Tuesday, 9 June 2009

Where Environmental Hypocrisy Reigns, We Stand to Lose More Than Just Forests

June 09, 2009, The Jakarta Globe

by Sean Whyte

Where Environmental Hypocrisy Reigns, We Stand to Lose More Than Just Forests

There has been a great deal of highly critical publicity recently, both nationally and internationally, directed at the Forestry Ministry’s latest attempt, this time in Sumatra, to rid Indonesia of its rainforests and legally protected species.

Headlines around the world paint a picture of a Forestry Ministry out of control and seemingly untouchable. Foreign donors view the deteriorating situation with growing alarm. The pressure is on to question, even cancel, aid from the European Community and Australia. The United States will surely follow.

Mention Indonesia to anyone overseas and ask them what immediately comes to mind and they will say deforestation, the killing of orangutans and endemic corruption. From what they read in the newspapers they believe, rightly or wrongly, all three are inextricably linked. With a government that appears complacent, possibly even complicit, the country is now at risk of losing tourists as well. After all, who wants to visit a country seemingly determined to wipe out all its wildlife and natural wonders, attractions that people pay good money to see next door in Malaysia?

Public confidence in environmental law enforcement was shattered in 2007 when Forestry Minister MS Kaban came to court to defend a notorious illegal logger, helping him escape conviction despite overwhelming evidence of his guilt.

And it’s not just tourists who are making their voices heard. Some overseas donors may also be angered at what they see as a blatant disregard for environmental law and a Forestry Ministry immune from prosecution. Forestry officials, responsible for protecting national parks and species such as tigers, orangutans and elephants, get away with doing the exact opposite. Why have they not been prosecuted?

Critics look on in amazement, wondering how a minister can totally disregard the statement by President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono that earned no little applause at the December 2007 climate talks in Bali. “The fate of the orangutan is a subject that goes to the heart of sustainable forests,” the president said. “To save the orangutan we have to save the forest.” The Australian government immediately announced a grant of almost $400,000 for orangutan conservation — but has since refused to say what good, if any, this money has done for orangutans.

Eighteen months after the Orangutan Action Plan was launched in a blaze of publicity in Bali, backed by millions of USAID dollars, not a single orangutan or hectare of forest appears to have been saved.

Nothing is safe and everything has a price on its head.

National parks have legal protection status, but the absence of law enforcement leaves even these “jewels in the crown” vulnerable to exploitation. A recent investigation by Center for Orangutan Protection, an Indonesian NGO, found approximately 40,000 people actually living and working in the Kutai National Park of East Kalimantan.

Legally protected species such as tigers, elephants and orangutans are frequently sacrificed by the Forestry Ministry in the name of logging. The most striking example of this annihilation of Indonesia’s natural heritage is the recent case involving the unprotected forest bordering Sumatra’s Bukit Tigapuluh National Park where the Singapore-based Asia Pulp and Paper company was able to purchase a logging licence. Since 2002, some 100 incredibly rare Sumatran orangutans have been rehabilitated in this forest. If the logging goes ahead, all will face certain death.

Which begs the question: Will Asia Pulp and Paper be prosecuted by the very ministry that sold it the licence?

Based on the ministry’s own statistics, about 100,000 orangutans have been either killed or sold since 1970. The government talks about these enormous losses as if they happened by accident. The reality is that they mostly died at the hands of loggers and palm oil companies, many of which bought licences from the Forestry Ministry. In other words, the ministry is not only encouraging the law to be broken, but it actually makes money on the exchange.

Orangutans, a flagship species, are the most enigmatic and iconic wild animal in all of Indonesia. If they cannot be saved from extinction what chance is there for other species? Despite the thousands of orangutans being killed or stolen, there have been few convictions for either offence.

If the past is anything to go by, the government of Indonesia cannot be trusted to keep its promises regarding the environment. It is big on headline-grabbing rhetoric but lacks credibility.

As I am writing here in Kalimantan, a forest some 80 kilometres away containing at least 200 legally protected orangutans is scheduled to be logged by the end of the year. Just think about this for a moment. These orangutans have been deliberately sacrificed by the Forestry Ministry, regardless of the law and the wishes of the president.

Take another example, the Kinshasha Declaration for Great Apes, which Indonesia signed in September 2005. The declaration clearly states that Indonesia resolves to set “the target, by the year 2010, of securing a constant and significant reduction in the current rate of loss of great ape populations and their habitats.”

What has happened since? The rate of deforestation and loss of orangutans has accelerated.

Now we see carbon credits being touted by the government as a saviour of forests. Hundreds of millions of dollars might be available for not logging forests. As usual, government officials are quick off the mark in telling potential investors what they want to hear.

But can the government be trusted? Clearly, people overseas, aid agencies included, are fed up with the false promises and deceit demonstrated by the government. Tens of millions of dollars have been given in the past decade, and what is there to show for it? And in the last 10 years how much has the government contributed in hard cash to conserving rainforests and orangutans? Requests for this information have met with a wall of silence.

Over the past 15 years of travelling throughout Indonesia I have found people generally do care about the environment, but feel helpless, often intimidated. These people know when forests are cut down and replaced with palm oil plantations, and they know that the absence of tree cover leads to a rise in temperatures, a fall in the quantity of drinking water available and a compromised ability to fish in rivers poisoned with weed killer and fertilizers.

In no time at all villagers plunge into a poverty trap of low paid, back-breaking work on palm oil plantations. Gone forever is their life close to nature, surrounded by lush green tropical forests that once provided free sources of building materials, food and water for many generations.

Villagers who choose to resist the get-rich-quick option, preferring instead to remain on their ancestral land, now face a new set of problems. Tigers, elephants and orangutans, forced out of their traditional areas now encroach upon crops. The truth is they have no choice, and the new interaction has led to fatalities on both sides.

What does the future hold? Unless the Forestry Ministry is held to account, Indonesia will get more of the same stinging criticism, more deforestation, legal and otherwise, and another 3,000 orangutans will be killed each year until they have all gone. This will come at a high price. Foreign aid will undoubtedly fall away rapidly and the continuous adverse publicity will affect tourism and trade, as overseas customers do not want palm oil in their food that has mixed with the blood of orangutans.

At the end of the day it will boil down to whether or not Yudhoyono will curtail the power and excesses of his Forestry Ministry. We must wait and watch, but time is running out. More immediately the world is waiting to see if Minister Kaban will withdraw permission for Asia Pulp and Paper to endanger those 100 orangutans close to Bukit Tigapuluh National Park — orangutans that have legal protection.

The days of free handouts for little accountability are over. But is Indonesia ready and prepared to prosecute vigorously those who break its environmental laws? There is no time like the present to get started.

Sean Whyte is chief executive of Nature Alert and can be reached at www.naturealert.org.