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Monday, September 28, 2009

Indonesia Slows Deforestation

BALI - This year's haze season is in full swing across Kalimantan and residents of Indonesia's portion of Borneo are set for the worst. With the El Nino effect signaling a long dry season and smoke from forest fires already causing airport and school closures across the island, as well as air quality complaints from neighboring Malaysia and Singapore, it once seemed this annual rite would end only after every last hectare of Asia's largest remaining rainforest was slashed and burned.

But cutting through the fog of this war against nature, the truth is that once rapid deforestation is slowing in parts of Indonesia, including in Kalimantan. That smoldering ember of optimism is based on this reporter’s observations and the consensus of knowledgeable people met while traveling across Kalimantan's 558,000 square kilometers (205,000 square miles) in 2006-07 and again this year, writing travel guides.

These resident experts overwhelmingly believe rainforest protection is improving and that the trend is sustainable. While the haze persists, in many areas it is less severe than in previous years. And despite the progress, sources caution that gains are not complete, universal or irreversible.

Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (SBY), elected in 2004 and re-elected this year, gets widespread credit for leading the fight against deforestation. Like his recent predecessors, Yudhoyono pledged to preserve Indonesia's rainforests. Unlike them, he's taken strong steps to keep his promise, starting with Operation Sustainable Forestry, launched in 2005.

"Illegal logging decreased rapidly the first year SBY was in power," veteran travel organizer Lucas Zwaal of De'gigant Tours in Samarinda, East Kalimantan's provincial capital, said. "Powerful people, including government officials, were sent to jail for their roles in deforestation."

That jailhouse roll call includes a governor of East Kalimantan, a Forestry Ministry director, a top provincial forestry official, several Kalimantan regents and chief executives of the largest provincial subdivisions. Previous crackdowns had netted only laborers, truckers and the occasional junior police or military enlisted personnel. Times Tours and Travel founder Juniardi Saktiawan in Pontianak verifies many logging arrests have also taken place in West Kalimantan, where he regularly leads wilderness treks.

Indonesia's military has long been suspected of overseeing illegal logging, a prerogative of its status as an unaccountable, independent fiefdom. Yudhoyono is a former general, and in his quiet, quintessentially Javanese manner, sources believe he's asserted greater civilian control over the military, particularly regarding illegal logging. That said, the military remains deeply opaque and reports of reform are based largely on rumors or distant impressions rather than quantifiable evidence.

Down to the roots
Zwaal notes that the central government's war on illegal logging reaches down to the grassroots. Ordinary citizens can now anonymously report suspected instances to national authorities, bypassing possible corruption at the local level. National ministry officials in the provinces are also being replaced on tighter cycles to prevent overly cozy relationships that in the past have promoted illegal logging.

East Kalimantan Guides Association chairman Rusdiansyah and Zwaal both note that many wood processing plants and wood product factories in Samarinda closed following Yudhoyono’s initial crackdown. Since then, the government has dramatically reduced legal logging as well by reducing the number of permits it issues.

Hosting the December 2007 United Nations Climate Change meeting in Bali gave Yudhoyono's drive to stop deforestation a renewed impetus. The meeting with thousands of delegates from nearly 200 countries highlighted Indonesia's breathtaking rate of deforestation that had catapulted it into the top five global countries in terms of net carbon impact, causing substantial national embarrassment.

More importantly, Indonesia's deforestation example helped create momentum for delegates to endorse REDD (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation (see Seeing REDD over deforestation Asia Times Online, December 11, 2007). If enacted as part of the UN's new climate change treaty, the program will enable government at all levels and communities to receive payments for preservation of forests and reforestation.

That has sparked projects across Kalimantan poised to take advantage of REDD funding. Whether REDD turns out to be a massive boondoggle with little conservation impact, as some environmental groups fear, or a useful tool to stop deforestation, the prospect has gotten many Kalimantan officials thinking green. Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and international aid donors have also contributed to the decline in deforestation.

One of Kalimantan's most infamous illegal logging areas was Sebangau National Park. Logging concessions in the area ended in 1990, yet there were 147 sawmills still operating as late as 2001. Loggers had also built extensive networks of canals to transport cut timber, making the lowland peat forest area more susceptible to burning.

