Devastation in Indonesia

SUN JOURNAL

Trees: Logging, much of it illegal, is destroying large tracts of rain forest and the habitats of endangered animals and plants.

January 24, 2004|By Richard C. Paddock | Richard C. Paddock,LOS ANGELES TIMES

PELINDUNG, Indonesia - At the end of a busy day cutting trees with chainsaws, the four timber thieves camped in the Sumatran jungle. Three of the loggers rested on a raised wooden platform, while Siadul, the fourth, prepared food below.

He was sitting on the ground eating his dinner when a hungry Sumatran tiger, driven from its habitat by the relentless logging of the rain forest, leaped out of the darkness onto Siadul's back, ripped out a chunk of flesh and began dragging him away. Nature had taken its revenge.

"It was like a cat catching a rat," says Siadul's friend, Ponimin, a fellow illegal logger who, like many Indonesians, uses only one name. The Sumatran tiger - one of about 500 left in the wild - would have succeeded in taking Siadul but for a felled log that blocked its path. The tree cutters fired up their chainsaws and scared the animal away, but it was too late for Siadul. He died within hours.

To people here, who believe the tiger is the enforcer of proper human behavior in the jungle, the killing in November was punishment for some unspecified violation of the forest people's code, which includes prohibitions against adultery and sharing food from the same cooking pot. But to environmentalists, the attack was the inevitable result of a timber harvest that is wildly out of control.

Across Indonesia, loggers have struck on a huge scale, destroying vast tracts of rain forest, selling the timber overseas and turning much of the jungle into farms and palm oil plantations.

Government officials acknowledge that Indonesia, a sprawling archipelago of more than 17,000 islands, is annually losing an expanse of forest nearly the size of Switzerland, and with it the habitat of endangered tigers, rhinoceroses, orangutans and elephants. Scientists believe that hundreds of plant and animal species are going extinct each year.

At least 75 percent of the logging is illegal, says Environment Minister Nabiel Makarim, but the weak central government, troubled by graft, is powerless to stop it. "If this goes on for seven or eight years," he says, "we won't have any more forest."

Even the country's 376 national parks and conservation areas have fallen victim to the illegal harvest. Nearly every park has been assaulted by chainsaws, officials say, some so severely that they are no longer viable as nature preserves.

Logging has escalated substantially since President Suharto was forced to step down in 1998. The authoritarian leader made a practice of rewarding his cronies with profitable logging concessions but kept some forests off-limits. The new central government under Megawati Sukarnoputri has granted greater autonomy to regional officials, and some have opened forests to logging, reaping the profits.

The pace of destruction is highest on Sumatra, an island that straddles the equator. Experts warn that its lowland forests - the richest in biodiversity - could disappear outside national parks by next year.

Tigers are not the only creatures fighting back. In southern Sumatra, villagers have been cutting trees and planting coffee for years in the Bukit Rindingan protected forest. The adjacent South Bukit Barisan National Park is home to as many as 700 elephants, but about 50,000 people have moved into the preserve, clearing the jungle and building villages.

"It is forbidden to conduct any activities in the protected forest, but in fact it has become a settlement," says Tamen Sitorus, director of the national park. "The villagers think: `Why don't we kill the elephants? They are useless.'"

In the squatters village of Sinar Harapan, residents chopped down trees on a route traveled by a herd of 13 elephants. In late November, the elephants appeared at the edge of the jungle and ate the farmers' coffee bushes. Waving torches and banging on wooden drums, the villagers drove them back.

The next day, most villagers fled. One stayed: Mistad, 50, a farmer who had helped cut the trees. The elephants entered the village and crushed him. "One man dead, trampled by the elephants because he farmed in the protected forest," Sitorus says. `'If the elephants' habitat is shrinking, the elephants will come out of the forest. That is the law of the jungle."

Last year, the elephant attacks on humans skyrocketed. Forestry authorities said 16 attacks were reported from 1998 to 2002. In the first five months of last year, there were 48, at least three fatal to humans.

Besides animal attacks, officials say illegal logging contributed to floods and landslides that killed more than 140 people last year. Makarim predicted the number will jump this year as the illicit harvest continues.

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