Opinion: The Last Chance to Save Indonesia's Forest Riches

Jatna Supriatna and Kirk Talbott
for International Herald Tribune
August 13, 2001

Megawati Sukarnoputri, Indonesia's third president since the fall of Suharto in May 1998, has an opportunity to move the world's fourth largest country toward political, economic, and social stability.

The first peaceful transfer of power in the nation's fledgling democracy may have improved the prospects. Unfortunately, when it comes to one of Indonesia's most pressing crises, there will not be another chance.

Megawati comes to power just as the nation arrives at its final opportunity to protect its magnificent natural resources. Indonesia's once vast tropical rain forests and its spectacular coral reefs make it the richest country on earth in biological diversity. But the country's forests are under assault like never before. If decisive action does not occur soon, it will be too late.

Relentlessly, illegal or uncontrolled logging surges across the archipelago. The situation grows worse each day, particularly as decentralization opens the way for localized corruption and a breakdown in law enforcement.

Indonesia is at the epicenter of the global deforestation crisis sweeping across the tropics. Between 1985 and 1997, the country lost some 50 million acres (20 million hectares) of forest. In the three years since, another 12 million acres or more may have been lost. The World Bank predicts that if current deforestation trends continue, lowland rain forests will become extinct in Sumatra by 2005, and in Kalimantan soon after 2010.

The biological, social and economic implications are incalculable. A recent reminder of the grim consequences occurred just last week on the Indonesian island of Nias, where a landslide that killed at least 60 people was attributed to local deforestation.

Perhaps the best symbol of this crisis is the orangutan. When Megawati's father, Sukarno, was Indonesia's first president some 50 years ago, several hundreds of thousands of orangutans thrived in their primary forest habitat. The orangutan's current population is estimated at less than 30,000 today, mostly as a result of logging and forest conversion for plantations, but also due to poachers, including civil servants and military personnel.

Many experts now predict the extinction of the orangutan in the wild in our lifetimes if drastic changes are not immediately made. As the world loses the orangutan, it also loses Indonesia's irreplaceable old-growth forests and the extensive ecosystem services and wealth they could provide for future generations.

As one of her first actions, Megawati can show wisdom and vision by embracing a national campaign to save Indonesia's threatened forests.

First, she should stand up to the corruption that pervades the logging sector. The international community is hopeful because, several days after the new president's inauguration, a senior military officer in Aceh involved in illegal logging operations was removed from his position.

Second, she must end the onslaught in Indonesia's national parks. If the destruction can be stemmed there, larger corridors of protected forests can be rebuilt.

Third, she can foster a broad alliance of nongovernmental groups, dedicated public servants and ordinary citizens to conserve the nation's forests.

Continued on Next Page >>


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