Fire in the mother lung: Indonesia's forests plan is imperfect, but at least it's a plan
From the eighteenth floor of one of Kuala Lumpur's high-rise
hotels on a muggy winter's morning last year, the entire city was covered in a
smoky haze. Except for the tops of the taller buildings, you could see almost
nothing own below. Asked if this was some local weather oddity caused by the
city's location between the central hills and the flat, humid western Malaysian
coastal plain, a reception clerk replied:
"Not at all. This haze comes from
Indonesia, not Malaysia".
"From the great forest fires in
eastern Kalimantan. When these great fires break out, we get this
"Must be bad news for the Indonesians".
"Bad news for everybody,
for us Malaysians, for the whole of the East, for the world".
Though no forester, the reception clerk had a point. For
foresters and environmenalists everywhere have long maintained that the world
has two great, green mother lungs, one in the West and another in the East.
Should either be destroyed, globe ecology will be badly, perhaps irreparably
damaged. Should both go, scientists insist, our already wounded planet might
suffer environmental hurt beyond healing.
The great Western lung lies within the rainy heart of the vast
Amazon Basin, an area larger than China. Amazonia covers about two-thirds of
Brazil, the world's fifth largest nation, and pushes leafy and riverine fingers
deep into another nine of South America's 13 countries. Though perhaps not yet
beyond hope, Amazonia is an ecologically wounded land, its delicate life systems
mercilessly raped by the avarice, ignorance and indifference to the future of
both greedy and needy men.
But, aside from the massive fires, how goes it with the second,
or Eastern, area mother lung that runs like a broad belt of green through the
major islands of Indonesia (at 6 000 kilometres east to west, with its 13 670
islands, the world's longest-largest archipelago)? l If far from perfect, things
look somewhat more hopeful in this second great green lung. Of course, problems
abound. Greed and shortsightedness are in plentiful supply. Yet there is a
marked difference between the Indonesian and Amazonian situations: the
Indonesian government is at least starting to make an effort to do something
before it is too late. Though many critics disagree - the country's two main
non-government environmental coalitions, Walhi and Skephi, charge that the
government's development philosophy is biased, in favor of industry l and
against the interests of local people - Indonesia ' may now have the most
professional long-term forestry plan in Southeast Asia. Of course, having any
plan at all would be a significant achievement, for the importance to Indonesia
of its forests can hardly be exaggerated. Sales of timber and other forest
products are, after oil, the country's biggest earner of needed foreign
exchange, bringing in ; more than US$3 billion a year, a figure sure to go up l
as the rest of the tropical world continues to destroy its natural tree cover.
Rational forestry planning, in fact, tends to be the exception for members of
the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), most of whose policies are
hardly models of far-sighted thinking. l Thirty years ago, for instance, the
Philippines had 17 million hectares of standing tropical forest. Today it has
only 6.1 million and even this inadequate remainder is going down as fast as
fire, axe and chainsaw allow. In Thailand the once vast forests of teak,
rosewood and other highly-valuable tropical hardwoods are now mostly memory. In
Malaysia the situation, thanks to a more active conservation policy, seems
better. But even there controversy rages both inside and outside government
circles over serious forestry and environmental abuses, making it difficult to
define how healthy, or unhealthy, Malaysian forestry really is.
A killer fire Malaysia, through its two huge, timber-rich states
of Sabah and Sarawak, shares the island of Borneo with Indonesia, and thus is
also menaced by the killer fires of Kalimantan. The memory of the gigantic
Kalimantan fire of 19B3 haunts both countries. In that fire, Indonesia lost
three million hectares, an area of prime tropical forests as large as Holland. A
conservative estimate of the monetary loss, figured at only US$10 000 per
hectare, comes to US$10 billion, minimum. No nation, East or West, North or
South, rich or poor, can afford that kind of forest catastrophe, to say nothing
of the local, Asian and world environment. The blame for the periodic Kalimantan
fires lies as much with nature as with man. Kalimantan is a vast place, sparsely
inhabited except along the coasts, and its primeval woods and jungles are among
the last of the world's great tropical rain forests. Yet, like parts of
Amazonia, it often suffers from dust-dry drought. With drought comes danger.