"The government has put forward a real effort to stop illegal logging," WWF's Sebangau conservation and socio-economic development project leader Rosenda Chandra Kasih recalls, "In 2001, only WWF was patrolling this area. Since 2006, there have been a lot of patrols by government authorities."

WWF has begun reforestation with corporate partners in 850 hectares of the worst hit areas of Sebangau, located just 45 minutes by speedboat from Central Kalimantan's provincial capital Palangka Raya and believed to have one of world's largest wild orangutan populations.

In 2007, Nokia and Equinox Publishing, Indonesia's leading English language book publisher, sponsored NewTrees, a corporate initiative that recently spawned an individual version as a smart phone application. (See Trees of profit Asia Times Online, September 26, 2009.) Last year, Indonesian national flag carrier airline Garuda joined the effort with a "one passenger-one tree" planting program.

Going legit
Yayorin, a self-proclaimed "orangutan foundation that focuses on people", works to rehabilitate illegal loggers operating in and around Central Kalimantan's Tanjung Puting National Park, the world's best place to see orangutans in their native habitat. The Indonesian NGO offers villagers alternatives to logging such as cash crop farming and animal husbandry.

"My family life has become much more comfortable, I feel safer and free of fears," said Arsyad, a 30-year-old reformed logger. "I no longer have to move from one place to another; I am happier and feel proud now that I own a rubber plantation and vegetable gardens, as well as a house on my own land."

Not every expert believes less logging is purely good news. "Most easily accessible forest areas have been logged already, so now the cost of transporting timber is more expensive and difficult: more bribes need to be paid for longer distances," said Gabriella Fredriksson, founder of East Kalimantan's sun bear reserve and environmental education center near Balikpapan.

While acknowledging increased law enforcement has had an impact, Fredriksson said, “There is still a lot of illegal timber available for the local market, but possibly large shipments abroad have diminished.” Fredriksson, also co-chair of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature's Bear Specialist Team, adds, "The fire situation seems similar to other years, although the damage to forests is less, as less forest is left in those areas that are easily set on fire. So less forest is being burned, but there are a similar number of hotspots."

Boediono, founder of Irrawaddy dolphin conservation foundation YK-RASI in Samarinda, observed, "Investors are now more attracted to coal mining which is more destructive than illegal logging and gives them quicker profit." Coal barges feeding energy demand from China have replaced log barges along East Kalimantan’s mighty Mahakam River.

Biofueling forest destruction
"Besides that," Boediono adds, "palm oil plantations are easier to get permits [for] from the government since Indonesia always needs cooking oil." Palm oil has become a key factor in deforestation here; biofuel demand has exploded for export to China and India, even though palm oil is a particularly bad energy choice in terms of efficiency.

In Indonesia, oil palm plantation concessions have provided cover for cutting timber and then abandoning the land, often after burning it for final clearance. Even when developed, large plantations rob wildlife of habitat and are a poor substitute for native forests.

"There is more pressure on land as massive land grants have been given for oil palm plantations," Palangka Raya tour operation Kalimantan Tour Destinations (KTD) reported. "The easiest way to clear the land is to log it, then burn it. Also, for the masyarakat [common people], there have been many fires lit by small landholders to clear land for land claims and small plantations, usually rubber."

"The haze this year in Palangka Raya is akin to the horror years of 2002 and 2006, also El Nino years," KTD added. "Pollution factors are well over the dangerous limit of 500 parts per million, according to the scale updated daily in the Bundaran Besar [main traffic circle] in Central Palangka Raya, by the [local] university, and are set to rise further, as villagers plan further burns after Lebaran [Id-ul Fitri, celebrated from September 19]."

Just ahead of Id-ul Fitri, Friends of the National Parks Foundation (FNPF), which conducts reforestation and community development in and around Tanjung Puting, urgently appealed for support for emergency fire fighting. In 2006, fires damaged the NGO's seedling nursery, but FNPF has since expanded the program. Despite this year's setbacks, many in the area believe Kalimantan's forests seem poised to continue their recovery.

Former broadcast news producer Muhammad Cohen told America’s story to the world as a US diplomat and is author of Hong Kong On Air, a novel set during the 1997 handover about television news, love, betrayal, financial crisis, and cheap lingerie. Follow Muhammad Cohen’s blog for more on the media and Asia, his adopted home.


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