Air Date: Week of September 25, 1998
The Asian archipelago of Indonesia hosts some of the most abundant and diverse natural resources in the world. Indonesia's vast rain forest is second in size only to the Amazon's. No other country has a longer coastline; and its waters are filled with spectacular coral reefs and marine life. But decades of abuse, neglect and official corruption have taken a hefty toll on Indonesia's environment. A new reform-minded administration took over in May, kindling hope among ecologists and activists. But with the region's economy now in free-fall, so far there has been little cash available to enhance environmental protection. Cindy Shiner begins our report from the capital, Jakarta.
CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. The Asian archipelago of Indonesia hosts some of the most abundant and diverse natural resources in the world. Indonesia's vast rainforest is second in size only to the Amazon's. No other country has a longer coastline, and its waters are filled with spectacular coral reefs and marine life. But decades of abuse, neglect, and official corruption have taken a hefty toll on Indonesia's environment. A new reform-minded administration took over in May, kindling hope among ecologists and activists. But with the region's economy now in free-fall, so far there's been little cash available to enhance environmental protection. Cindy Shiner begins our report from the capital, Jakarta.
(Milling, shouting people. A riot in process, glass breaking)
SHINER: Anger in response to 3 decades of corrupt and authoritarian rule erupted into rioting on the streets of Indonesia's major cities last May. The violence came on the heels of daily student protests. Among demonstrators' demands was an end to plundering of the nation's wealth, including its natural resources. The violence heralded a new era in Indonesia. President Suharto stepped down after 32 years in power, and a new government, promising an end to corruption and the beginning of democracy, took over. Most Indonesians breathed a sigh of relief, including the country's environmentalists. While the urban dwellers witnessed destruction on a brief but violent scale, environmentalists had been watching the systematic deterioration of the countryside for decades.
(A man shouts amidst flames)
SHINER: The devastation peaked last year when fires raged across Indonesian land on the islands of Borneo and parts of Sumatra. Here, a farmer relies on a few barrels of water and a green garden hose to save his chicken farm from encroaching flames. The scene was repeated over and over again across the island.
(Fire truck engines)
SHINER: Fire trucks sped to the edge of forests and emptied their small water tanks.
SHINER: Helicopters unleashed water over burning trees, but the fires proved to be too much to handle They cost Southeast Asia at least $4 billion in 1997 alone in medical care and lost timber and tourism revenues. Drought caused by the El Nino weather phenomenon exacerbated the fires. Environmentalists say many of the blazes were intentionally set, some by companies with links to the former First Family seeking to clear land for lucrative agricultural concessions. Emy Hafild, the executive director of the Indonesian Forum for the Environment, says Suharto's corrupt government had allowed businesses to run roughshod over Indonesia's environment.
HAFILD: Before the last fire, the government has ruled that the company should not use fire in the clearing of land. Of course, the field officers who were supposed to control it did not, you know, control it. They got bribe money, you know, things like that. And then also, the higher official here in Jakarta, usually they are under payment by, you know, the logging companies, you know, that may be a monthly allowance or ticket for trips abroad or playing golf, whatever, or cars, even, you know.
SHINER: The corruption was so entrenched that at one point reforestation funds were diverted to a close friend of Suharto's to build a paper mill. Environmentalists say before the new government took power, there was little fear of prosecution for environmental violations. Part of the problem was that the former authoritarian government was centralized, meaning officials in remote areas were often left to implement their own laws in collusion with the very people who were violating them.
(A machete cuts through brush)
SHINER: The farmers of the village of Malungun on the island of Sumatra use machetes to clear weeds from their fields. For centuries Indonesian farmers have used slash-and-burn techniques to clear land. During the recent drought some of these small fires and others set on corporate plantations raged out of control and destroyed vast areas of woodland on Sumatra and the island of Borneo. But burned acreage hasn't been a problem for the villagers of Malungun. Their main environmental concern is their water. They say a local tapioca factory has been polluting the river they use for bathing and fishing. They no longer drink from it.
(Metal clanking as a crank turns)
SHINER: Now, says a villager named Baharum, they use a well.
SHINER: Until recently the water had been an almost perpetual source of irritation. But with the change of government in May, things have begun to improve.
MAHAROUM (Speaks in native language)
SHINER: Baharum says now villagers find that the river is less polluted than before, because they have stepped up their protests, feeling more protected in the era of political reform. Recent small demonstrations have been enough to force corrupt corporate managers and local government officials to resign in some parts of the country. Companies are afraid of being attacked, as so many were during anti-government riots in May.
MAD DAUD: (Speaks in native language)
SHINER: The situation is more difficult for people like farmer Mad Daud, who lives a few hours away. Instead of protesting, he's quietly picking up the pieces of his farm in eastern Sumatra, after a tragedy that he blames on degradation of the natural forest.
