Tue, 18 Sep 2001

Concerned Balinese act to protect vanishing forest

By I Wayan Juniartha

DENPASAR, Bali (JP): Nyoman Suweta remembers that night clearly. A full enchanting moon beautified the clear sky, radiating an aura of serenity. Yet, his village was far from serene. A distant yet distinctly clear buzzing sound incessantly violated the night's silence, dragging the villagers out of their peaceful slumber.

"It was like the sound of thousands of bees, but we knew it wasn't. This sound had a mechanical quality to it, monotonous, rude and demanding," he recalled.

It later turned out that it was in fact the sound of chainsaws, dozens of them, busily cutting down precious majegau (Dysoxylum caulostachyum) trees in the forest surrounding the village.

Majegau is a special tree for Balinese people. The tree produces a faint refreshing and distinctive fragrance. The older the tree, the stronger the fragrance. The Balinese classify majegau as kayu dewa (divine trees), meaning they can only be used in sacred buildings such as temples and shrines. Balinese are not allowed to use kayu dewa in the so-called profane buildings, such as houses or offices.

There were around 70 hectares of forest, mostly containing majegau trees, surrounding the desa adat (traditional/customary village) of Catur, some 70 kilometers east of here. For the past several years, the forest has been gradually destroyed by illegal logging activities.

The loggers come to the forest with mechanical chainsaws, cut the trees down indiscriminately and load them onto trucks before leaving the forest as if nothing had happened.

The villagers can only stand back and watch the destruction of their forest with dismay. They resent the illegal logging, but there is nothing they can do. Nyoman Suweta, who is the chief of Catur, said that his fellow villagers were very frustrated.

"We want to do something, but the forest is not in our jurisdiction. The government had designated the forest as a state-owned forest, so there is nothing we can do. Once upon a time, the forest belonged to the village and the villagers were obliged to protect and conserve it. Now, the responsibility has been passed on to the police and the ministry of forestry, but you can see for yourself how rampant the illegal logging is," Suweta said.

With the coming of the reform era and the Bali administration's initiative of empowering traditional community organizations, Suweta found solid grounds for regaining the rights his village once held.

"Now we are in the process of approaching other traditional villages, so that eventually in each village's Awig awig (traditional law), there will be an article on the eradication of illegal logging," Suweta said.

Those "joint" Awig awig would also make it easier for a desa adat to prosecute and punish illegal loggers that come from other desa adat.

"The government would give this initiative a huge boost if they gave the rights to manage the forests back to the desa adat," Suweta said.

Concern over traditional communities' and indigenous people's rights over the forest are not just Suweta's. Several environmental non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that gathered here on the eve of the three-day East Asia Ministerial Conference voiced a similar concern.

Longgena Ginting of the Indonesian Forum for the Environment (Walhi) stressed that traditional communities and indigenous people's rights were among Walhi's top priorities in its efforts to conserve Indonesia's endangered tropical forests.

"Unless the government and the timber industry sincerely respect the traditional communities' and indigenous people's rights, the forest conservation effort is likely to be futile. These traditional communities and indigenous people possess the knowledge, which we lack, on how to be friends with the forest. How to utilize the forest without damaging it," Ginting said.

Another top priority, according to Ginting, was undoubtedly the implementation of a moratorium, resulting in all industrial- scale logging activities being put on hold for a certain period of time.

The moratorium would give the government all the time it needed to rehabilitate the forest, restructure the timber industry and trade, and empower local traditional communities.

"Up to now, Indonesia has lost 72 percent of its natural forest. Furthermore, the deforestation rate has reached 2.4 million hectares per year. Illegal logging activities have robbed 56.6 million cubic meters of trees from our forests each year, not to mention the ten million hectares we lost due to the forest fire in 1997/1998," Ginting said.

Illegal logging is not only damaging from the environmental point of view, but also economically. The World Bank's Country Director for Indonesia, Mark Baird, disclosed that illegal logging inflicted a staggering US$600 million per year in losses to the government of Indonesia. The figure was more than twice what the government spent on its subsidized food program for the poor in 2001.

"Unless the government acts quickly and strongly against illegal logging activities, and puts a moratorium into action, Indonesia will lose all of its forests in the next 15 years," Ginting stressed.