Saturday, 18 April 2009

Protecting RI ecosystems

Sudibyo M. Wiradji , JAKARTA | Sat, 04/18/2009

Opinion / The Jakarta Post

Environmental disasters that have hit Indonesia recently, especially in urban and forest areas, can in many cases be attributed to imbalanced ecosystems. The question to be addressed is whether it is possible to protect ecosystems.

Protecting urban and forest ecosystems is a real challenge for Indonesia amid the growing focus on economic rather than environmental issues. Protecting ecosystems entails two big jobs: First, repairing existing environmental damage; and second preventing future environmental damage.

Flooding caused by the collapse of the Situ Gintung sluice gate and, separately, the sudden appearance of critically endangered Sumatran tigers in Jambi and Riau provinces, both serve to illustrate how little attention authorities, officials, politicians and the general public pay to environmental issues in Indonesia.

As we have seen, placing too much emphasis on short-term economic gains will eventually be costly and jeopardize sustainability. Despite differences in location, extent of losses and the numbers of victims, these issues are essentially similar.

They were both the result of imbalances in ecosystems that were brought about by changes made to the environment. These tragedies were not caused by nature alone, but can be blamed in part on human interference in natural systems.

When it was first constructed by the Dutch colonial authorities in 1933, the 31-hectare Situ Gintung dam was surrounded by farms and its upstream area was dense with trees and served as a conservation area (part of Jakarta’s green belt) that prevented land erosion. Several decades later, however, these farms and forest areas have disappeared, replaced by human settlements, with many luxury houses built on the waterfront.

Similarly, large areas of forest ecosystems that tigers live in have been cleared uncontrollably over the years. Massive areas of forests in Sumatra, Kalimantan and Sulawesi have been cleared to make way for fiber plantations for pulp and paper industries, and since the biofuels boom have been cleared extensively for use as oil palm plantations.

Predictably, the scarcity of prey brought about by damage to their natural environment has led tigers to roam further to seek food before finally straying into human settlements.

Human and tiger conflicts in Muarojambi village, Jambi, left eight residents dead, and three tigers were found dead in another similar conflict in Riau, also in Sumatra – and there were possibly other casualties that were not reported.

Damage to tiger habitats threatens to lead tigers to extinction thus affecting the entire biodiversity of Indonesia’s tropical forests. Aside from the Sumatran tigers, the Javan rhinoceros and Borneo pygmy elephants are also on the brink of extinction due to destruction of habitat and poaching.

Through understanding why these problems are occurring, we can conclude without doubt that human interference with natural systems needs to be taken into consideration in formulating measures to prevent similar occurrences in future.

Imbalanced urban and forest ecosystems are the result of a range of complex and underlying causes involving many different parties.

A series of factors reflecting weak institutional and poor governance practices can be held partly to blame. Weak law enforcement coupled with corrupt officials has provided property developers and certain individuals with access to property in restricted water catchment areas surrounding Situ Gintung lake. Correspondingly, a lack of legal sanctions against illegal loggers with military backing has led Indonesia to become fertile ground for illegal logging.

To a certain extent, the prevalence of disasters, people’s lack of respect toward nature and deliberate violation of environmental laws is suggests we are sitting on a time bomb. At this point, those who deliberately violate the environmental regulations or law are indirectly paving the way for disasters and therefore, they should be held responsible for their wrongdoings.

It is high time we intensified our environmental campaigns, not only among students but all stake holders including those who are directly involved in any decision making processes. In this way, hopefully, the nature we have abused won’t strike back – or perhaps we can minimize the number of its strikes!

Can we do that?

The writer is a journalist at The Jakarta Post.