Saturday, 8 December 2007

Indonesia destroys forests as Bali looks for solution

Indonesia destroys forests as Bali looks for solution

By Charles Clover, Environment Editor, in Jambi, Sumatra

Three miles down a dirt road into a supposedly protected rainforest in central Sumatra, the whine of a chainsaw burst out from the trees.

We had reached the front line in the conflict over illegal logging in the tropics - finding a solution to which is likely to be the ultimate test of any pious agreement about saving tropical forests in Bali next week.

On our way down the forest tracks that had been turned into mousse by the rain, it became clear that we were entering disputed territory.Little forest was left near the road and some of it had already been burned by migrant settlers ready for the planting of rubber and oil palm.

The first sign that we had stumbled on illegal loggers themselves, was an unassuming pile of roofing timbers, skilfully cut straight with a chainsaw and dropped off for collection by the side of the road.Our convoy stopped while the black-uniformed forest guards examined the evidence and lit clove-scented Indonesian cigarettes. Then the illegal logger, who had gone silent, struck up again.

And two guards set off into the dusk in a determined manner, after a word from Sean Marron, head of the Harapan Rainforest project, set up by a consortium of conservationists - the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, Burung Indonesia and Birdlife International.

This time the guards would just issue a warning but next day they would return from two other sorties against loggers in the trees grinning and bringing confiscated trophies such as chainsaw and a set of motorcycle keys. In this part of Sumatra's rapidly dwindling rainforests, the illegal loggers are beginning to face resourceful opposition.

But is it already too late? Or could hundreds of projects based on this one be replicated around the tropics under some Bali agreement, funded by the First World's increasing willingness to offset the carbon we emit?

Harapan, which straddles the border of two provinces near Jambi in central Sumatra, is a piece of lowland rainforest the size of Greater London. It's name means "hope" in Indonesian and the project is intended to bring a grain of hope to those, in Indonesia and abroad, who despaired that they would ever see an end to rainforest destruction.

Harapan's 250,000 acres are the first logged concession to be taken over with the explicit aim of ecosystem restoration. In a sign of how seriously this is being taken by Indonesian central government - which this week also announced plans to seize the funds of illegal loggers - the law was recently changed to make this a valid use of a logging concession.

Harapan was selected by Burung Indonesia after a survey of several exhausted concessions showed its degraded forest was unusually rich in species. These range from mammals such as the Sumatran tiger, Asian elephant and clouded leopard and seven species of primates, to 235 species of bird, some 37 of them globally threatened with extinction.

Scientific thinking had assumed that in degraded forest tigers would exist at a lower density than they do in primary forest. In fact, because there are many more wild pigs at Harapan in the once-logged forest, there were far more Sumatran tigers than officialdom had expected.

The riches of Harapan's interior were evident on a nine-hour journey we made through it one day this week.

In the depths of the forest, in part that had been clear-felled in the 1970s, we saw the tracks of a young tiger, together with those of a Malaysian tapir, a leopard cat and a porcupine.

There was also dung from a less recent visit from wild elephants, now sprouting little clumps of green from the seeds contained within.

While we waited for the 4x4 vehicles to winch themselves out of trench-sized waterlogged ruts - the Harapan consortium has decided to leave the roads unrepaired to deter logging lorries - we trained our binoculars on a greater corcal (a relative of the pheasant), red jungle fowl, a Rufous bellied eagle and (a favourite of mine) a greater racket-tailed drongo, which is black and white with two trailing tail feathers like a bird of paradise.

It was therefore depressing to think that forest on a neighbouring concession has by and large all the same species.

It is shortly to join other surrounding forest in being logged, thus beginning a cycle of commercial exploitation and official neglect which has destroyed all but 600,000 hectares out of Sumatra's 20 million hectares of lowland forest and put millions of hectares of land to waste.

