Indonesia — The land still smolders, tinted with a depressing gray. Twisted hulks of tree trunks take on abnormal shapes. A dark black canal cuts through the wasted landscape.
It looks like a scene from an apocalyptic movie where an unknown force has obliterated all life. But this is the reality of Sumatra, Indonesia’s largest island.
The Kampar Peninsula was once virgin rainforest, some of the most biodiverse in the world. The region has now been transformed into a lifeless plain, soon to be replanted with monocultures.
Environmental groups describe the degradation as rampant pillaging — the work of multibillion dollar paper, pulp and palm oil conglomerates.
Already 85 percent of Sumatra’s forests are gone. What is left is vanishing at an alarming rate — an area the size of 50 football fields disappears every hour, according to Greenpeace and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.
Caught in the crosshairs are small villages like Teluk Meranti.
The village lies on Sumatra’s Kampar River. As dawn breaks, fishermen set out into the morning haze. The riverbanks slowly come to life as residents bathe and brush their teeth in its waters. The morning calm is broken by children’s shrieks as they lather their bodies before jumping in.
“The communities here recognize how important the forest is to them. They use the wood to make their homes, their fishing boats,” says Bustar Maitar, a Greenpeace campaigner. “If the forest is gone, it means their livelihood is gone.”
What is at stake is much more than that, environmental groups say. The peat soil of the Kampar Peninsula holds more carbon than anywhere else in the world. Greenpeace estimates that if this whole peninsula, some 1.7 million acres (700,000 hectares), is taken over by plantations, the carbon dioxide released would be the equivalent of 1.6 billion transatlantic flights.
In the middle of this complex struggle between preservation and destruction are the villagers.
A man named Yusuf says his family has been here for four generations and survived without big companies and their big promises.
“The forest is our ancestral inheritance; our ancestors protected this forest,” he says. His voice shakes, tears start to pour. “There is nothing left to be proud of, if the forest is gone. … We will fight — we will fight whatever company tries to destroy our forest.”
One such company is Asia Pacific Resources, one of the world’s biggest pulp and paper companies.
In June, community leaders wrote to Asia Pacific Resources, asking that the land be left alone for the sake of their grandchildren.
The company says it’s bringing 20,000 jobs and sustainable development to the area. According to Neil Franklin, the company’s sustainability director, Asia Pacific’s intention is to use the Kampar region as a model for sustainable development.
“Plantations aren’t developed on all those areas which are given to us by the government. A very careful mapping process goes on before we start any developments at all,” Franklin said. “Kampar Peninsula is an area where these high conservation values are most threatened and we most certainly are aware of that. The key is how do you manage and maintain those values.”
He said the model that Asia Pacific is offering is based on a balance of economic, social and environmental concerns. Solutions, the company says, will minimize carbon dioxide emissions and maximize the benefit to adjacent communities.
The promise of a more financially fruitful life is a powerful lure for some of the most poor villagers. Yusuf admits that more and more villagers, especially the younger generations, are being tempted by the companies.
“We can’t do anything. We don’t have power, we don’t have an education, we don’t have money. They have divided us.”
The confrontation is so tense that Syamsuar, a school teacher who sided with the companies, agreed to talk with CNN, only away from prying eyes.
“The company has committed to developing plantations for us, for our future,” he said. “They will build the public facilities that we need. For example, a mosque. They will create new job opportunities for us.”
Still he said, he wants international nonprofit organizations to be closely involved, in case the companies don’t fulfill their promises.
Greenpeace’s Bustar says the companies promise, only to deceive.
“I am very sad to hear that conversation,” Bustar said of the school teacher’s comments. “Why? Because I believe this person is already influenced by the company. I try to give them examples of other villages where there is no deal until now — there is no delivery of the company promises, but the company already cut down the forest.”
For Bustar, it’s personal. He is from the Indonesian province of Papua, where he grew up watching his people lose their land to big companies, he said.
“Some people, they die to protect their land,” he said. “That gives me the spirit to continue this fight.”
Indonesia does have strong laws governing deforestation, but environmental groups say they aren’t enforced nearly enough. Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono recently pledged to reduce emissions, and Indonesia could benefit from the growing market in carbon credits if it preserves its forests.
Greenpeace is among many environmental groups calling on the government to issue a moratorium on the plantation concessions, before it’s too late.
If the forests aren’t protected, “we will fail to protect our future,” Bustar said. “It means we will fail to protect our Earth where we are living. It means disaster is coming to us.”