05 December 2007

In Indonesia's shrinking forests, a glimmer of hope


Indonesian girls ride a motorbike past a deforested area in Tesso Nilo village in Riau province, on Sumatra island, Indonesia, Thursday. (Dita Alangkara/The Associated Press)

In Indonesia's shrinking forests, a glimmer of hope

KUALA CENAKU, Indonesia: Here on the island of Sumatra, about 1,200 miles from the global climate talks under way on Bali, are some of the world's fastest-disappearing forests.

From here, to anybody looking out over a vast wasteland of charred stumps and dried-out peat, the fight to save Indonesia's forests can seem nearly impossible.

"What can we possibly do to stop this? I feel lost, I feel abandoned," said Pak Helman, 28, a villager here in Riau Province, surveying the scene from his leaking wooden longboat.

In recent years, dozens of pulp and paper companies have descended on Riau, which is roughly the size of Switzerland, snatching up generous government concessions to log and establish palm oil plantations. And villagers are in a state of panic.

Only five years ago, Helman says, he earned nearly $100 a week catching shrimp. Now, with logging activity having poisoned the rivers snaking through the heart of Riau, he says he is lucky to find enough to earn $5 a month.

Responding to global demand for palm oil, which is used in cooking and cosmetics and, lately, in an increasingly popular biodiesel, companies have been claiming any land they can, often working not only in protected areas but on the villagers' collectively owned land as well.

Fortunately, from Helman's point of view, the issue of Riau's disappearing forests has become a global one. He is now a volunteer for Greenpeace, which has established a camp in his village to monitor what it calls an impending Indonesian "carbon bomb."

Deforestation, during which carbon stored in trees is released into the atmosphere, now accounts for 20 percent of the world's greenhouse gas emissions, according to scientists. And Indonesia releases more carbon through deforestation than any other country in the world. According to the World Bank, it is the third-leading source of carbon emissions caused by human activity, behind the United States and China.

Within Indonesia, it is in Riau that the situation is most critical.

In the last 10 years, nearly 60 percent of the province's forests have been logged, burned and pulped, according to Jikalahari, a local environmental group.

"This is very serious, the world needs to act now," said Susanto Kurniawan, coordinator for Jikalahari, who regularly makes the arduous trip into the forest from the nearby city of Pekanbaru, passing long lines of trucks carting palm oil and wood. "In a few years it will be too late."

The rate of this deforestation is rising as oil prices reach new highs, leading more industries to turn to biodiesel made from palm oil, which, in theory, is earth-friendly. But its use is causing more harm than good, environmental groups say, since companies have to slash and burn huge swaths of trees to make way for palm oil plantations.

Even more significantly, the burning and drying of Riau's carbon-rich peatlands, also to make way for palm oil plantations, releases about 1.8 billion tons of "climate-changing" greenhouse gases a year, according to Greenpeace officials.

But it is also in Riau that a new global strategy for conserving forests in developing countries might begin. A small area of Riau's remaining forest will become a test case if an international carbon-trading plan called REDD is adopted.

REDD, or Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation, is to be one of the central topics of discussion at the United Nations Climate Change Conference now under way on Bali. Essentially, it would involve wealthy countries' paying developing countries for every hectare of forest they do not cut down.

Indonesia, caught between its own financial interest in the palm oil industry and the growing international demands for conservation, has been promoting the carbon-trading plan for months.

At a meeting of 40 environment ministers near Jakarta in October, Indonesia won support for the plan from other tropical countries like Congo and Brazil.

But there are plenty of skeptics, who doubt it will be possible to measure just how much carbon is being conserved - and question whether the plan, once in place, can be safeguarded against illegal logging and corruption.

Monitoring the activities of pulp and paper companies in this extremely remote area would be a major undertaking, observers here agree. Companies are cultivating land legally sold to them by the Indonesian government, but maps of their projects obtained by Greenpeace indicate that many of them have also moved into protected areas. Illegal logging is commonplace in Indonesia, and though the government has prosecuted dozens of cases in recent years, it admits it cannot be everywhere.

Most worrying to critics is the country's endemic corruption.

The most famous illegal logger in Indonesia, Adelin Lis, who operated in North Sumatra, was arrested this year, only to be acquitted by a court in Medan, the provincial capital. He then left the country and is believed to be in Singapore.

The attorney general's office has opened a corruption investigation into judges and the police in Medan, and says that there are many similar cases.

"There are a number of ongoing investigations into corruption that has allowed illegal loggers from all over Indonesia to go free," said Tompson Siagian, a spokesman for the attorney general. "In such a lucrative industry, payoffs are common."

At the Bali conference, Woods Hole Research Center, an environmental group based in the United States, has presented research showing that new satellite technology can make it more feasible to track illegal logging.

Reports "show that radar imagery from new sensors recently placed in orbit can solve the problem of monitoring reductions in tropical deforestation, which previously was a major obstacle because of cloud cover that optical sensors can't see through," said John Holdren, the center's director.

The center, using research conducted in Congo and the Amazon, said the carbon-trading plan would be reasonably affordable for wealthier nations.

Such developments are good news to Helman, the villager in Riau who, using his wooden boat, has been ferrying a steady stream of foreign environmentalists and journalists in and out of the forest in recent weeks.

"I am so thankful for the recent attention," he said, tinkering with the sputtering engine.

"At times it seems too late. But I see some hope now."

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