Inside Indonesia’s ‘Burning Forests’

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Inside Indonesia’s ‘Burning Forests’

Indonesia’s rainforests are being torn down at an alarming rate. Ulara Nakagawa reports on the pressures locals face from the palm oil industry.

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.

Back in the 1980s, the area was turned into plantations for two palm oil companies involved in the illegal clearing of GLNP forests—with the help of Mr. Baron and his community, who were hired as labourers. Baron, a retired mathematics teacher, recalls the moment in the 1990s when he and his neighbours began to sense something was wrong. He says they noticed levels of flooding and drought were both becoming more severe. ‘The water would be so high it would reach our waists,’ he says. ‘We couldn’t cross the roads. From just one day of rain, we’d become trapped.’

Baron says he felt virtually powerless to stop the devastation until 2007, when, with the arrival of the Orangutan Information Centre (OIC), he was handed an opportunity to do something. Led by founding director Panut Hadisiswoyo, the group, whose primary goal is to save the Sumatran orangutan, began to educate locals about illegal logging. It established a small reforestation site in Baron’s neighbourhood, which works in close collaboration with national park officials and local communities to try to undo some of the damage caused through illegal large-scale conversion of forest into oil palm plantation agriculture.

Since then, Baron has become an active member of a new local farmers’ group. OIC offers the members a one-year programme that teaches them the legal situation surrounding logging, and how to challenge illegal loggers when they encounter them.

The last time a group tried to cut down trees in protected areas, Baron himself was on the frontlines of the movement to stop it. He says he confronted the encroachers directly, telling them that their actions were illegal. He says he then contacted a national park forest ranger in an effort to try to stop the logging.

‘I’d do anything to stop anyone who tries to encroach into the national park forest,’ he says. ‘Because in 10 or 20 years from now, I believe my children and grandchildren will be able to enjoy the results of what we’re doing now.’

But such schemes only scratch the surface of the problem, says Hadisiswoyo. OIC, founded in 2002, is the first organization of its kind in Sumatra—a local NGO staffed by Indonesian university graduates. But unlike Baron, Hadisiswoyo sees the current situation as anything but hopeful, in large part because of what he says are failures on the government’s part.

‘The government doesn’t take advantage of the available funds it has to work with,’ he says, adding that those in Indonesia’s forestry department aren’t necessarily conservationists. He says he worries too many could be opportunists looking for a secure, well-paying job. ‘So some likely have no mission to really save the rainforest.’

Hadisiswoyo traces his disillusionment with the Indonesian government back to the early 2000s, when he was studying in London. ‘The government was campaigning for palm oil at the embassy of Indonesia in London. The minister of agriculture delivered a speech saying that palm oil in Indonesia is green, without mentioning the challenges at all,’ he says. ‘So I stood up and said, “You say good things about the palm oil industry, which I agree with. But we have to really address the challenges. I’ve witnessed the destruction by palm oil in the national park, but you didn’t really mention anything about that.’”

So Hadisiswoyo was stunned when a government official responded by accusing him of disloyalty. ‘I don’t know why an Indonesian here tries to say bad things about his own country,’ Hadisiswoyo recalls the official as saying.

Two years ago, Indonesia announced plans to double its palm oil production by 2020 in response to rising demand for the cheap and versatile product. Indonesia and Malaysia are the world’s two largest palm oil producers, accounting for over 80 percent of its global production.

‘Palm oil…plays a vital role in a world where producing sufficient food for the ever-growing population at an affordable price is increasingly challenging,’ argues Peter Heng, managing director of communications and sustainability at Indonesian firm Golden Agri-Resources.

Golden Agri-Resources is the largest palm oil plantation company in Indonesia, currently cultivating 443,500 hectares of oil palm plantations countrywide. Heng says palm oil continues to be an attractive crop for Indonesia because it ‘plays a significant role in the development of the economy, the creation of jobs and the alleviation of poverty.’  He adds that the industry provides direct and indirect jobs for as many as 4.5 million people.

So, will economics continue to trump conservation? Heng says that solutions can be found. ‘We’ve had sustainability measures in place for years. Golden Agri-Resources has strict policies in place for the production of sustainable palm oil,’ he says. ‘The company is absolutely against burning and established a zero burning policy in 1997.’

The company is a member of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), an NPO created in 2004 in response to the rising global concern over the unsustainability of palm oil. Its aim is to bring together groups from across the industry to improve practices worldwide.

But Hadisiswoyo says that when he attended an RSPO summit on behalf of OIC several years ago, the CEO of a Malaysian palm company engaged in illegal logging in Sumatra he spoke to had had no idea it was going on.

In the humid, lush national park forest of Bukit Lawang, Pinem abruptly pauses again. This time, it’s not for the intrusive sound of a chainsaw. Instead, there’s a soft rustling above. An enormous wild male orangutan swings into view and Pinem instinctively crouches down next to a tree trunk and stares upward, looking more like an enchanted child than a seasoned tour veteran.

As the orangutan disappears from view, Pinem whispers, ‘You know, they’re very close to humans—about 97 percent genetically. In Indonesian, Orang means people and hutan means forest—man of the forest. We’re really just living in different civilisations.’

‘Orangutans are the umbrella species for this rainforest,’ he says. ‘If this park is gone, and there are no more trees, I think it will impact not only the orangutan, and not only Sumatra, but the world. Everything is connected.’