Wed, 25 Sep 2002

Collective action needed to save natural resources

The Earth Summit in Johannesburg, South Africa, which concluded earlier this month, has once again alerted the world to the impact of environmental destruction on human lives. Former Indonesian minister for the environment Emil Salim, chairman of the preparatory committee of the summit, related his environmental vision to The Jakarta Post's Dadan Wijaksana and Musthofid on how Indonesia has to pursue the summit consensus and carry on with its attempt to avert further losses of its natural resources, especially its forests. The following is an excerpt of the interview:

Question: Why are Indonesia's forests prey to such a speedy pace of deforestation?

Answer: Let's put the issue this way. Despite a campaign for environmentally healthy development, many seem to have defied it. That's inevitably associated with the way of thinking about economic development. People exploit natural resources to an extreme degree for commercial benefit, without being aware of the urgency of preserving them.

Q: What does the forest offer that is vital to the people but which the market fails to recognize?

A: What is overlooked by the market is the benefit that people get from the forest, as an absorber of CO2, clean air filter, as a water catchment and on dwellings. To sum up, the environment -- along with poverty -- provides benefits, but these evaporate because they are hard to quantify.

Q: Why didn't we start taking account of the noncommercial value of the forest, which appears to have left an impact on our failure to address it?

A: In the 1950s, Indonesia had a population of only 50 million. Sumatra, Sulawesi and Irian Jaya were only sparsely inhabited. So was the rest of the world. It was virtually empty. Given their abundance, natural resources were apparently not a constraint. However, in the following 50 years, Indonesia's population rose from 50 million to 210 million. Likewise, the world's population. All of a sudden, every space on earth seems to be densely inhabited. Despite rapid change, we seem to be indifferent to the need to keep up with it, as seen from the way we formulated our development paradigm.

Q: What are we supposed to do to keep abreast of the changes?

A: The paradigm or our vision of development has to be changed accordingly. We are now aware that we have lost something, but only recently. Only now do we see the severely damaged natural resources as a constraint. It has become an issue that is not only of concern but also threatens our lives.

Q: In relation to the Earth Summit in Johannesburg, what consensus did the world adopt to cope with natural resources- related issues?

A: That's part of a sustainable development program, which inherently contains three interdependable ingredients -- society, economy and the environment. Speaking about the environment, we must save the support system for life itself. What should we save? The atmosphere? Otherwise, we must brace ourselves for global warming (one cause of which is deforestation), which could mean a global temperature increase of 3 degrees Celsius by 2100. The equatorial countries would suffer from a drastic increase in sea level, which would result in the disappearance of half of the 17,000 islands in the Pacific. Increased temperatures during the dry season would subsequently hasten evaporation of surface water. During the rainy season, with a massive amount of rainfall, flooding would be unavoidable, especially in low-lying areas like Bangladesh and the northern part of Java. As a result of temperature increases, agricultural production would be chaotic. The impact would be very severe.

Q: How should the world move to reach sustainable development?

A: The Johannesburg Summit was resolute that the world must collectively drive forward with a new approach of multilateralism, instead of unilateralism, in the sense that global issues should not be considered the responsibility of one country to resolve, but the whole world's. Let us join forces together.

Q: How could we best use the Johannesburg consensus in our own cause of protecting Indonesia's natural resources, especially in the case of rampant illegal logging, where it is believed that collusion and corruption are still plaguing efforts to overcome them?

A: We can turn to multilateralism. We can optimize multilateral cooperation to give a boost to our efforts. Pressures on the government from international institutions like the UN Development Program (UNDP), International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank deserve to be pursued further. Don't expect too much from the government. We are talking about a ten-year program from 2002 to 2012. It's high time we did it in a "total football" way. What does that mean? Development is not a monopoly of the government but also involves stakeholders. They consist of nine groups, namely youth and children, women, farmers, laborers, businesses, academics, local administrations, indigenous people and non-governmental organizations (NGO). I prefer to trust these elements of civil society to help solve our forest problems. I suggest, as a follow-up action from the Johannesburg Summit, the government set up an independent team involving such elements of civil society.