits to itsonce pristine tropical forests, savanna grasslands, and lowland forests, asunprecedented deforestation threatens to wipe out these magnificent habitats.
The Culture and Tourism Ministry hopes to attract 6 million foreign tourists andgenerate around US$5 billion in foreign exchange earnings. As part of thepromotion, President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono officiated at the opening ceremonyof the annual Bali Arts Festival in Denpasar on Saturday, and the nationalairline Garuda sponsored a “Bali Food Festival” in Beijing. TheIndonesian Arts Institute is planning an International Arts Festival inNovember, to draw experts in arts and culture from Europe, Australia, the UnitedStates and other Asian countries.
Environmental groups hope some of this revenue will go toward protectingIndonesia’s unique natural assets. Rully Sumada, forest expert at environmentalgroup Walhi, says that 60 percent of the country’s protected and conservationareas have been badly damaged by illegal logging and palm oil plantations. Shebelieves that at the current rate of deforestation, at 2.8 million hectares ayear, forests in Sumatra, Borneo, and Sulawesi will be gone by 2012 whileforests in Papua and elsewhere will be wiped out by 2022 due to the continuedfelling of trees.
Greenpeace Southeast Asia said the Guinness World Records had accepted itsproposal to include Indonesia in its 2008 record book as the country with thefastest rate of deforestation in the world. Indonesia’s forests cover roughly 91million hectares and harbor diverse life forms that include 11 percent of theworld’s plant species, 10 percent of mammal species, and 16 percent of birdspecies — rich resources for eco-tourism.
However, revenues yielded by plantation crops like cocoa, rubber, and oil, andtrading in wood and paper pulp are reportedly more lucrative than tourism, whichexplains the systematic exploitation and destruction of this fragile eco-systemby a series of Indonesian leaders, who used revenues from the forest industryfor political and personal gains. While the Suharto regime profited handsomelyby trading wood, paper pulp and plantation crops like cocoa, rubber, and oil,they virtually ignored the sustainable management and development of these areas.
A series of tragedies — the Asian financial crisis in the late nineties, Balibombing in 2002 and tsunami in 2004 — and other external factors sent the tourism industry into a tailspin for years. However, two decades ofaggressive growth in Indonesia’s pulp, plywood, and paper industries strained legal supplies of wood fiber, resulting in illegal logging and poorforest management. More than 20 million hectares of forestland, cleared in 1985for such purposes as industrial timber plantations and estate crop plantationslike oil remain idle and unutilized.
Though the government provides statistics on tourist spending and hotel roomoccupancies, no accurate estimates are available for forest areas cleared bysmall-scale farmers, though shifting cultivators are believed to cause up to 20percent of forest loss, according to the “State of the Forest” reportcompiled by Forest Watch Indonesia and the World Resources Institute. Also, thegovernment’s transmigration program that relocated people from densely populatedJava to other outer Islands is responsible for about 2 million hectares offorest clearance between 1960 and 1999.
The deliberate burning of forests to make way for plantations, combined withunusual weather patterns due to climate changes, led to uncontrolled wildfiresresulting in the loss of 10 million hectares of forestland between 1994 and1998. There have been no significant efforts at reforesting the burnt scrubbyareas.
Continued periodic setting of forest fires has also affected tourism, flights,and closure of airports, and affected other services like hotel rooms, tours,and the food and beverage industry.
The illegal felling and export of Merbau trees — the most valuable hardwood inSoutheast Asia, has benefited government officials, illegal loggers and powerfultimber barons. If the inflow of tourist dollars has helped the economy, thesystematic pillaging of Indonesia’s forests and illegal wood exports from Acehto Papua, to feed the global demand for wood has left the environment incomplete disarray.
Environmentalists warn that vast tracts of forestland cleared to meet thegrowing global demand for bio-fuels have aided the destruction to biodiversitythrough the effects of deforestation. The technique of clearing land forplantations has emitted large amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmospherewhile destroying the natural habitats of endangered species like the orangutanand the Sumatran tiger.
While the Indonesian government has maintained its commitment on preservingvirgin forests, experts say that efforts often lack funds and resources to fightthe constant threats from illegal and ruthless loggers. The EnvironmentalInvestigation agency and its Indonesian partner Telepak has called Indonesia’srampant deforestation an “environmental crime of unimaginable scale thatcontinues to unfold across Indonesia.” They have also blamed the inadequacyof a judiciary that does little to curb such activities.
Culture and Tourism Minister Jero Wacik, announcing plans for the VisitIndonesia year, said, “We will be out of sight to the rest of the world ifwe don’t take effective and immediate action to raise awareness among overseastourists that Indonesia is a safe and attractive place to visit.”
With the focus on tourism and economic growth, awareness of Indonesia’sdeclining natural habitats has fallen on blind eyes, which could have a catastrophic effect on the global environment and world economy.