Monday, 15 June 2009

Humans Intrude on Indonesian Park, Threatening Forests and Wildlife

The price of the land Mukayan bought on the edge of the Kutai National Park on Borneo four years ago has increased sevenfold, he said. He said he caught his pet birds in the park.


Published: June 13, 2009 New York Times

KUTAI NATIONAL PARK, Indonesia — Countless houses and shops built by squatters flank the 40-mile, two-lane road slicing through this national park that, once rich with orangutans and lowland rain forest, now symbolizes Indonesia’s struggle to protect its rare wildlife.

Much of the park’s 490,000 acres has been damaged.

As construction has intensified along the road here on the island of Borneo, it has also brought a sometimes surprising diversity of businesses to the park, including a brothel, the Dika karaoke bar and the Mitra Hotel, which was marking its recent opening with discounts of 40 percent. A new bus terminal and gas station, nearly complete, will perhaps be greeting customers soon.

At one spot by the road, Mursidin, a farmer in his 50s, was one of many people building a home from the park’s trees. Using a sander and a saw hooked to a red generator, he was polishing and laying sheets of wood on the house’s frame as his wife, Nuramanah, looked on.

“We’re worried because the forest rangers warned us several times that we weren’t permitted to build here,” Ms. Nuramanah, who like many Indonesians goes by one name, said as her anxiety seemed punctuated by her husband’s hammering.

If the new houses lining the road were any indication, however, the couple had little to worry about. Forest rangers have been powerless in checking development inside the park as the local authorities have urged people to settle and open businesses here.

Control over the country’s 50 national parks, including Kutai, has grown murky in the past decade as authority has shifted from the central government to the provinces as part of a decentralization of power. Local governments, emphasizing economic development over conservation, have seen parks bursting with natural resources as a way to fill their coffers.

At the same time, Kutai National Park, like others, has been losing trees to illegal loggers, at a rate of one to two truckloads a day, according to forestry officials. Mining companies have also been pushing to explore inside the coal-rich park here, which is already surrounded by coal, fertilizer, gas and timber companies. More than 27,000 people lived inside the park in 2007, according to a government survey conducted that year.

“It’s difficult to control the construction of new houses, which is increasing, because the local governments simply ignore national laws,” Tandya Tjahjana, who took over the Forestry Ministry’s office here a few months ago, said as trucks rumbled by his headquarters here.

As many as half of the park’s 490,000 acres have been damaged because of development and illegal logging, Mr. Tandya said, adding that he had only 27 rangers to patrol the entire park.

Half of all the mammal species in Borneo are said to inhabit Kutai National Park, including the Sambar deer, wild ox, proboscis monkey and orangutan. Aside from a population of orangutans at a research center inside the park, the number of great apes — estimated at 600 — has sharply decreased in recent years because of two fires and human encroachment, researchers and forestry officials said.

Widespread illegal logging and deforestation have reduced Indonesia’s overall orangutan population to about 60,000, an estimated 80 percent reduction in the past decade, said Anne Russon, an orangutan expert from York University in Toronto who has done extensive research on the apes in Indonesia for the past 14 years, including in this park.

Much of the timber is used to make furniture for domestic and overseas markets, while the cleared land is often turned into palm oil plantations. The shrinking of the forest habitats, which threatens some of the world’s rarest wildlife, regularly pits animals against human beings.

In recent months, Sumatran tigers, which face extinction, have killed illegal loggers pushing into the animals’ territory on the island of Sumatra and have been killed in turn by villagers. Also in Sumatra, wild elephants have been fatally poisoned near a palm oil plantation, reportedly by villagers running the site.

The Kutai National Park here was established in the 1980s but, located in what is Borneo’s most developed area, it faced threats from the start. Pertamina, the state oil company, was permitted to operate here and still pumps oil inside a fenced-in enclave. And years before the road was built in the mid-1990s, people had begun squatting here.

“Before, there was only one or two villages here,” said Saparuddin, executive director of Bikal, a local environmental organization. “Now there are seven. You see new houses and businesses being built every day. Maybe someday they’ll build a mall here.”

The park’s human population has risen in recent years as local governments, emboldened by decentralization, challenged the central government by encouraging people and businesses to settle inside the park.

Nowadays, squatters have burned and cleared the areas on either side of Kutai National Park's road.

Indonesia’s Forest Ministry has halted construction of a bus terminal and gas station in the park.

Mr. Saparuddin, 35, who grew up inside the park and still has relatives living here, said giant lowland rain-forest trees used to cover the areas now traversed by the road.

Nowadays, squatters have burned and cleared the areas on either side of the road. The sounds of chainsaws could be heard from inside the forest on a recent drive. In some patches, a single surviving large tree could be seen towering over a cleared area.

The park’s human population has risen in recent years as local governments, emboldened by decentralization, challenged the central government by encouraging people and businesses to settle inside the park.

“The problem of incursions into national parks is very common in Indonesia,” said Ms. Russon, the orangutan expert. “Some are illegal. Others, like the case of Kutai National Park, are sanctioned by local governments.”

Forestry officials are now trying to stop the new bus terminal and gas station from operating. But it is not clear whether they will succeed, especially since the buildings are almost finished.

The government east of here, called East Kutai, has been pressing to have an enclave amounting to more than 10 percent of the park excised from Kutai and officially turned into a subdistrict.

Zairin Zain, a spokesman for the provincial government of East Kalimantan, which supports the enclave plan, said the local authorities believed that they should be allowed to develop it because it had been stripped of wildlife and had been damaged beyond repair.

The bid for the enclave has drawn newcomers to the park, some apparently hoping to sell the land they have grabbed to mining companies in the future. Others have come seeking cheap land and business opportunities.

In a typical, opaque exchange, Mukayan, 43, acquired a piece of land near the park’s northern border from the previous owner about four years ago. He had chosen the location because of rumors that a bus terminal would be built across the road, he said, adding that he had hoped to open a small shop selling snacks to travelers.

Though opposition from the Forest Ministry has halted construction on the terminal for now, Mr. Mukayan said the price of his land had increased sevenfold. What is more, the number of neighboring houses — just a handful four years ago — was growing so fast he had lost count.

In the meantime, Mr. Mukayan kept busy attending to small birds he had caught from the forest and kept in cages hanging from his garage ceiling. A bird he had named General won first prize in a local bird contest.

“I hope, for my business, that the bus terminal will open soon,” Mr. Mukayan said, looking across the road at what must have seemed to him a building tantalizingly close to completion. “I know this is a national park. But we just want to use the land alongside the road. We’ll leave the inside untouched.”

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The destruction of this NATIONAL PARK was first reported on a few weeks ago by COP.

This park is not far from the Indonesian office of The Nature Conservancy - a very large and extremely well funded USA 'conservation' organisation. This same organisation (not specifically the Indonesian office) was heavily criticised in the book "Green Inc." for financial miss-management and a lack of effectiveness.

The Nature Conservancy Indonesia received in December 2007 a A$500,000 donation from the Australian government on top of grants from USAid and it's parent organisation. Eye watering sums of money in any country; in Indonesia these sums of money are breathtakingly large. But what has such vast amounts of PUBLIC money achieved? Where has the money been sent? is their web site. Why not ask The Nature Conservancy?