by Richel Dursin
(IPS) JAKARTA --
tropical forests are ranked third in terms of size after those in Brazil and Zaire, but they may soon slip down that list because of rampant illegal logging backed by rogue military elements, say activists.
For the last three years, they have been vanishing at an alarming rate of 6 to 7.5 million acres a year -- the highest deforestation rate in the world, according to the Indonesian Forum for Environment, popularly known locally as WALHI.
Experts even add that in just 15 years, Indonesia's primary forests may be gone forever.
The disappearance of Indonesian forests is partly due to legal logging activities. But the suddenly rapid pace of the decimation can be traced to the sharp rise in illegal logging, say activists.
Last year, the estimated illegally-cut logs supply was 30 million cubic meters, according to the Association of Concessions Company. In the past, that figure was between 15 to 20 million cubic meters.
A recent report by the Indonesia-UK Tropical Forest Management Program says illegal logging accounted for 32 million cubic meters of timber every year, compared with an official production of 29.5 million cubic meters.
This is equivalent to 2 million acres of forest being illegally logged every year.
Mubariq Ahmad, executive director of the Indonesian Ecolabeling Institute (LEI), says, "For the past two years, illegal logging activities were not done quietly anymore. A lot of looting happened in the forests and law enforcement agencies did not dare to stop (these) people."
He asserts that this is because of "the involvement of the military officers. They are backing up the illegal logging and the Ministry of Forestry and Plantations cannot do anything about it."
The involvement of various law enforcement agencies -- including the military -- in illegal logging operations even on national parks such as the Gunung Leuser National Park in Aceh is well documented.
Indeed, it has become common knowledge that such operations have become hard to stop because of the involvement of the military that ranges from backing up timber tycoons to turning a blind eye to illegal logging.
Last month, a British environmentalist and her Indonesian colleague were kidnapped by illegal loggers, allegedly with the support of the military.
Faith Brunskill, a member of the UK-based Environmental Investigation Agency says she and her co-worker, A Ruwindrijarto, executive director of Telapak Indonesia, were investigating supposedly illegal logging operations in Tanjung Putting National Park when they were abducted and then beaten up on Jan 20.
According to Brunskill, their ordeal began when they were taken to meet the managers of Tanjung Lingga, which they had accused of conducting illegal logging operations in the park, one of the last known habitats of orangutans and other endangered species in Central Kalimantan, eastern Indonesia.
Tanjung Lingga, however, has denied all these and has accused Brunskill and Ruwindrijarto of entering its office "without permission."
Comments Ruwindirjarto, in an apparent reference to the company's perceived powerful backers: "Illegal logging is not simply about destruction of the forests, but the system of corruption and wealth it creates."
For its part, the military has come up with an excuse for not lifting a finger to stop illegal loggers. It says that "we do not dare to take action because we are afraid of being accused of violating human rights."
The Indonesian military has always been known for its rather harsh tactics, but criticism about its dismal human rights record were voiced out publicly only after the resignation of President Suharto in May 1998.
Says Mubariq: "The military is using the same argument for not taking stern action to stem violence in Ambon. Because the law enforcement is very weak since the political reform started, practically the military could do whatever it wants to do at the moment."
situation is spelling doom all the more for the country's forests, which are already suffering from a slew of defective government policies and laws.
Experts say the 1967 Basic Forestry Act -- recently changed into Forest Act No 41 of 1999 -- and Government Regulation No 21, which are the primary legal bases for the logging concession system, are based on wrong assumptions about the extent of the different types of forests. Other misconceptions include estimates of dipterocarp regeneration rates, critics say.
As a result, says Longgena Ginting, head of the policy advocacy division of the Jakarta-based WALHI, "over a 30-year period, the Indonesian concession system has been responsible for forest destruction on a massive scale."
Large-scale commercial logging in Indonesia also started with the 1967 Basic Forestry Act, under which the government claimed the whole forest estate as "state forest."
Meanwhile, the plantation industry has also been accused of putting pressure on natural forests, reflecting increasing industrial demand for timber and palm oil.
During the last decade, the area planted to palm oil plantations has grown by about 22 percent and rubber plantations by two percent.
The government has been promoting the establishment of palm oil plantations to increase export revenues, meet the domestic demand for cooking oil and provide employment since the 1960s.
Permits to convert forests into plantations have increased dramatically. Current forest policy allows the same firm to run logging, industrial tree plantations and palm oil plantations at the same time.
Since the Asian economic crisis in 1997, the government has made a number of decisions that accelerated the rate of clearing natural forests.
These include the reduction in taxes on palm oil, the liberalization of forest investment in the palm oil sector and the setting aside of 30 percent of "state forest" for conversion to palm oil plantations.
These days, less fear of authority has also given impoverished local communities greater courage to violate the law, confident that there would be little repercussions for them.
February 27, 2000 (http://www.monitor.net/monitor) All Rights Reserved. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org for permission to use in any format.
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