A single spark from a farmer's field, from the briefest bolt of
summer lightning, from the itinerant migratory bands of slash-and burn
agriculture practitioners, whether primitive local tribespeople or economic
refugees from jammed-to-bursting Java - any of these can set off a calamity. In
an area as huge and as little developed as Kalimantan, the whole of the
Indonesian army could not adequately patrol the entirety of its deep and
The government's own drive to take more people from acutely
overcrowded Java and place them on virgin stretches of the "outer islands" (see
"Troubles of transmigration", p. 38) itself contributes to the periodicity of
the killer fires. "The world's farmers past and present have always used fire as
a l tool, both for opening up agricultural areas and for enriching them", said
an environment specialist from the Ministry of Forestry.
"Where bulldozers and other forest-clearing equipment are not
available, fire is the easiest and fastest way to open an area for cultivation.
It is easy to say, 'well, why not evict these forest destroying farmers?
But they too are citizens and they too must eat.
"Their periodic and repeated burning-off of stubble, stumps,
weeds, grasses and other unwanted inhibiting material allows the farmer to plow
the phosphorus-rich ashes into the soil, thus fertilizing it. Yet, as Prometheus
discovered, fire, though indispensable to man, is difficult - sometimes utterly
impossible - to control. Fire of whatever nature, even a matchstick, is
potentially both a liberator and a destroyer. Mankind has never completely
mastered fire. Perhaps we never will". Change in thinking Until the great fire
of 1983, Indonesia had more or less the same sort of "chop now, worry later"
attitude as the Philippines and Thailand. Aside from the blaze, what made
Indonesia change its thinking? "We finally woke up and got ourselves an
intelligent forestry plan", Minister of Forestry Hasjrul Harahap, an energetic
and candid Sumatran, said at a meeting in Jakarta. Harahap, with State Minister
for Population and Environment Dr Emil Salim, has been among the major
influences in giving forestry and the environment greater priority on the
national agenda. "Our forests are simply too important to take for granted any
more", Harahap said. "They do not, after all, manage themselves. Men must see to
that". He admitted that Indonesia had made "too many mistakes in the management,
or mismanagement, of our forestry sector", and needed a long-term "master plan".
But where to get it? Among its many problems, Indonesia is woefully short of
trained forestry personnel at practically all levels. Though the Ministry of
Forestry employs some 41 000 people, only 4 225 hold university degrees, just 2
575 of them in forestry proper, and most of these are young men and women with
little experience, especially field experience.
After much discussion and sometimes heated debate, the
government decided to call on the World Bank for help. The bank agreed to loan
US$34 million to finance five badly-needed projects: (1) a forest inventory, the
country's first since colonial times; (2) forestry research, until recently all
but non-existent in Indonesia; (3) conservation of the Wonogiri Watershed; (4) a
project for existing and planned national parks and, (5) a "forestry studies" 8
project to, among other things, draw up the all-important master $ plan. The
latter project was assigned to the FAO. "The first thing we had to do was find
out just how much of Indonesia is still truly forest", said the FAO's Dr C.
Chandrasekharan, appointed team leader of the multinational project staff. "The
figures everyone inside and outside Indonesia had been quoting for the country's
forest cover dated from the last years of the old Dutch regime. It seemed pretty
obvious things would have changed since then". Changed indeed. After two years
of study, the FAO team revised downward the standard figure of 144 million
hectares of forest lands to 107 479 000 for the entire country, with only 39 275
300 ha of true production forests. Other forests with production "potential"
came to 18 115 200 ha, tidal forests to 2 149 400, nature reserves and
conservation areas to 14 421 800, and all other wooded areas, including
protected forests, totalling 33517300ha.
Jolted by figures Initial publication of these figures jolted
the Indonesians. No one had expected a drop of anything like that magnitude.
