Saturday, 6 October 2007

Papua's forests and global warming

Papua's forests and global warming
Neles Tebay, Abepura, Papua

Papua is the size of California and is almost entirely covered by vast stretches of virgin rain forest spread over 41.5 million hectares -- or 23 percent of Indonesia's total forested area of 180 million hectares.

But some 22 million hectares of these forests are classified as production forests, rather than conservation areas.

Indonesian control over the territory of Papua has seen the region's forests suffer deforestation at the hands of foreign and domestic private companies.

First, during the Soeharto regime, Papua's forests were targeted by logging industries authorized by the Jakarta-based central government. Up until 2001, as many as 40 logging companies -- none of which were owned by the indigenous Papuans -- were active in Papua, with permission from the central government.

The timber companies, without any interference, were able to cut down trees in Papua and sell them to foreign countries. According to Greenpeace, more than 25 percent of Papua's natural forests has been sold by timber firms exporting to Japan, the U.S., European countries and China.

Second, as the timber business is worth billions of dollars annually, Papua's forests have also been targeted by illegal logging companies. Pressure on Papua's forests has progressively increased due to overseas demand, notably from China.

In 2003, some 7.2 million cubic meters of timber was reportedly smuggled out of Papua.

An investigation carried out by the London-based Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) revealed "illegal logging in Papua typically involves the collusion of the Indonesian military, the involvement of Malaysian logging gangs and the exploitation of indigenous communities".

Due to deforestation in Papua, both legal and illegal, Indonesia has been listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as the country with the fastest pace of deforestation in the world. (The Jakarta Post, June 4, 2007).

Indeed, Papua's forests have contributed approximately US$100 million to the central government annually. Third, despite the government's efforts to combat unauthorized logging activities, Papua's forests continue to suffer from illegal logging. Furthermore, Papua's forests are now being targeted by the palm oil industry as well as the timber industry.

President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono has already asked Papua's governor Barnabas Suebu to open up five million hectares of land for conversion into palm oil plantations, in a drive to increase biofuel production and reduce state spending on domestic petrol subsidies (The Wall Street Journal, Aug. 10, 2007).

The government of Malaysia, the world's largest palm oil producer, invited Suebu to see for himself how palm oil plantations can spur economic growth.

Plantation companies from Jakarta and Malaysia have been running out of space in other parts of Indonesia. Meanwhile, European demand for biofuel remains strong, therefore Papua's virgin forests will continue to be targeted by palm oil producers.

China National Offshore Oil Corporation (CNOOC) and its Indonesian partner, PT. Sinar Mas Agro Resources &Technology, have announced they signed an agreement with Jakarta to invest $5 billion over eight years to develop palm oil plantations in Papua.

PT Sinar Mas is expected to clear some 1,2 million hectares of Papua's rain forests in Boven Digul, Merauke and Mappi regencies to make way for palm-oil plantations.

Meanwhile, a Korean company in collaboration with a national company, is also planning to fell trees to clear the path for palm oil plantations. So, it is clear that some millions of hectares of Papua's virgin forests will be deliberately cleared by government-authorized palm oil companies.

In other words, deforestation in Papua for the sake of the palm oil industry is being permitted by the government.

The government and the palm oil companies should be reminded that rain forests play a key role in maintaining the world's environmental balance. They need to realize that deforestation in Papua causes not only environmental damage to the western half of the island of New Guinea, but also affects global warming.

As the government destroys more and more hectares of Papua's forests in the name of economic growth, a global warning on deforestation is urgently needed and should be raised by parties in Papua, Jakarta and from other nations.

Clearing our ancient forests to make way for economy-boosting palm oil plantations is not the only way to enhance economic growth in the country. The government should seek other ways to improve economic growth in Papua, and in general, Indonesia.

The writer is a lecturer at the Fajar Timur School of Philosophy and Theology in Abepura, Papua.
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