Unique forests devastated by plantations

By John Vidal

Agribusiness and pulp and paper industries accused of triggering one of the century's greatest ecological disasters in Indonesia.

Orangutan populations in Indonesia's Borneo and Sumatra islands are facing severe threats from habitat loss, illegal logging, fires and poaching. Photo / AP
Orangutan populations in Indonesia's Borneo and Sumatra islands are facing severe threats from habitat loss, illegal logging, fires and poaching. Photo / AP

Our small plane had been flying low over Sumatra for three hours but all we had seen was an industrial landscape of palm and acacia trees stretching 50km in every direction.

A haze of blue smoke from newly cleared land drifted eastwards over giant plantations. Long drainage canals dug through equatorial swamps dissected the land. The only sign of life was excavators loading trees onto barges to take to pulp mills.

The end is in sight for the great forests of Sumatra and Borneo and the animals and people who depend on them. Thirty years ago the world's third-and sixth-largest islands were full of tigers, elephants, rhinos, orangutans and exotic birds and plants but they have been trashed in a single generation by global agribusiness and pulp and paper industries.

Their plantations supply the world with toilet paper, biofuels and vegetable oil to make everyday foods such as margarine, cream cheese and chocolate, but distraught scientists and environmental groups warn that one of the 21st century's greatest ecological disasters is rapidly unfolding.

Official figures show more than half of Indonesia's rainforest, the third-largest swathe in the world, has been felled in a few years and permission has been granted to convert up to 70 per cent of what remains into palm or acacia plantations.

The Government has renewed a moratorium on the felling of rainforest, but nearly a million hectares are still being cut each year and the last pristine areas, in provinces such as Aceh and Papua, are now prime targets for giant logging, palm and mining companies.

The toll on wildlife across an area nearly the size of Europe is vast, say scientists who warn that many of Indonesia's species could be extinct in the wild within 20-30 years. Orangutan numbers are in precipitous decline, only 250-400 tigers remain and fewer than 100 rhino are left, says the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

Millions of hectares are nominally protected, but the forest is fragmented, national parks are surrounded by plantations, illegal loggers work with impunity and corruption is rife in government. "This is the fastest, most comprehensive transformation of an entire landscape that has ever taken place. If it continues at this rate all that will be left in 20 years is a few fragmented areas of natural forest surrounded by huge man-made plantations. There will be increased floods, fires and droughts but no animals," said Yuyun Indradi, political forest campaigner with Greenpeace southeast Asia in Jakarta.

The WWF's chief Asian tiger expert has pleaded with the Indonesian Government and the world to stop the growth of palm oil plantations. "Forest conversion is massive. We urgently need stronger commitment from the Government and massive support from the people," said Sunarto Sunarto in Jakarta.

"The legacy of deforestation has been conflict, increased poverty, migration to the cities and the erosion of habitat for animals. As the forests come down, social conflicts are exploding everywhere," said Abetnego Tarigan, director of Walhi, Indonesia's largest environment group.

Aceh will lose more than half its trees if a new government plan to change the land use is pushed through. A single Canadian mining company seeks to exploit 1.77 million hectares for mining, logging and palm plantations. Large areas of central Sumatra and Kalimantan are being felled as coal, copper and gold mining companies move in. Millions of hectares of forest in west Papua are expected to be converted to palm plantations.

Despite a commitment from the Government to extend a moratorium on deforestation for two years, Indonesia is still cutting down its forests faster than any other country. Loopholes in the law mean the moratorium only covers new licences and primary forests, and excludes key peatland areas and existing concessions which are tiger and elephant habitats.

Nine villages have been in conflict with the giant paper company April, which has permission to convert, with others, 450,000 hectares of deep peat forests on the Kampar Peninsula in central Sumatra.

Villagers accuse corrupt local officials of illegally grabbing their land. April, which strongly denies involvement in corruption, last week announced plans to work with London-based Flora and Fauna international to restore 20,000 hectares of degraded forest land.

Greenpeace and other groups accuse the giant pulp and palm companies of trashing tens of thousands of hectares of rainforest a year but the companies respond that they are the forest defenders and without them the ecological devastation would be worse. "There has been a rampant escalation of the denuding of the landscape but it is mostly by migrant labour and palm oil growers. Poverty and illegal logging along with migrant labour have caused the deforestation," said April's spokesman, David Goodwin. "What April does is not deforestation. In establishing acacia plantations in already-disturbed forest areas, it is contributing strongly to reforestation. Last year April planted more than 100 million trees."

No wild animal safe in Sumatra

Karman Lubis' body was found near where he had been working on a Sumatran rubber plantation. His head was found several days later 2km away and his right hand is still missing.

He had been mauled by a Sumatran tiger that was living in Batang Gadis National Park - one of five people killed there by tigers in the past five years.

Contact between humans and wild animals is increasing disastrously in Sumatra as deforestation, mining and palm oil concessions expand, fragmenting forest habitats and driving animals out of protected areas.

Batang Gadis is one of the last strongholds of the Sumatran tiger with anywhere between 23 and 76 in the dense forests, making up nearly 20 per cent of all Sumatra's tigers. But with a single tiger worth as much as US$50,000 ($61,500) to a poacher on the black market, hunting is rampant.

Conservationists fear that unless action is taken, the Sumatran tiger will go the way of two other Indonesian subspecies. The Bali tiger was hunted to extinction in 1937 and the last Javan tiger was recorded in the 1970s.

No wild animal is now considered safe in Sumatra.

An Australian-owned gold mining company has a 200,000ha concession which overlaps into Batang Gadis and illegal logging is encroaching upon the park from all sides.

Other Indonesian animals are faring even worse than the tiger. Widespread forest fires, many set deliberately to clear land for oil palm plantations, have been disastrous for Sumatran orangutans. Thousands are thought to have burned to death, unable to escape the flames both in Sumatra and Kalimantan.

The Sumatran rhino could also be extinct within a few years because of poaching and habitat destruction. A report from the International Union for Conservation of Nature last month estimated that there were now fewer than 100 rhinos in small, fragmented populations.

-Observer

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