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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Illegal Logging in Indonesia

Air Date: Week of

Illegal logging in Indonesia has destroyed forests and left endangered orangutans homeless. It has also led to violence against environmental activists. Faith Doherty of the Environmental Investigation Agency tells Living On Earth host Steve Curwood the story of what happened to her and her Indonesian colleague at the hands of timber company employees.


CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. A few years ago the Environmental Investigation Agency, or EIA, a private international group based in London, began receiving reports of the rapid loss of orangutan habitat in Indonesia. With fewer than 20,000 of these endangered primates left, their territory is protected by official reserves. But illegal logging was making a mockery of the protection plans. In fact, there's evidence that more illegal timber is sent out of Indonesia each year than comes through legal channels, hurting not just orangutans, but also whole ecosystems and Indonesia's public treasury. So the EIA paired up with Telepac, an Indonesian environmental group, to find out just who was cutting the trees. The probe exposed the illegal activities of a timber baron who's also a member of Indonesia's Upper House of Parliament. It also led to the investigators being taken hostage, beaten by timber company employees, and then detained by Indonesian police until the British government intervened. Faith Doherty is a senior investigator with the EIA. She says it was easy to see what was happening to the orangutans on the way in to Tangenpudin National Park.

DOHERTY: It just became very obvious, especially when you're traveling down rivers to get inside the park to visit the areas where the orangutans are. You would see hundreds and hundreds of log rafts coming down the river. And so, we decided that we needed to have a look and see whether or not there was any way to stop the illegal logging in order to, if you like, save the orangutan.

CURWOOD: So how were you able to uncover the illegal logging?

DOHERTY: A few of our staff went in undercover and posed as timber buyers. It took a few months to identify the largest timber baron in the region, and it was through a few meetings with his directors in the office near the park that we were able to find out a lot more information than if we had just stayed in the park and counted the log rafts going down the river.

CURWOOD: What kind of proof did you have? I mean, you saw something, but it's your word against theirs.

DOHERTY: The way that we conduct our investigations is that we have undercover filming facilities, we do audio, and we take pictures. We go into the field itself. We paint a picture, and we put that together with all the information that we get. We don't just go into a park, say, "Oh, there's somebody logging a tree, let's photograph it and ask him about it." It was six undercover investigations in order to get the actual evidence and proof that we needed.

CURWOOD: What happened once you got this information?

DOHERTY: We checked and checked and checked the facts. And after a good year to a year and a half of investigations, we pulled it all together into a report, called "The Final Cut," and in August of last year we launched the campaign in Jakarta at a press conference.

CURWOOD: What happened, after this press conference, to you?

DOHERTY: And then in January, myself and my colleague, my Indonesian colleague, went back to the park. And we spent a few days traveling the river and going into the park, and checking with the vets and the rangers, as to what the situation was with the orangutans at that time. And it seemed pretty good. But they were saying that there was still logging occurring, but in other areas of the park. So we spent the next few days undercover, actually, in two other sections of the park, monitoring the logging. And there was, but, again, not to the extent that we had seen on previous visits. So we were feeling very optimistic that perhaps the campaign had had some kind of effect locally on the ground.

CURWOOD: Then what happened?

DOHERTY: Well, then we decided that we would go and check out the sawmills. And when we got to the sawmill that belonged to the timber baron, we actually asked whether it would be possible to talk to anyone from the company. Some guy came down from the office and explained to us that, in fact, Abdul Rasid, who is the director of this company, was in the nearest town to the park, and that the best thing to do would be to call him up there and go and see him. It wouldn't be a problem. So we said right, thanks very much. By the time we got back to the hotel, by the time I got into my room, the phone was ringing, and it was a receptionist saying that three gentlemen were waiting in the lobby to take myself and my colleague to meet with Mr. Abdul Rasid and would we like to go?

CURWOOD: What happened next?

DOHERTY: And we were driven to the office, which is in the center of town. We got out of the car, and we were taken in, and we walked up three flights of stairs, and were taken into quite a large office, in which three people were there. I said, "Where is Mr. Abdul Rasid? We've come here to see him." At which point, one of the -- I would now call them bodyguards was sitting there saying, "He's not here, he's in Singapore, and you're not leaving." And another few minutes of dialogue, very aggressive dialogue, was going on between my colleague and one of the directors, Sugianto, who happens to be the nephew of Abdul Rasid. And the next thing I know is, he leapt up off his chair and started beating Ruey, my colleague, very badly. I got up off the sofa and tried to intervene, and in the process got injured myself. And this guy was -- he was in a total rage. He just kept beating Ruey, screaming and shouting in Indonesian. And eventually pulled Ruey up off the floor and threw him onto the sofa. And again, I was asking somebody,"Would you please explain to me what's going on?" And one of the bodyguards spoke perfect English and started to translate for me, and he explained that it was because of Ruey and because of EIA that they had lost billions of dollars.

