Asia Life

Harrison Ford Gives Indonesian Minister Shellacking on Climate Change

The actor rattled Indonesia’s forestry minister after grilling him on logging.

In his roles as Han Solo and Indiana Jones, Harrison Ford has taken on many foes. Now he’s battling a new one as himself: climate change. While taking part in an environmental documentary episode for Years of Living Dangerously, broadcast on the U.S. television network Showtime, the Hollywood icon left Indonesia’s forestry ministry Zulkifli Hasan “shocked” yesterday.

Apparently the 71-year-old actor’s verbal shellacking was sufficient to warrant a potential deportation by Jakarta. It didn’t matter in the end, as Ford, Vice Chair of the Board of Directors for Conservation International, was leaving later the same day. The topic at hand: illegal logging.

“There's no privilege for [Ford] although he is a great actor. His crew and those who were helping him in Indonesia must be questioned to find out their motives for harassing a state institution,” said Andi Arief, an adviser to Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, whom Ford also interviewed. The actor also spoke with activists and businesspeople in Indonesia.

“His emotions were running very high,” Hasan said, according to state-run news agency Antara. "I understand the American man just came here to see Tesso Nilo (a national park on the island of Sumatra) and wanted violators to be caught the same day. I was only given the opportunity to say one or two sentences during the interview.”

Based on Hasan’s account of the event, rather than having a pre-interview warm up Ford metaphorically burst into the room Indy Jones style, while the crew started filming. In the process of being purportedly denied the chance to get a word in edgewise, the beleaguered minister explained that there was ne’er a chance to put the difficulties associated with catching illegal loggers in perspective.

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The Illegal Logging Portal puts this all in a bit of context. Indonesia comprises some 17,000 islands, which are 52 percent covered by forests that total a whopping 133.4 million hectares. Indonesia ranks third in the world for forest area, after Brazil and the Dominican Republic. Although 40 percent of the nation’s jungles are protected, its deforestation rates have fluctuated wildly over the past few decades. From 1990 to 2000 the rates were as high as 1.8 percent. This number dropped to 0.3 percent between 2000 and 2005, before rising slightly to 0.7 percent from 2005 to 2010. Illegal logging accounted for 40 percent of the Indonesian logging industry’s total production as of 2010.

Indonesia is hardly unique. Illicit tree felling is rampant across Southeast Asia. The Diplomat has covered the devastating consequences of deforestation from Indonesia to Malaysia and Cambodia. Then there is the infamous health endangering haze that blankets massive swathes of the region year after year due to practices of slash and burn farming. Even with governmental protection, as of 2011 Gunung Leuser National Park in North Sumatra Province was losing foliage at the rate of 21,000 hectares annually.

While Ford’s journalistic approach may have been questionable, faced with the facts his zeal is understandable. When the problem of deforestation is traced to its roots – whether due to slash-and-burn farming or logging – corruption, often linked to officialdom, tends to surface.

In an evocative video captured in April 2009 by the London-based Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA), illegal loggers are seen clear-cutting massive trees with a chainsaw on Batanta Island in the state of West Papua. The illicit operation, which supplied timber to ex-policeman-turned-timber smuggler, Labora Sitorus, was mowing down 1.5 cubic meters daily. With nine chainsaws, the crew caught in the act on film was likely contributing some 4,000 cubic meters of timber to Sitorus’ illegal business annually.

The problem is generally chalked up to weak official compliance, weak enforcement and a hazy legal system in place for dealing with perpetrators who are caught. In an attempt at putting at least a band-aid on the problem, a partial moratorium on logging was declared in May 2011, which was extended two more years this May. Speaking about this extension, Yuyun Indradi of Greenpeace said, “It’s a good step but there are still too many exceptions and the government needs to be more serious about improving governance.”

In July, Indonesia’s House of Representatives endorsed at last a bill aimed at doing away with deforestation on the islands for good. To say feet were dragged in this process is an understatement. First proposed in 2002, it was not even seriously discussed until 2010. Under the bill, the use of funds earned by illegal logging operations could lead to fines of up to Rp 100 billion ($10 million), while chopping down trees in outlawed zones could land loggers in prison for up to 15 years, compared with the current maximum sentence of 10 years.

An enforcement squad is expected to be assembled following the 2014 elections. “This team will answer to the president,” Hasan said.

This is precisely the problem, according to activists who oppose the bill. One such coalition includes Indonesian Forum for the Environment (Walhi) and the Indonesia Corruption Watch (ICW). “This will hamper efforts to eradicate corruption in the forestry sector because the responsibilities of the task force will overlap with the Corruption Eradication Commission,” the group’s spokesperson Siti Rahma Mary said.

It may take more than an interview by Harrison Ford to sort this out.