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.

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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.

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