(A chicken clucks)
SHINER: A lone chicken is all that remains of his farm after a herd of about 20 elephants descended from the hills and trampled his home and garden. Environmentalists say the elephants were deprived of food in a damaged area of the natural forest and were attracted to tender leaves on a plantation of palm oil plants. Clearing land for palm oil concessions is a growing concern as Indonesia tries to climb out of an economic crisis. The government recently lifted a ban on palm oil exports, allowing plantation owners to earn foreign exchange. With the drop in the value of the local currency, companies can now make huge profits in dollars by exporting the commodity. More companies will likely see to establish or expand existing concessions, in some cases on valuable forest land. Tom Walton of the World Bank says promoting palm oil exports can be good for the economy. But, he says, it must be coupled with monitoring and management of how concession sites are selected, cleared, and managed.
WALTON: Let's suppose it is cleared with fire and that erosion is allowed to occur after the site is cleared. You're going to have an impact on air quality, global warming in the broadest sense. But also you have an impact on water quality in the watershed.
SHINER: And that's not all.
WALTON: Then you've got pollution from the processing of the palm oil itself, which is a highly-polluting industry. There are quite good guidelines for how to prevent that pollution, but monitoring and enforcement are very weak in Indonesia.
SHINER: The government has also lifted a ban on the export of timber. Indonesia already has some of the highest deforestation and erosion rates in the world. With the abundance of natural resources and the decline in manufacturing because of the economic crisis, temptation is growing for the country to export its way out of its troubles. This has environmentalists like Emy Hofild worried about the future.
HOFILD: Even some economists have said that we should mortgage our natural resources, our gold and our timber (laughs) to get, you know, fresh money to come in from abroad. So that's crazy.
SHINER: One of the problems in protecting Indonesia's natural resources is that local communities virtually have no rights to the land they use and live on. They often have strict traditional rules about the use of their resources. But the government or large companies can evict people from their property to set up timber or palm oil plantations. Some environmentalists call this eco-terrorism. Virza Sas-mita-wijaya is a reform-minded researcher with the Ministry of Environment.
WAJAYA: Anything could be bought by the power and money.
(Clanking sounds, running water)
SHINER: Irma Yusmi knows this technique well. While cooking rice over an open fire recently for her family, she described how the government brought in troops and elephants to take over the property she used to live on. More than 100 homes were trampled.
USME: (Speaks in native language)
TRANSLATOR: I'm really hurt because everything came from those gardens, those lands. The land is our future.
SHINER: Now Yusmi and her family own a small shop by the highway, having moved a few miles down the road. The children go to a school further away, and the loss of their land coupled with the economic crisis has made making a living tougher. But there are examples of change. On the western coast of Sumatra, the outlook has gotten brighter. In fact, it's better than it has been in years. People are earning more money because they're earning dollars instead of their own weak local currency, and because people have rights to the land they work on in line with the government decree issued earlier this year. It was one of the first of its kind and a landmark victory for environmentalists.
(Flowing water, air sounds, tapping)
SHINER: Through an agro-forestry project, people in the small communities near the town of Krui here are making sustainable use of their forest and turning a profit in the meantime. Farmers here tap damar, a clear resin used for making plastics and other synthetics, and export it abroad, where they earn the dollar equivalent in local currency.
JOHAN: (Speaks in native language)
SHINER: Helsam Johan is a damar tapper who is now able to send 6 of his children to school on his earnings from the forest.
JOHAN: (Speaks in native language)
SHINER: Using a hip harness, Johan shimmies up towering trees to chip away the valuable damar, which is now valued at more than 7 times it was before the economic crisis hit last year.
SHINER: Giving people land-ownership rights is the kind of reform environmentalists would like to see more of under the new government. They hope at least some changes can be made before the onset of the next dry season in October, when fires are expected again.
SHINER: Environmentalists say the recent fires in Indonesia were only one sign of a larger ecological crisis. The fall of Suharto has provided some hope for change. But the economic problems make long-term planning difficult. Budgets have been slashed for urban clean air and clear water campaigns. Indonesian environmentalists warn that unless corruption is taken seriously and people are given a stake in caring for the resources they use, even more of the country's abundant natural riches may go up in smoke. For Living on Earth, I'm Cindy Shiner reporting.
Living on Earth wants to hear from you!
P.O. Box 990007
Boston, MA, USA 02199
Donate to Living on Earth!
Living on Earth is an independent media program and relies entirely on contributions from listeners and institutions supporting public service. Please donate now to preserve an independent environmental voice.
Sailors For The Sea: Be the change you want to sea.
Innovating to make the world a better, more sustainable place to live. Listen to the race to 9 billion
The Grantham Foundation for the Protection of the Environment: Committed to protecting and improving the health of the global environment.
Energy Foundation: Serving the public interest by helping to build a strong, clean energy economy.
Contribute to Living on Earth and receive, as our gift to you, an archival print of one of Mark Seth Lender's extraordinary wildlife photographs. Follow the link to see Mark's current collection of photographs.
Buy a signed copy of Mark Seth Lender's book Smeagull the Seagull & support Living on Earth