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Sorrows of Sumatra

Intensive deforestation in Indonesia – fuelled by corruption – is scarring the landscape and wrecking a vital resource. Andre Vltchek went to see the devastation.

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Tin-mine pits are like enormous open wounds dominating the landscape of island Bangka, near Sumatra and only 40 minutes flight from the Indonesian capital, Jakarta. Even from the air it is obvious that the island is a textbook example of man-made environmental calamity. Only a few tiny pockets of natural forest remain, surrounded by rubber and palm-oil plantations.

The island of Bangka, home to around 650,000 people, is known for its white beaches. But most of these are now covered by garbage and exhibit the latest “cultural trend”: affluent young people and families bring their cars and scooters to the seafront and drive back and forth on the sand until late in the evening. Silence – once the last attraction of the island – is gone, replaced by the roar of engines. The beach, decorated by some fantastic rock structures, is now badly polluted.

Just a few miles across the sea from Bangka, a dilapidated hydrofoil (one of which recently sank) enters the magnificent Sungai Musi River, one of the mighty rivers of Sumatra Island. While I admire the surface of the river from the boat, a local student suggests I look between the trees separating the river bank and the interior: “Try to catch the moment – the opening. You will see, there is nothing left of the forest.”

One hour later, this black smoke and pop-music belching craft docks at the port of the city of Palembang. With 1.5 million inhabitants, the city is the second largest in Sumatra and one of the most populous in Indonesia. It is one of the most appalling urban centres on the Asian continent, with hardly anything to offer except a handful of Dutch-era buildings and several picturesque traditional houses on stilts inhabited by the very poor. Although located some 80 kilometres from the coast, Palembang is a vast seaport with huge vessels docked at the banks and in the middle of the Musi River. The river and the streams that feed into her are not just polluted, they appear to be positively toxic.

Inflated carcasses of dogs and other animals are floating on the surface of the river, together with industrial waste, debris, bottles and simple household waste. Palembang is home to oil refineries as well as cement and fertiliser plants. It sits in the middle of two major areas of unbridled deforestation on the island of Sumatra. While Indonesia is often referred to as the “ground zero” of climate change, Palembang should be considered one of its most telling monuments.

Isna Wijayani Lexy is professor of journalism at the Faculty of Social and Political Science in Sumatra’s Baturaja University. Hers is one of the few outspoken voices in this part of the world: “Illegal loggers can usually count on backing from the police, military, local government officials and thugs,” she says. “Media only cover raids against the loggers, that is, if there are raids. Even then it is very rare that journalists cover them on their own as they are usually short of funds and can’t just go up or down the river as they please.

“On this, as well as many other topics, there is news hegemony and no diversity in content. The local journalists dare not take risks. Journalists in Palembang only look for easy news and if they have been ‘serviced’ (bribed), bad or critical news will not be published. Money talks here, even when it comes to the news.”

There are plenty of alarming reports by local academics and international observers about the archipelago’s disappearing rainforests and unbearable pollution levels in all major Indonesian cities. But there are few sound analyses that link all the factors that make Indonesia, environmentally, one of the most battered nations on earth: corruption, governmental incompetence, the powerful position of armed forces and unbridled pursuit of profits utilising the easiest and often least-sustainable means.

Restraint was broken on January 29, 2010, when The Jakarta Globe reprinted an Agence France–Presse report on an academic study into illegal logging in the forest bordering Malaysia on the island of Borneo, which began: “The Indonesian military is deeply involved in the trade in illegally felled timber that is destroying vast tracts of pristine forest and contributing to global warming, researchers said Friday.” But, given the combination of state controls and the silence of the media, the public remains largely uninformed about the environmental and social disasters that are devastating their country.

Despite pollution, the River Musi is still one of the mightiest waterways of south-east Asia. The misery along this waterway is on a par with some of the poorest parts of Africa. Tiny villages and towns along the shores are lost in time, often cut off from the rest of the country. Upang town is built on stilts. It is an expensive one-hour boat ride from Palembang at breakneck speed and survives by supplying riverboats with fuel and food. Upang sits at the heart of the Musi River’s illegal logging trade.

Two young girls, Linda and Yanti, are working in a local eatery. “Each household has people who work across the river on ‘cleared land’,” explains Linda. “People from the entire area are working on ‘cleared land’, many doing the ‘clearing’ itself. There are no permits necessary and no taxes; nobody checks.”

The girls explain that their monthly income is 20,000 to 30,000 Indonesia rupiahs (US$2 to US$3). “My dream is to become rich,” says Yanti. “If I were rich, I would give alms (zakat) and then travel. I would go to Bandung and to Jakarta. I would visit the National Monument.” Neither girl has ever left Upang – not even to visit Palembang, 25 miles up the river.

The girls have no knowledge about deforestation. They know it only as “clearing the land”, something good for planting rice and palm oil. They had no idea what global warming is either. We ask the same question of several people along the Musi River and always receive the same answer – incomprehension and bewilderment on their faces. Rural Indonesia is extremely poor and underdeveloped and moral and ethical questions here are simply perceived as odd. Caring for the environment and the world are luxuries most impoverished Indonesians cannot afford while, for the rich rulers of this nation, they are simply not profitable enough.

