Mon, 23 Oct 2000

Call for moratorium on logging

By Longgena Ginting

JAKARTA (JP): Our forest is dying a painful death.

Indonesia is known worldwide to be among places with the worst forest destruction. Overcutting, illegal logging, forest fires, monoculturalization of the natural forest, soil quality degradation, to name but a few of the problems.

We no longer even ask where all the profits of this overexploitation of our forest have gone, or how this has adversely affected the 80 million Indonesians whose livelihood directly or indirectly depend on the forest.

The saddest thing is that it is unlikely the government's or the community's outlook on the problem will change in the near future.

The simplest logic would tell us that illegal logging is a "natural" occurrence due to a gap between timber supply and demand as well as poor domestic prices of timber--which has over the years, led to smuggling of timber abroad.

The government's response--such as frequent raids and arrest of the smugglers--however, barely touches the roots of the problem because in Indonesia it does not really matter whether logging is legal or otherwise. What matters is the fact that both methods are leading to an overcutting of our forest.

From this perspective, even "legal" felling through forest concessions can be considered an illegal operation because it contributes to the killing of our forest. Certainly, this holds true if we can agree that overcutting is a crime against our natural resources.

Even the natural forest conversion is also actually a part of a systematic crime against our forest because it has been made inseparable from the overly high demand for timber and raw material for the pulp and paper industry.

The natural forest conversion is a crime against our forest, that's what it is.

Unless they want to be called criminals, the forestry ministry and the Association of Indonesian Forest Concessionaires (APHI) must immediately halt this robbing of the forest. They must stop natural forest conversions until the establishment of a sustainable forest management.

The root of the problem is actually simple, namely the extraordinary increase in the capacity of the national logging industry. In 1998, the country "consumed" a total of 78.1 million m3 of timber, while the official timber production rate was only 21.4 million m3. This means that 56.6 million m3 or 71 percent of the timber was from illegal felling and other unrecorded harvest.

This was reportedly a long-standing situation and the forestry ministry has always turned a blind eye to the practice.

Interestingly, the 1994/95 up to 1998/99 fiscal years recorded a decline in timber production, while recording a consistent increase in forestry upstream industries such as sawn-wood timber, plywood and pulp.

Forest conversions, illegal felling and forest fires, however, are mere symptoms. The true disease is the forest management (or mismanagement as is the case) policy that has existed since very early; the limited timber supply; the paper industry development policies that have led to indiscriminate cutting of commercial timber; and major oil palm plantations.

No matter how high our annual forest conversion is, the government has never tried to curb it. Instead, the government continues to issue new licenses for forest conversion.

It is also the government policies that have enabled the same companies to operate forest concessions (HPH), timber concessions (HTI) and other plantations simultaneously.

Following the 1997 economic crisis, the government issued a number of policies that affected the rate of natural forest conversion. These include restrictions on palm oil exports, the liberalization of foreign investment in the sector and the conversion of 30 percent of state forest for oil palm cultivation.

Indonesia has been witnessing the steadily increasing rate of natural forest conversion, as indicated by the increased volume of timber produced through licenses for clear-felling or indiscriminate logging (IPK). This signified an increase in the logging industry's dependence on indiscriminate cutting.

A portion of the demand is met by forest conversion whose rate is found to be 30 percent over the national demand of timber. This may mean either of the following: 1) the decline of our forest's capacity and quality after more than 30 years of overexploitation or; 2) the continued exploitation and conversion of the remaining forest.

With the annual timber demands standing at 65-70 million m3, we can estimate that between 20.7 and 22.3 million m3 of the timber is produced from forest conversion. Given that indiscriminate logging is the most used method and modestly assuming that 20-30 m3 of timber is produced per hectare, we can estimate the forest conversion rate to reach 750,000 to 1.1 million hectares per year.

This figure is certainly far beyond the figures officially issued by the forestry and plantations ministry because it is very possible that illegal conversion contributes to the high rate of forest conversion.

Figures, however, do not matter as importantly as the dire reality facing us. Actions are need to save the remaining 28 percent of our forest areas.

It is true we have limited alternatives: banning logging, a moratorium on forest concessions, putting a stop to forest conversion, closing down indebted and inefficient industries, recognizing the people's tenurial rights, rationalizing timber industries and establishing forest spatial zoning.

Let's first discuss the need to change the existing pattern of forest exploitation. We must evaluate the forest resources that we still own and calculate whether to continue with the consumption pattern that is three times our forest's production capacity. This calls for a moratorium.

By putting a stop to this consumption pattern, we may have to lose a total of US$3 billion income from legal felling but can actually save US$8.5 billion worth of timber that would be lost through illegal felling. We must be willing to do away with inefficient and wasteful industries, and put a stop to unsustainable logging practices and natural forest conversion.

Some people may consider this line of thinking "subversive" but what are the alternatives?

We could refuse to take those measures because we fear ramifications such as the collapse of the economy or unemployment but this only delays a sure death. The maintenance of the current forest exploitation pattern will surely lead to its eventual death and the nightmare becoming a reality.

The writer is campaign coordinator of the Indonesian Environmental Forum (Walhi).