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INDONESIA: Construction in Aceh Endangers National Forests

by By Richel Dursin Asia Times Online
March 9th, 2005

A government plan to cut down more trees in one of the largest national parks in Indonesia to help rebuild tsunami-ravaged Aceh has drawn opposition from environmentalists and officials in the country's Forestry Ministry, who claim that the plan could worsen illegal logging in the country.

"We don't want Gunung Leuser National Park to be cleared as the source of logs for Aceh," Henri Bastaman, senior adviser to the minister of environment, told Inter Press Service. "Targeting the park as the resource of logs for reconstructing the tsunami-devastated province would completely destroy the area."

Indonesia's Ministry of Forestry has estimated that about 8.5 million cubic meters of timber is needed to build 123,000 houses for Acehnese who survived the December 26 tsunami disaster. Of the total figure, 6 million cubic meters will be in the form of logs and the remaining 2.5 million cubic meters will be sawn.

The epicenter of the undersea earthquake was near Meulaboh in western Aceh. The tsunamis that resulted from the quake hit the coastlines of a dozen countries in South and Southeast Asia, killing more than 220,000 people. In Aceh, more than 70% of the inhabitants of some coastal villages are reported to have died.

The official death toll in Indonesia has exceeded 120,000, while more than 127,000 others remain missing. The exact number of victims probably will never be known.

According to the Ministry of Environment, the central government in Jakarta is targeting Gunung Leuser National Park, which has been declared a world heritage site by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization because of its complete ecosystem, to be the "supplier" of the logs.

"The government's argument is that we have the Gunung Leuser in Aceh so we should use it. But we don't see it as the solution," Bastaman said.

Instead of clearing the protected forests in Gunung National Park, Bastaman suggested that the government either import wood or ask developed countries to provide timber to construct new homes, schools and fishing boats for tsunami victims.
Environment Minister Rachmat Witoelar has rejected the plan to exploit Gunung Leuser, which comprises 850,000 hectares of tropical rainforest, and instead asked other countries and aid agencies to donate logs for the reconstruction of Aceh. So far Sweden has expressed its intention to supply logs for Aceh's reconstruction.

"The rehabilitation of Aceh must not damage our forests," Witoelar said. Cutting down trees in Gunung Leuser National Park would lead to other calamities such as floods and landslides, he added.

Gunung Leuser is one of the last places in Indonesia where endangered Sumatran tigers, orangutans, rhinoceros and elephants all exist. Yet even before the tsunami struck Aceh, the national park had been threatened.

The non-governmental Indonesian Forum for the Environment disclosed that one-fifth of the national park has been affected by illegal logging, and the destruction is increasing with the construction of a road network known as the Ladia Galaska project, which cuts through hundreds of kilometers of protected forests in Aceh to link the east and west coasts of the province.

The main section of the Ladia Galaska road will cut through 100 kilometers of protected forests as well as some forest-conservation areas, including the Leuser ecosystem.

The 2.6-million-hectare Leuser ecosystem, which encloses Gunung Leuser National Park, is known to biologists as the most complete natural laboratory in the world. It is made up of coastal beaches, lowland swamps, degraded lowland rainforest, extensive pristine mountain forest, and isolated alpine meadows and is rich in animal and plant species.

"The Ladia Galaska is a crazy project. Imagine building a road in a very steep and protected forest area," Longgena Ginting, executive director of the Indonesian Forum for the Environment, said in an interview. "The Ladia Galaska road project has opened up the Gunung Leuser National Park all the more to illegal loggers," Ginting stressed.

The Indonesian Forum for the Environment regards the road network project as "illegal" because no feasibility study was conducted before construction began. Moreover, Eko Soebowo, a geologist at the Indonesian Institute of Sciences, argued that six of the nine planned roads would cross the Sumatra fault-line and would thus be prone to earthquakes and landslides.

But Indonesia's Ministry of Settlement and Regional Infrastructure emphasized that the road construction, which started in 2002, would benefit the rural economy in the western part of the province.

Since the tsunami devastated Aceh, supporters of the Ladia Galaska network have been using the catastrophe to legitimize the road construction, which is still ongoing despite strong opposition by environmental groups.

"We're worried that the tsunami tragedy is being used to affirm the road construction in the province," Ginting said. "We have to stop the road-construction project and prevent Gunung Leuser National Park as the source of logs."

According to Forest Watch Indonesia, it would be very risky if all the logs needed for the reconstruction of Aceh would be sourced domestically because this would worsen illegal logging in the country.

Indonesia, home to 10% of the world's remaining tropical forests, has the world's highest rate of deforestation, with about 3 million hectares being lost every year. Indonesian police, military and government officials often turn a blind eye to illegal logging and this exacerbates the problem.

Environmental activists have pointed out that the high demand for timber in the growing national and international markets and limited supply cause illegal logging to thrive in the country and result in increasing pressure on Indonesia's forests.

Forest Watch Indonesia disclosed that only 20% of Indonesia's total demand can be met by the legitimate cutting of trees. Last year, demand from the local timber industry averaged between 63 million and 80 million cubic meters of logs. But of this amount, only 12 million cubic meters of logs were provided through legitimate cutting.

Togu Manurung, executive officer of Forest Watch Indonesia, pointed out that some of the logs being used to rebuild Aceh were illegally cut from protected forests.

"The government should declare publicly and transparently that some of the logs used for rebuilding Aceh come from illegal logging operations," Manurung said.

He pointed out that some Acehnese are aware that the logs they are using to rebuild their province were illegally cut, but said, "So far, there was no rejection on the part of the Acehnese because they have no choice.

"Providing illegally cut logs for the rebuilding of Aceh should not be tolerated as this would induce illegal loggers to continue their operations," Manurung said. "With the government allowing the use of illegal logs, it is giving incentives to illegal loggers."




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