As we sail across the river and slowly progress towards Palembang, the full horror of the deforestation suddenly emerges: hundreds of square miles of rainforest destroyed and replaced by tremendous bare plains; some areas still burning. There are bags with chemicals and bottles of spray scattered all over the earth. Even for those who are not experts on the environment, this could hardly appear to be anything other than unbridled, gross and brutal rape of nature.

At one of the epicentres of the disaster, Sawah Upang, we spot an old couple sitting in front of their house. They wave and happily explain their presence there: “We are from Palembang. Five years ago we bought the land here from other people from Upang. Now we have our rice fields here.” Deforestation? Global warming? They both smile, not comprehending.

On the way back to Palembang it begins to rain. Huge rusty cargo ships stand in the middle of the river like tremendous ghosts, while the factory chimneys regurgitate colourful smoke skyward, even in this heavy downpour. Streams bring brown and foamy liquid to the river. All around is misery, dirt and hopelessness – so common in today’s Indonesia but here, somehow, brought to the extreme.

Indonesia achieved the world’s fastest rate of deforestation between 2000 and 2005, with an area the size of 300 football fields removed every hour, according to Greenpeace. The country has already lost over 70% of its intact ancient forests and half of what is left is threatened by commercial logging, forest fires and clearances for palm-oil plantations. And the greed seems to know no bounds.

No matter how pressing, the environmental issues cannot be separated from the general and continuous decay of the Indonesian state – from its endemic corruption, impunity of armed forces, extreme breed of market fundamentalism and tendency to put faith above rational thinking.

Andre Vltchek is a novelist, journalist and filmmaker.

earlier version of this article was published as: Andre Vltchek and Geoffrey Gunn, "In the Tropical Forests of Sumatra: Notes from Climate Change ‘Ground Zero,’” The Asia-Pacific Journal, 7-2-10, February 15, 2010. It is used here with permission.

Homepage image from Greenpeace

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Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous



Sean Whyte


A well written, honest article. Tell's it like it is in Indonesia.

Sean Whyte

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous

内尔 图埃罗

4天的航行都没有发现任何的雨林,无疑是对未来的一个强烈警告。而真到了那一天,人们就会发现一切都太迟了,我们必须承受环境大灾难。 天知道有多少物种会灭亡。我们所能做的也只是静静地等待外国政府给我们送来援助金。

Nell Tuero

to travel 4 days without any rainforest is a warning of what is to come, which by then will sadly be to late as generations will have to bear this enviromental disaster and God knows how many species will become EXTINCT. So all we can do is sit back and watch hundreds of millions of dollars from foreign Govts. feed this toal stuff up

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous



A BOSF supporter

Greed knows no bounds. Its hard to imagine what this loss of forest actually looks like. The future looks bleak

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous



Translated by Fang Imogen Lau.

How can we minimise this (commercially-driven) destruction?

Until very recently, the two largest pulp manufacturing groups on Sumatra used timber from natural tropical forest as the primary source of their pulpwood. Most of the pulp which the largest and most ill-reputed of these two groups seems to be exported to China.
The European Commission's proposal to require that assessments of the legality (and perhaps sustainability) of the paper which is first sold within the EU does not cover printed paper. This gives a huge competitive advantage to those publishers outside the EU who are free to use illegal / unsustainable pulp in the paper which they print. China is a leading non-EU supplier of printed paper to some parts of the EU, and much of that paper is supplied by the larger of the two groups which have caused such damage to the forests, peoples and wildlife of Sumatera.
That group is also a leading producer of palm oil and, implicitly, a major contributor to climate change.
Given that group's influence, perhaps the only way to change its behaviour in both Indonesia and Sumatera, is to stop buying paper or products made partly from palm oil whose supply is linked to that group. There are legal and sustainable alternatives.

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous



This Is A Commonplace Situation in Countries with Tropical Forests

Indonesia can be considered a classic case of a country with damaged forests, but this kind of damage, which includes illegal timber trading and the expansion of agricultural planting, is acutally very common in such heavily- forested tropical countries. However, the value of timber cannot be considered one of the causes of such damage manifesting itself, the ambiguity of ownership is another of the causes. So the protection of tropical forests is absolutely essential.

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous

猩猩 延伸


由于森林砍伐和棕榈油种植园迅速扩大,野生猩猩正面临灭绝的危险。如果再不采取相关保护措施,它们将会在未来几年灭绝。我们诚意邀请中外对话以及中外对话的读者们访问“猩猩延伸”(Orangutan Outreach)的网站去学习一下如何贡献你们的力量。


Orangutan Outreach

Fine article about the situation on the ground...

Orangutans are critically endangered in the wild because of rapid deforestation and the expansion of palm oil plantations. If nothing is done to protect these majestic creatures, they will be extinct in just a few years. We invite you and your readers to visit the Orangutan Outreach website to learn how YOU can make a difference!

Reach out and save the orangutans!
Adopt an orangutan today!

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous



Translate by Fang Imogen Liu.

Replant Europe

Why bother flying to Indonesia? Why not just replant France with forests as it was in mediaval times? The entire population of Western Europe could be forcibly taken off the land and put into climate camps. Disease and starvation will take care of the human problem and we could have a pristine natural forest in Western Europe. Should be enough or we can start on the US next. Why is only the poor have to sacrifice their lives to save the environment.

Default avatar
匿名 | Anonymous



Save the Forest for Whom?

For the world including the rich people, also for the local poor people, especially for the basic requirment from the local people.