Tue, 07 Nov 2000

A recurring disaster

Floods and landslides are no new phenomena to many areas of Java, especially along the island's northern and southern coasts. In the area around Brebes near the West Java border and along the Jepara shoreline toward the east, for example, the inhabitants are so used to floods that they take such calamities as a mere fact of life.

In the past few years, however, floods have been occurring not only with increased frequency, they have also affected wider areas, and as a consequence, the damage has also increased.

The most recent disaster hit the regencies of Purworejo, Purbalingga and Kebumen in the southern parts of Central Java over the weekend, where officials have reported finding at least 21 bodies, and an undisclosed number of people were still missing as of yesterday. In one village, six villagers were buried alive in a landslide. The worst damage was reported from the village of Delanggu in the Purworejo area, where landslides were reported to have damaged crops, buried 10 houses and damaged scores of others. The number of human casualties is as yet unknown.

To ensure that relief in the form of money, food, medicines, clothing and other items reaches those who need them is of course the first task for the local authorities to accomplish at this point. It is no secret that all too often such aid, provided by the government as well as well-meaning individuals and civic organizations, is misused.

Though it is important to ensure that the relief reaches the victims, it is only one part of a wider set of problems that need attention of both the government and the public. The increasing frequency of flooding and landslides in areas that before seldom suffered from such calamities is an indication that something is wrong, and it is not difficult to guess what the main problem is.

For many years or even decades, illegal logging is known to have been occurring on an increasing scale in many areas of Indonesia, including Java. Newspaper reports and television footage have made it clear that illegal logging is currently going on at an alarming rate not only in Java but on other islands as well.

Those whom forest wardens have so far managed to catch are mostly local people living in the area, who are driven by poverty to plunder the forests of teak, mahogany and other marketable woods. They, however, are but a part of a network that includes the fences and buyers who provide the looters with a ready market.

The consequences of deforestation have been emphasized many times, and the point must by now surely be well understood by Java's rural population. But as long as the people are hungry and there is a profitable market for stolen timber, the theft of timber will no doubt continue.

A general program of poverty alleviation seems to provide the ideal ultimate answer to this problem. But given the long-term nature of such a program, a more pragmatic solution must be found. Obviously, the authorities cannot just catch everyone found illegally felling timber and put them in jail. The government does not have the manpower to take such drastic action. Ways, though, could surely be found to provide villagers with alternative sources of income so that they do not have to resort to illegal logging. Mixed farming is one method that could be worth trying.

Whatever steps are taken, it is important that every member of society -- rural or urban -- is made aware of the fact that with every little act of denudation, the land will grow poorer and less able to sustain life. The ones who will suffer, if not ourselves, will be our children and grandchildren.