INDONESIA: Construction in Aceh Endangers National Forests

Publisher Name: 
Asia Times Online

A government plan to cut
down more trees in one of the largest national
parks in Indonesia to help rebuild tsunami-ravaged
Aceh has drawn opposition from environmentalists
and officials in the country's Forestry Ministry,
who claim that the plan could worsen illegal
logging in the country.

"We don't want
Gunung Leuser National Park to be cleared as the
source of logs for Aceh," Henri Bastaman, senior
adviser to the minister of environment, told Inter
Press Service. "Targeting the park as the resource
of logs for reconstructing the tsunami-devastated
province would completely destroy the area."


Indonesia's Ministry of Forestry has
estimated that about 8.5 million cubic meters of
timber is needed to build 123,000 houses for
Acehnese who survived the December 26 tsunami
disaster. Of the total figure, 6 million cubic
meters will be in the form of logs and the
remaining 2.5 million cubic meters will be sawn.


The epicenter of the undersea earthquake
was near Meulaboh in western Aceh. The tsunamis
that resulted from the quake hit the coastlines of
a dozen countries in South and Southeast Asia,
killing more than 220,000 people. In Aceh, more
than 70% of the inhabitants of some coastal
villages are reported to have died.

The
official death toll in Indonesia has exceeded
120,000, while more than 127,000 others remain
missing. The exact number of victims probably will
never be known.

According to the Ministry
of Environment, the central government in Jakarta
is targeting Gunung Leuser National Park, which
has been declared a world heritage site by the
United Nations Educational, Scientific and
Cultural Organization because of its complete
ecosystem, to be the "supplier" of the logs.


"The government's argument is that we have
the Gunung Leuser in Aceh so we should use it. But
we don't see it as the solution," Bastaman said.


Instead of clearing the protected forests
in Gunung National Park, Bastaman suggested that
the government either import wood or ask developed
countries to provide timber to construct new
homes, schools and fishing boats for tsunami
victims.
Environment Minister Rachmat
Witoelar has rejected the plan to exploit Gunung
Leuser, which comprises 850,000 hectares of
tropical rainforest, and instead asked other
countries and aid agencies to donate logs for the
reconstruction of Aceh. So far Sweden has
expressed its intention to supply logs for Aceh's
reconstruction.

"The rehabilitation of
Aceh must not damage our forests," Witoelar said.
Cutting down trees in Gunung Leuser National Park
would lead to other calamities such as floods and
landslides, he added.

Gunung Leuser is one
of the last places in Indonesia where endangered
Sumatran tigers, orangutans, rhinoceros and
elephants all exist. Yet even before the tsunami
struck Aceh, the national park had been
threatened.

The non-governmental
Indonesian Forum for the Environment disclosed
that one-fifth of the national park has been
affected by illegal logging, and the destruction
is increasing with the construction of a road
network known as the Ladia Galaska project, which
cuts through hundreds of kilometers of protected
forests in Aceh to link the east and west coasts
of the province.

The main section of the
Ladia Galaska road will cut through 100 kilometers
of protected forests as well as some
forest-conservation areas, including the Leuser
ecosystem.

The 2.6-million-hectare Leuser
ecosystem, which encloses Gunung Leuser National
Park, is known to biologists as the most complete
natural laboratory in the world. It is made up of
coastal beaches, lowland swamps, degraded lowland
rainforest, extensive pristine mountain forest,
and isolated alpine meadows and is rich in animal
and plant species.

"The Ladia Galaska is a
crazy project. Imagine building a road in a very
steep and protected forest area," Longgena
Ginting, executive director of the Indonesian
Forum for the Environment, said in an interview.
"The Ladia Galaska road project has opened up the
Gunung Leuser National Park all the more to
illegal loggers," Ginting stressed.

The
Indonesian Forum for the Environment regards the
road network project as "illegal" because no
feasibility study was conducted before
construction began. Moreover, Eko Soebowo, a
geologist at the Indonesian Institute of Sciences,
argued that six of the nine planned roads would
cross the Sumatra fault-line and would thus be
prone to earthquakes and landslides.

But
Indonesia's Ministry of Settlement and Regional
Infrastructure emphasized that the road
construction, which started in 2002, would benefit
the rural economy in the western part of the
province.

Since the tsunami devastated
Aceh, supporters of the Ladia Galaska network have
been using the catastrophe to legitimize the road
construction, which is still ongoing despite
strong opposition by environmental groups.


"We're worried that the tsunami tragedy is
being used to affirm the road construction in the
province," Ginting said. "We have to stop the
road-construction project and prevent Gunung
Leuser National Park as the source of logs."


According to Forest Watch Indonesia, it
would be very risky if all the logs needed for the
reconstruction of Aceh would be sourced
domestically because this would worsen illegal
logging in the country.

Indonesia, home to
10% of the world's remaining tropical forests, has
the world's highest rate of deforestation, with
about 3 million hectares being lost every year.
Indonesian police, military and government
officials often turn a blind eye to illegal
logging and this exacerbates the problem.


Environmental activists have pointed out
that the high demand for timber in the growing
national and international markets and limited
supply cause illegal logging to thrive in the
country and result in increasing pressure on
Indonesia's forests.

Forest Watch
Indonesia disclosed that only 20% of Indonesia's
total demand can be met by the legitimate cutting
of trees. Last year, demand from the local timber
industry averaged between 63 million and 80
million cubic meters of logs. But of this amount,
only 12 million cubic meters of logs were provided
through legitimate cutting.

Togu Manurung,
executive officer of Forest Watch Indonesia,
pointed out that some of the logs being used to
rebuild Aceh were illegally cut from protected
forests.

"The government should declare
publicly and transparently that some of the logs
used for rebuilding Aceh come from illegal logging
operations," Manurung said.

He pointed out
that some Acehnese are aware that the logs they
are using to rebuild their province were illegally
cut, but said, "So far, there was no rejection on
the part of the Acehnese because they have no
choice.

"Providing illegally cut logs for
the rebuilding of Aceh should not be tolerated as
this would induce illegal loggers to continue
their operations," Manurung said. "With the
government allowing the use of illegal logs, it is
giving incentives to illegal loggers."

AMP Section Name:Construction
  • 183 Environment