Inside Indonesia’s 'Burning Forests'
Image Credit: Wakx

Inside Indonesia’s 'Burning Forests'


Darma Pinem weaves effortlessly through the unforgiving jungle bush before stopping in his tracks. An ominous sounding buzz cuts through the calls of tropical birds overhead. ‘Do you recognize that noise?’ Pinem asks out loud to the trekkers behind him.

He pauses for a moment before turning to us and responding to his own question. ‘It’s a giant cicada!’ Pinem, 35, is one of the most experienced guides in Sumatra, and knows full well that it isn’t an insect at all. ‘No, actually that’s people cutting the woods down,’ he says.

The lush rainforest that comprises Indonesia’s Gunung Leuser National Park in North Sumatra Province is the last remaining place where the critically endangered Sumatran orangutan can safely gorge on wild tropical fruit amid the treetops. Down below, the equally at risk Sumatran tiger, elephant and rhinoceros populations can freely roam through the mud and thick vines. The park encompasses an area of about 1 million hectares, including thousands of plant species, and hundreds of bird and reptile species.

Yet the future for plant and animal life alike here is looking increasingly bleak. Despite being protected by federal law from any form of destructive encroachment, illegal logging is still rampant in the forest, with the foliage of the Leuser ecosystem disappearing at a rate of 21,000 hectares per year.

According to official park sources, ‘weak compliance with government regulations, weak law enforcement for catching perpetrators, and an inadequate legal environment for dealing with those who are apprehended,’ are the main causes for the continued defiance of the law.

Recognising the scale of the problem, conservation groups and environmentalists have gradually succeeded in bringing some local and international pressure to bear on the plight of Indonesia’s ‘burning forests.’ In May, a partial moratorium was announced on logging. But campaigners complain that the move, aimed at protecting Indonesia’s forests, is a ‘disaster.’ It is, they say, full of loopholes that favour corporate interests.

‘Now, we’re losing our natural instincts, our survival skills…because the big companies are too smart,’ says Pinem of the timber industry and palm oil plantation developments that continue to be the main driving forces behind the destruction of Indonesia’s forests. ‘They say to us, “We’ll come here, and solve your problems. We’ll cut down the forest but we’ll build a school for your kids, we’ll employ you for your survival—it’s all you need to do.” And you know, as poor people, we’re thinking, “Wow, they’re angels.”’

‘See this?’ he asks, gesturing toward the large trunk of one tree. ‘This one could be 300 to 400 years-old, and we’d kill it in 5 minutes.’

About 100 kilometres northeast, in Halaban village in the Langkat district of North Sumatra Province, 60-year-old ‘Mr. Baron’ stands near the edge of the park. He says that despite having seen the part of the forest his family lived off of for generations destroyed by the palm oil industry, that he remains hopeful.

Ulara Nakagawa
January 13, 2012 at 11:35

Hi Lisa,

Sorry, I just saw this now and I hope it isn’t too late but if you want to get in touch with Darma please email me at and I will be happy to forward you his contact details.


Lisa Brinkley
December 10, 2011 at 12:11

Hi Ulara
Thanks for your comments. I am planning a visit to Northern Sumarta shortly and would like to meet with Darma Pinem. Can you please provide his contact details or pass mine on to him if you would feel more comfortable doing that. Kind Regards Lisa

Ulara Nakagawa
August 5, 2011 at 11:51

Hi Greg,

Thank you very much for your insight and additional thoughts. I agree that Darma Pinem is one of the people in the region who truly care for the rainforest. I’ve stayed in touch with him, and he is currently working on some projects to try and raise awareness on the issue. If you would like to help with his efforts, or spread the word, please get in touch with me (I am on Facebook or Linkedin)!


August 3, 2011 at 09:25

Indonesia is not alone with their problems about their natural rain forests… here in the Philippines, landslides after landslides occur at our mountainous regions because of balded mountains… the cause of which is illegal logging and large scale mining… very sad indeed…

Greg McCann
July 29, 2011 at 17:34

Darma Pinem was my guide when I visited Gunung Leuser back in 2008. He is one of those people who truly care for the rain forest, and know its secrets. The problems described in the article were going on back then as well. More people need to visit Bukit Lawang -where he works out of, as well as places like Ketambe and Tangkahan (both ecotourist spots in Leuser NP) so that the government of Sumatra can see, if it is possible for them to see this, that the forest is worth more standing than hacked down. For anyone who wants to experience a Southeast Asian rain forest, I can think of nowhere better than Gunung Leuser NP. Go to the park, show your support for this natural treasure.

Share your thoughts

Your Name
Your Email
required, but not published
Your Comment

Sign up for our weekly newsletter
The Diplomat Brief