Tsunami Rebuilding Could Deforest Sumatra, Green Groups Say

James Owen
for National Geographic News
April 26, 2005
If Indonesia's tsunami survivors do not get an immediate and massive
delivery of timber for reconstruction, the country faces devastation of
what's left of its forests, environmentalists warned today.

The warning comes in a report published by the WWF conservation organization. WWF estimates that four to eight million cubic meters (140 million to 280 million cubic feet) of logs will be needed to rebuild Aceh in Indonesia over the next five years.

The WWF report was produced in partnership with the Indonesian policy-research institution Greenomics.

The reconstruction estimate includes housing, schools and other government buildings, and thousands of fishing boats. The low end of the estimate assumes the maximum use of building techniques that are less timber intensive, making more use of materials such as concrete.

The report says the demand for so much timber cannot be met by Indonesia's already ravaged and threatened forests. It called for the international community to make immediate donations of timber.

Aceh Province bore the full force of the tsunami four months ago. A series of giant waves triggered by a massive undersea earthquake off Sumatra island killed 240,000 people in the region and left more than 410,000 homeless. Entire towns and villages were swept off the map.

"Aceh faces the likelihood of further humanitarian and ecological disasters unless timber for reconstruction is immediately brought [in]," said Mubariq Ahmad, executive director of WWF Indonesia. "If the amount of timber needed for the reconstruction of Aceh was sourced locally, the result would be massive deforestation."

Further deforestation would threaten the wildlife of Indonesia's threatened tropical forests, which includes the Sumatran tiger, Sumatran rhino, and dwindling populations of orangutans, Ahmad said. Deforestation would also lead to flooding and landslides, causing "further tragedy for the Indonesian people," he added.

Flood Deaths

An official investigation into a flood that killed 300 people in Aceh in 2004 found it was caused by illegal logging in upland forests.

Millions of dollars in aid has been pledged worldwide since the tsunami disaster. Greenomics, based in Jakarta, Indonesia, agrees that part of the donations should be made in the form of sustainable timber from developed countries.

This option is much more rational than accelerating forest clearance in the name of Aceh's reconstruction, said Elfian Efendi, executive director of Greenomics.

To forestall logging of these forests, the report says, countries with large reserves of sustainable timber should contribute supplies. For instance, WWF is currently organizing its own shipments from the U.S. and Australia.

Canada and New Zealand are among other countries that should be able to provide timber, said Tessa Robertson, head of the forests program at WWF in the U.K.

"Southern Sweden has something like 15 million cubic meters (530 million cubic feet) of timber lying on the ground as a result of a hurricane last year," Robertson added. "That's another potential source of wood that could make quite a difference."

The report also recommends construction of low-cost housing that requires less timber than traditional buildings. Options include brick-wall structures or a system developed by Indonesia's Research Institute for Human Settlements that creates earthquake-resistant buildings from sustainable materials.

Indonesia's Ministry of Forestry has estimated that timber is needed for 123,000 homes in Aceh alone.

Illegal Logging

Indonesia has lost around 40 percent of its forest cover over the past 40 years due to extensive logging. Rates of illegal logging far exceed those of legitimate harvesting, according the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA), an environmental nonprofit based in London and Washington, D.C.

EIA research suggests that around 80 percent of processed timber in Indonesia is logged illegally, with much of it exported abroad to countries such as China and Japan.

Robertson says the timber used so far for reconstruction in Aceh is being sourced locally. "There have been various moratoriums on logging in the region for a while, so it's very likely that this timber is illegal," she added. "There are hardly any forests remaining in Sumatra, anyway, so those that are there tend to be in protected areas."

Robertson says Sumatra's Gunung Leuser National Park is the closest area with significant timber resources to Aceh.

Gunung Leuser comprises 850,000 hectares (2,100,000 acres) of tropical rain forest. Largely because of its great diversity of species, the park was declared a World Heritage site last year by the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).

Gunung Leuser's 3,500 recorded plant species include the world's largest flower, rafflesia, which can weigh up to 24 pounds (11 kilograms). The park is also home to more than 300 species of birds and some 130 mammal species.

WWF also identifies forested areas in Riau, Jambi, and North Sumatra as being at high risk due to reconstruction work.

However, Robertson says the scale of redevelopment required in Aceh presents a unique opportunity.

"We really have an opportunity to build one of the first properly sustainable communities in the developing world if we can get it right," she said. "It could be used as a model for other communities, or in responding to other disasters."

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