Indonesia is home to about ten percent of the world's rainforests. (Courtesy of Deutsche Welle)
Java, an island of Indonesia, used to be home to one of the world’s oldest teak forests. But illegal logging, fires and government mismanagement have destroyed the trees. Authorities are making efforts to educate the public about tree conservation and to re-forest the island. From Deutsche Welle Radio and Java’s Radio Bass (BASE) FM, Michael Lawton reports.
GELLERMAN: It’s an encore edition of Living on Earth, I’m Bruce Gellerman. The rich forests of Indonesia have helped fuel the island nation’s fantastic economic growth. The tropical woods were turned into pulp for paper and hardwood furniture - finding ready markets around the world.
But Indonesia’s economic miracle came at a devastating price for the nation - where millions of acres were deforested - and the world.
Indonesia is the third largest emitter of greenhouse gases and 85 percent of that comes from cutting down trees - largely in the lush lowlands on the island of Java where Michael Lawton has our story, originally produced by Radio Deutsche Welle and Java’s Radio Bass FM.
LAWTON: A roof of green leaves, the sound of trickling water, tall trees towering to the sky. Wildlife. That’s what people usually associate with forests. But if you’re looking for them in the teak forests on the island of Java, you could be very disappointed.
[SOUND OF LEAVES CRUNCHING]
LAWTON: We trekked through some of the teak forests on Java, from Bojonegoro in the east to Randublatung, Blora in the west. We started early in the morning, just before the first downpours, but a merciless sun was pounding on our backs, rivers of sweat were trickling down our faces. The only thing that remotely reminded us of the typical feel of a forest is the sound of dry teak leaves crunching under our feet, and perhaps the sound of birds chirping from afar. The teak trees here make up a somewhat unnatural forest. They’re planted in rows with regular spaces between them. Most of the trees are mere saplings. The diameter of the trunks is still around 30 centimeters. Bojonegoro was once known as ‘Teak City.’ It was surrounded by the vast teak forests of Java.
LAWTON: Yanti (phonetic spelling), an elderly woman living in the village of Sumbergo (phonetic spelling) in the district of Margomulyo, is still able to tell her grandchildren about those days.
[YANTI SPEAKING INDONESIAN LANGUAGE]
VOICEOVER: It was very comfortable. There used to be mahogany trees on the left and teak trees to our right—big and tall ones. Monkeys were living in the forests back then, but nowadays there’s nothing left.
LAWTON: This teak forest was once one of the oldest and best-managed forests in Indonesia. But now there are many problems which threaten to destroy state teak forests in Java: overexploitation, forest fires, illegal logging and theft are just a few of them. There’s also corruption and mismanagement by the state forestry authorities. The political change which came with the downfall of President Suharto in 1998 proved to be disastrous for Java’s teak forests. People started cutting down teak trees and literally plundered the forests.
[MAJIA SPEAKING INDONESIAN LANGUAGE]
VOICEOVER: It was crazy. People were no longer scared to go into the forest with trucks, cars, and even motorbikes.
LAWTON: Exi Mahardana Wijaya (phonetic spelling), an environmental activist in Randublatung, tries to describe the damage done.
[MAJIA SPEAKING INDONESIAN LANGUAGE]
VOICEOVER: They took axes and saws with them. This was an expression of anger because most Indonesians never felt that the forests belonged to them. A lot of state forestry offices were burnt down.
LAWTON: Between 1998 and 2002, tens of thousands of hectares of woods were destroyed. Indonesian forest rangers had to stand by and watch helplessly. Sometimes they were even chased and beaten up by the people, says Robi (phonetic spelling), a forest ranger from Bojonegoro.
[MAN SPEAKING INDONESIAN LANGUAGE]
VOICEOVER: In those days they were after us, not the other way around. We were only two or three rangers and there were whole villages plundering the woods. At that time the scale of thefts was really unbelievable.
LAWTON: According to some figures, around 150,000 hectares of teak forest were destroyed by poor villagers following the political and social chaos in the post-Suharto era. But the plundering still continues, even if at a lower level. Krisdomo, head of the Forest Stakeholders Association in the region of Parangantuban (phonetic spelling), says that although vast areas of forest have been destroyed, it’s not benefited the local people. They still live in poverty.
[KRISDOMO SPEAKING INDONESIAN LANGUAGE]
VOICEOVER: These actions have not made any impact on the lives of the villagers who live near the forest. Their economic situation has not improved. Outsiders are still the ones who reap the money from the plundering. This is our main concern. We have to tackle both problems at the same time. On the one hand, we need to preserve our forests. But on the other hand, we want to help the people around here economically.
LAWTON: The forest destruction between 1998 and 2002 is a dark chapter in the history of the state forest company Perhutani, which is part of the Indonesian Forest Department. The Indonesian government amended the law on forest preservation in 1999. In 2002, based on this new law as well as past experiences, Perhutani designed a program called community-based forest preservation. This program tries to include locals in forest preservation measures. Villagers who live near the forests are encouraged to help keep the forests in tact. As a reward, they can use land surrounding the forests for their needs. They’re also entitled to 25 percent of the earnings from the forests’ produce. Community-based forest preservation might sound like a good idea at first, but the program has yet to who any evidence of success.
[SOUND OF BIRDS CHIRPING]
LAWTON: We went to visit one village, Randublatung, which has become infamous. It now has a nickname: Kampum Kaum Blandong (phonetic spelling), or ‘the village of the pillagers.’ Three people agreed to talk to us. All three of them are ‘blandong’ (phonetic spelling), or illegal loggers. One of them, Hairo (phonetic spelling), which is not his real name, says that government programs have never been introduced into his village.
[HAIRO SPEAKING INDONESIAN LANGUAGE]
VOICEOVER: We can be called thieves since we’re actually operating without having any permits from Perhutani. But we really are forced to do this. If we don’t know where to get money to buy food, we go into the forests.
LAWTON: But are the illegal loggers and the thieves the only ones to blame for the destruction of Java’s teak forest. Yuliani (phonetic spelling) an environmental activist in Bojonegoro, blames the sketchy and ambiguous measures which the government has tried to introduce to preserve the peak forests. A so-called master plan for East Java, states that the area of the plan is to be increased but no one knows how this is going to be implemented.
[YULIANI SPEAKING INDONESIAN LANGUAGE]
VOICEOVER: They say the forest is to be increased from 28 to 36 percent, but at the same time, there’s going to be more land for industry and housing. So, what are they going to sacrifice to plant more trees? Are they going to stop building houses or are they going to take away farmland? That’s not possible. And it’s even more unlikely that they just limit industry in favor of some trees.
LAWTON: Another problem, adds Yuliani, is the unclear definition of forest areas. Most of the two and half million hectares of the Perhutani land, which is characterized as forestland, has been cleared of trees entirely. Some patches are barren. Other parts are used as farmland. What’s left of the teak forest is a commercial forest, planted to be harvested, but not a conservation forest. Until the trees have grown enough to build a new, natural forest, the land is going to remain barren and unwelcoming.
[SOUND OF BIRDS CHIRPING]
LAWTON: The old Javanese forest only exists in fairy tales, the kind that Yanti tells to her grandchildren.
GELLERMAN: Our story about Java’s forest comes to us courtesy of Radio Deutsche Welle, and Radio Bass FM. It was reported by Ging (JINJ) Ginanjar and Ari Bathara and presented by Michael Lawton.
[MUSIC: Marc Ribot “Shh Shh” from Party Intellectuals (Pi Records 2008)]
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