Eyebrows went up. Some officials got angry. Yet the team's conclusions are hard
to dispute. The foresters carrying out the project, employing the latest
computer technology, surveyed all of the available forestry literature, in
several languages, as well as the cutting and loss estimates from every region
of the country. More than 3 000 books old and new on Indonesian forests were fed
into the computers, plus that many again studies and local surveys. Nothing like
it had ever been done before in Indonesia. In fact, it has been done in few
countries, rich or poor. Since beginning its work in 1988, the FAO team has
turned up quite a few forestry facts, some pleasing, others less so, (but all
hard to debate on other than emotional grounds) that were "news" to the
Indonesians. For example:
during the early 1960s, Indonesian timber production
was confined mostly to teak on Java and a limited number of valuable species in
the more accessible natural forests of the outer islands. Since then forestry
activities have moved out of Java almost entirely, to the outer
annual log production has increased during the same period from
below two million cubic metres to 36 million m³, probably the biggest
increase registered in any tropical nation. Fully 97 to 98 per cent of the logs
come from the natural forests of the outer islands;
there has been an
enormous increase in the number of wood-processing units, especially sawmills
and plywood mills, and in the volume of manufactured wood products;
national population swelled from 97 million in 1961 to 165 million in 1985 and
an estimated 185 million in 1991, this along with the rise in income has led to
an enormous increase of wood product sales and production within Indonesia
itself. Seventy per cent of the sawn wood and 14.5 per cent of wood-based panels
are now consumed domestically;
between 1961 and 1987, domestic sawn timber
consumption per 100 inhabitants increased from 18 m³ a year to 38.2; panel
products from 0.1 metres to 7.3; paper and paperboard from 0.6 kilograms to 4.6.
Total consumption of fuelwood for cooking and heating in 1987 stood at l l 5
m³, a figure bound to grow as the population inexorably zooms
trade in forest products during the years 1961 to 1988 increased
several fold. Exports for 1988 amounted to 5.25 million m³ Of plywood and
2.8 million of sawn wood. In 1988, export earnings from forest products for the
first time topped US$ 3 billion;
overall employment in the forestry sector in
1988 was 300 000 people and growing. This does not include those employed in
collecting and processing non-wood forest products such as rattan;
the vastness of its immense, if diminishing, natural forests in Kalimantan,
Irian Jaya, Sumatra and Sulawesi, the great green mother lung now enjoys a
"clear comparative advantage in tropical hardwood production and trade in
tropical hardwood products".
Commenting on the latter point, Chandrasekharan added:
"Indonesia now has no real competitors. It has captured the number one spot in
the world market for tropical forest products". Of the team's findings, only one
has been seriously contested. Its report estimates annual forest losses at 900
000 ha - easily the highest in Asia, or anywhere outside Amazonia - and
potentially ruinous to Indonesia's "green gold mine". The Ministry of Forestry
maintains, with some heat, that this is a major exaggeration. National annual
loss of forests is closer to 600 000 ha, its spokesmen insist. But they concede
that even this figure is higher than anybody else's and is menacingly wasteful.
The FAO team's rebuttal is simple: if you accept all of the report's other
conclusions and the evidence on which they rest, how can you deny this single
conclusion - unflattering though it may be - that derives from the same body of
evidence? Though a clear difference of opinion, it is treated as a "gentleman's
disagreement" and has not hampered cooperation. The basic plan stands and is
being carried out with minimal friction between national government and
For whose benefit? That is precisely the problem, charge many
conservationists and non governmental organizations (NGOs), both inside and
outside the country. The plan, they insist, is a cosy agreement between
government and international experts, who are not attuned to the interests of
ordinary people. The NGOs especially, powerful because they represent nationwide
groups with considerable political clout, challenge the plan at its most basic
level, asking "for whose benefit is it designed?" Is it for the forest industry
in particular, most of which is controlled by a handful of multi-millionaires?