Sumatra has lost a staggering 80 per cent of its old growth forest in an orgy of logging, both legal and illegal, over the past 30 years, putting it in a league occupied only by Kalimantan - Indonesian Borneo - and the eastern Amazon.

The cycle of destruction, which so far affects only Harapan's north east corner, works like this. A failure of officialdom to enforce the rules in logging concessions means too much timber is taken out.

A similar failure to enforce land rights, despite the fact that the government owns all forest land, often the result of corruption at all levels, means illegal loggers move in, often in collusion with illegal squatters.

The squatters, often economic migrants from overcrowded Java who can get here on a bus, are often taken advantage of by unscrupulous local leaders who use them to annex large areas of land for themselves and while charging the squatters fraudulently for their supposed rights to the land.

This appeared to be the game three miles inside Harapan's north eastern boundary, where a new mosque had been built, three walls of a school and 100 new homes. The quality of the building in this Wild West town was high, far higher than that employed by local subsistence farmers, whom the Harapan project tolerates if not actively encourages.

The strategy was clear: if the homes and the school could be occupied, then local government could be persuaded effectively to legitimise the land-grab, annexing in the process 12,000 out of Harapan's 250,000 acres. Our first illegal logger was one of this vanguard.

Harapan has been asking the police to intervene for more than two months. This did not at first happen. Then, with Bali on the horizon and questions likely to be asked, the police launched three raids in a week.

Out of 300 illegal loggers with chainsaws operating in the forest, 200 have now gone and the co-ordinator of the new settlement on the north east flank is in jail. More ominously, police seized a lorryload of illegal timber, only for it to be seized back at gunpoint by soldiers who were on the side of the loggers.

There could be more nervous moments to come for Harapan's ornithological backers, who find themselves playing in a very big league.

When the former forestry company that ran the concession tried to displace illegal loggers and squatters, it found its camp under attack from men armed with parangs (bush knives) who burned it down, together with bulldozers and other machinery.

For this reason, Sean Marron places his faith in discussions, rather than confrontations, building a constituency among the locals by training them as guards, and an insistence that any real enforcement will be done by the police. The forest police, however, whose expenses the consortium have undertaken to pay, have yet to turn up.

These are still early days for Harapan, for it only got going in May, but it is so unusual that it is already being used as an example 950 miles away in Bali this week - as a possible model for using money from the rich North to fund the preservation of rainforests in the poor South, through carbon credits.

Sir Nicholas Stern, who has visited Harapan, will be in Bali next week. He thinks that saving the annual conflagration of the rainforests and paying for their regeneration is the cheapest way of stopping the release of millions of tons of carbon each year.

A study by the University of Michigan estimates that carbon credits could generate $515 million a year for the Indonesian government, nearly double the $258 million it currently gets in tax revenue from logging and palm oil.

I asked Sean Marron and his Indonesian colleague and head of operations, Muhammad Zubairin whether they thought this would work.

Marron did not much like one of the ideas going the rounds in Bali this week which is that there should be a global fund which could reward Indonesia if the amount of green on the satellite pictures increases each year.

He did not think the money would get to the right place.
A series of bottom-up projects, on the other hand, which bought up degraded forest and allowed it to regenerate?

A better idea, he thought, provided it had sufficient money to buy out the man on the chainsaw who tends to earn relatively little out of logging.

If these were purely commercial deals, there would be no guarantee that companies would go for forestry that would save existing rainforest and rare and endangered species. They might prefer commercial forestry projects. On the other hand, conservationists might use the money to pull off projects that would not otherwise happen.

It was left to Mr Zubairin a canny former oil plantation manager, to enter a note of caution. He said: "We've had a lot of assistance for projects in the past but only some have really been successful. It all depends on whether there is good governance and alternative economic opportunities for local people. It is not just a question of funding. If we don't all share the same genuine commitment it is going to be tough."

In other words, negotiators in Bali are going to have to think as much about the developing world issues of tackling corruption, poor law enforcement and land rights for the poor as about climate.