CURWOOD: How did you feel at this point?

DOHERTY: I was absolutely terrified. And it all sort of came to a head when Sugianto reached to the top of the television and pulled out a gun. And he pointed it at Ruey and he said, "I can kill you now, and I will only get seven years in jail. But you, you will be dead." And then I thought: Okay, this is it. And I was still desperately trying to think of a way to calm the situation down. There was just this whole part of me that really didn't think that they would go through with it, but one thing I did know for sure was that if they separated us, I'd never see Ruey again. I was absolutely convinced of that.


DOHERTY: A) He was Indonesian; they were Indonesian. It's their country. And the saddest part of all of this is that there are many environmentalists in Indonesia who disappear, or who are found dead. And with the turmoil and what is going on in Indonesia, it would have just been viewed as another person who had been killed.

CURWOOD: So there you are. You're thinking that if you get separated, your Indonesian companion is dead. What happens next?

DOHERTY: Then the next thing is, the gun was put away. And the police walked in. And then we were taken out of the room. And as we were leaving the room, I said to Ruey, "Is this good or bad?" And he said, "I have no idea, but I think it's about to get worse." So we left the room, we were taken downstairs, and outside was a police truck. And we were put into the truck and taken to the police station. And we were then taken across the road to the CID office where the homicide detectives and detectives are based.

CURWOOD: CID stands for?

DOHERTY: Central Investigation Departments. We spent the rest of the night in interrogation, and then it all came out that within the CID, there was a group, a very small group, I think about three of them out of the 25 detectives there, who had been looking at this company for many years and had been trying to, if you like, have them arrested for a lot of crimes, not just illegal logging.

CURWOOD: Well, people listening to us now would say these are a lot of very strong allegations.


CURWOOD: What kind of legal action have you taken against these people?

DOHERTY: The police have filed criminal charges against those that committed the kidnapping, hostage taking, and assault. What we have been doing since that time, is we've used this situation to keep fighting on the illegal logging issue. Now, what happened was, in the three days we were being held, our case was catapulted into the laps of some very, very powerful people, including the new president of Indonesia. And every day as the phone calls were being made to try and get us released, the phone calls came from people higher and higher and higher and higher up, to the point where my own government was involved. And in the process of this, of course, you know, someone's "What on earth were they doing there?" "Oh, they were there to look at illegal logging." Obviously, the first priority during that time was to get Ruey and I out of there. But once we had reached Jakarta, we had two days where we could prepare to make that presentation at the meeting where the Indonesian cabinet was, and the international donor community. And so, in a way, the whole thing backfired on them. Because without that incident happening, there would not have been the interest that there was once we got to Jakarta, on the issue of illegal logging in the park.

CURWOOD: I'm speaking to you here in the United States.


CURWOOD: And you have plans to go back to Indonesia. Why are you going back?

DOHERTY: Well, we're going back -- we need to win this campaign. This national park and the issues that I've described that are happening within it is a very, very small part of something that is much larger in Indonesia. And we feel that if the Indonesian government can deal with this, there is hope to deal with the rest of the protected areas in Indonesia. That's number one. Number two, our Indonesian colleagues in the Indonesian NGO that we work with, Telepac, the partnership that we have is such that when there's trouble, you don't run out on your friends. And you most certainly don't leave them sitting there in Indonesia to deal with the aftermath of something like that. Personally, for me as an activist, I could never walk away from something like that and leave my friends to sit there and take the consequences. And we have kept highlighting this situation. We haven't stopped. We're still going to continue. And in fact, when I go back this week, both EIA and Telepac will be filmed by CBS and NHK as part of the film they're making on illegal logging. We're very, very high-profile, and we're not going to sit down and say okay, we can't do this any more. I mean, Indonesia is in a mess, yes, but we've got to win this campaign. It's very, very important.

CURWOOD: Faith Doherty is a senior investigator with the Environmental Investigation Agency. Thanks so much for speaking with us.

DOHERTY: It's been a pleasure. Thank you.



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