Or is it for some vague and loosely defined goal of national development whose
abstract beneficiaries are all but impossible to identify? Or is it, as the NGOs
demand it should be, for the people - especially the people of the areas from
which the timber is being extracted? "So far we have gotten no real answers,
just governmental gobbledygook", said an NGO official from Jakarta, on a trip to
northern Sumatra with other NGO leaders. They had come there to protest the
establishment of the country's newest, largest and most modern pulp and paper
To say that such persistent protests, increasingly vociferous
and ever-more public, irritate the Ministry of Forestry is an understatement.
More than one ranking ministry official has lost his temper trying to "dialogue"
with aggressive and insistent NGO representatives. Among other criticisms, the
NGOs maintain that the national plan still allows too much cutting and does not
make sufficient replanting mandatory. They'd like the plan to concentrate more
on upgrading the living standards and welfare of Indonesia's rural millions in
general, and its forest dwellers in particular. They further complain that the
plan is weak in forest fire protection, as damaging to the nation's agriculture
as to its forests, and that not enough is being done to train local populations
in how best to protect and benefit from their own community forest resources.
Yet another generalized complaint, one that strikes an emotional nerve from
Sumatra to Kalimantan to Sulawesi to Irian Jaya and all the myriad islands in
between, is the allegation that the national forest industries are mainly
engaged "in further draining the resources of the outer islands into Java".
"Java produces the bulk of our politicians", a disgruntled NGO local chief said.
"Java comes in first, second and third place in all our so-called national
endeavors, and the rest of us do well to make fourth, fifth or sixth place. It
is not fair". Some of the plan's critics go so far as to call it just another
example of the "internal colonialism" they claim is now one of the major menaces
facing a majority of the peoples of the Third World. In fairness, however, it
should be pointed out that despite its relatively small size, well below 10 per
cent of the national territory, Java houses about 110 million of Indonesia's
approximately 185 million people. Java is still the country's bread-basket, and
without its crops the inhabitants of the outer islands might be hard-pressed to
find themselves a meal. Finally, the more internationally-minded and
sophisticated of the plan's critics question the whole theory of development as
expounded by the World Bank, the United Nations specialized agencies, and the
increasingly interlocked interests of global business. "This is a Western
banker's view of development", said one especially articulate, if irate, critic,
"and a nine teenth-century view at that. The bankers and their short sighted
supporters believe that money is the measure of all things. They believe that
big bucks alone, if thrown around enough, will put everything right. This is the
old, discredited 'trickle-down' theory, thinly disguised under an afterthought
of half-baked 'green' rhetoric. Our governments, or the handful of families that
run them, blindly follow the bankers' lead, partly because they have no ideas of
their own and partly out of personal greed. However you cut it, under this
development strategy, the people lose".
A healthy sign Despite such harsh, perhaps overly extreme
criticism, the mere fact that a plan has been put in place and national debate
over it is ongoing is a healthy sign. Since 1967, when the government began
encouraging private investment in developing the nation's forests, the number of
forest concessions has gone up every year. There are now 562 private forest
concessions, a few of them covering from half a million to a million hectares,
totalling 60 million ha and distributed over 18 of Indonesia's 27 provinces.
State enterprises, or the "public sector", hold only 2.3 million ha of forest
lands, less than four per cent of the national total. "Some of these concessions
are extremely well-run", Chandrasekharan said. "But too many are also poorly
managed and cause a lot of unnecessary waste. And too few do enough replanting
in either quantity or quality. "There are still many problems to be settled
between the government and the concessionaires. How long a lease should they be
given? How does performance compare with monetary gain? And perhaps above all,
how does the economic health, or lack of it, mesh with the overall economic
performance of the country? Like the debates over the plan itself, these are
important questions not yet fully answered. "But at least Indonesia has made a
good start. Few tropical nations, in Asia or elsewhere, can make that boast".
The assessment is unquestionably a hopeful one. Yet, no matter how much more
professional or realistic the thinking of Indonesian forestry policy has become,
one has only to experience the haze over neighboring Kuala Lumpur to wonder
about the future. Until the fires in the Eastern mother lung can be contained
with some degree of certainty, environmentalists and foresters throughout the
East, indeed the world, must continue to