Forests felled for biofuel boom
Stephen Fitzpatrick, Jakarta correspondent | November 10, 2007
INDONESIAN President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono is facing increasing pressure to sack his Forestry Minister as the scandal around a fugitive illegal logging tycoon mounts.
The political implications of businessman Adelin Lis's flight this week deepened with claims by a leading wildlife activist that jungle species, including endangered orang-utans, were being exterminated as "pests" by companies joining the stampede to replace virgin forest with lucrative palm oil plantations.
The plantations, mostly in Sumatra and Kalimantan, are being established to cash in on the global boom for biofuels, generally by companies that prefer to log old-growth forest for the immediate financial return on the timber rather than use cleared land, as is government policy.
Wildlife activist Hardi Bachtiantoro yesterday showed The Weekend Australian footage of a bounty hunter who said he was employed by a palm oil plantation company in Central Kalimantan to kill the great apes, which are forced to forage among the new palm seedlings because of the rapid destruction of their natural habitat.
Mr Bachtiantoro also displayed graphic footage of killed and injured orang-utans, including that of a young ape that lost its hands when hunters lopped off its mother's head with a machete.
"Because they are six times stronger than even a well-trained athlete, often they suffer severe injuries to their heads, since the only way to subdue them is with a series of violent blows," he explained.
The Forestry Department's conservation director, Toni Soehartono, admitted the practice was widespread but urged understanding of its motivations.
"I'm sure that happens -- in order to establish palm oil land companies clear forests, which causes the death of fauna such as orang-utans and gibbons in Kalimantan, and elephants, tigers and others, including orang-utans, in Sumatra," Dr Soehartono said.
"But all development requires sacrifice -- we just have to make it equal to some extent."
Palm oil is used in a wide range of cosmetics and food products, but its value has skyrocketed with world efforts to reduce dependence on fossil fuels and avert a global warming catastrophe.
However, the rush to harvest the crop is most likely increasing the global warming problem, analysts argue; they say the draining and burning of carbon-rich peatland rainforest to plant palm oil produces more carbon dioxide -- a key greenhouse gas -- than biofuel production can offset.
A UN report this year warned that on current trends, 98 per cent of Indonesian rainforest would be gone by 2022, and that the rate of illegal intrusion by large logging companies into supposedly protected national parks would severely degrade those areas by 2012.
The report, entitled The Last Stand of the Orang-utan, identified corruption and inadequate law enforcement capacity as two of the key problems in what is looming as an irreversible environmental problem.
This week's case in the Medan district court, in Sumatra, has energised the debate around an alleged regional illegal logging mafia, particularly with the disappearance of Mr Lis after police announced they wanted to lay new money-laundering charges against him.
Parliamentary speaker Agung Laksono has urged the President to reprimand Forestry Minister Malem Sambat Kaban, after it was revealed Mr Kaban intervened in the illegal logging criminal charges that Mr Lis escaped this week.
However, a key adviser to Dr Yudhoyono, prominent lawyer Adnan Buyung Nasution, has called for the President to go further, and sack his minister.
"He's the reason the judge was able to set (Mr Lis) free," Mr Nasution said.
After initial comments praising the Sumatran court's decision, an embattled Mr Kaban has refused to make any statement.