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  March 6, 2002  

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Southeast Asia

Indonesia: More local power may mean fewer trees
By Kafil Yamin

JAKARTA - Indonesia's two-year-old system of regional autonomy could prove hazardous to the country's forests. Activists here point out that while local governments now have more power to manage the areas under their control, they are getting less financial support from Jakarta and are therefore always in search of sources of funds needed for effective governance. The forests, say the activists, are among the most visible sources of quick cash.

Indeed, late last month, local government heads asked President Megawati Sukarnoputri for full control of forests within their administrative areas. Said West Java Governor Nuriana: "We need full power and legislation to control our forest. Without it, we cannot protect our forest and environment." Nuriana also said that he had reached an agreement with other local government leaders to put a halt to logging in natural forests. Logging would be allowed only on teak trees that are planted beyond the preserved forest area.

But activists say they are wary about the new proposal because of the notoriety of many local government officials in disobeying laws in pursuit of profits. Muhammad Muchtar of the group Forest Watch Indonesia (FWI) even said, "It is nothing more than a cunning move to exploit the forest for their own gain." He noted that despite the wider authority given to local officials, "they cannot do anything about various environmental destruction and rule violations. Local officials have even been involved in timber theft and illegal logging. What will it be if they do have the power?"

Indonesia's forests are actually under the control of the central government, through the Perum Perhutani (State Forestry Corp) and Inhutani. Perhutani controls forest areas on Java while Inhutani manages those in Papua, Kalimantan, Sulawesi, and Sumatra. Observers say, however, that the authority of both Perhutani and Inhutani has diminished as the central government loosens its grips on the provinces.

Indonesia's forests are considered to be among the most diverse and biologically rich in the world. Although Indonesia makes up only 1.3 percent of the Earth's land surface, it holds a disproportionately high share of its biodiversity, including 11 percent of the world's plant species, 10 percent of its mammal species, and 16 percent of its bird species.

But a report released recently by the FWI, along with the World Resources Institute (WRI) and Global Forest Watch (GFW), says that Indonesia is now losing nearly 2 million hectares of forest every year, up from 1 million hectares annually during the 1980s. Indonesia's forest cover fell from 162 million hectares in 1995 to only 98 million hectares in 2000, it added. In fact, the report said, the rich lowland forests are already almost entirely gone on the island of Sulawesi and will disappear in 2005 from Sumatra and in 2010 in Kalimantan.

It said that the huge domestic demand for housing and furniture - which needs 13 million cubic meters of plywood and 26 million cubic meters of logs every year - has proved to be very tempting for local administrations, which now want to take control of the forests. As it is, said the FWI, 65 percent of the logs being supplied to the local plywood industry are already from illegal logging.

The report also said that the worsening deforestation rates in Indonesia are largely due to a corrupt political and economic system that regards natural resources as a revenue source that can be exploited for political ends and personal gain. FWI director Togu Manurung, a co-author of the report, also remarked, "Growing lawlessness has been a major factor in increased logging and forest clearing."

Interestingly enough, incidences of illegal logging and farming in national parks, including those in Central Sulawesi, Aceh and Central Kalimantan, have been on the rise since 1998, the year strongman Suharto was forced to step down from power. More than a year later came the move to give more autonomy to local governments.

According to the report, corrupt officials in Perhutani's regional branches apparently entered into "agreements" with local timber businessmen that led to an increase in illegal logging and timber theft, mostly of teakwood.

Indonesia has lost about half of its forestry resources in the past three decades. Log production has thus been on a steady decline, dropping from 17 million cubic meters in 1995 to 8 million cubic meters in 2000, said the forestry ministry. The shrinking forest areas, however, have led to other serious consequences. The large-scale floods inundating many parts of Java in the past few weeks, for example, are due to the fact that forests now make up only 23 percent of the island, say experts.

Indonesian environmental organizations such as the Indonesian Forum for the Environment (WALHI) are putting forward a forestry reform agenda, but to date the government has paid serious attention only to aid donors. Yet even the efforts of aid agencies such as the World Bank to put pressure on Jakarta to rethink its forestry policies have met only limited success.

Laments GFW director Dirk Bryant: "Sixty-four-million hectares of Indonesian forest have been cut down over the past 50 years. There is no economic or ethical justification for another 64 million hectares to be lost over the next 50 years."

(Inter Press Service)

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