Tue, 18 Sep 2001

Cooperation makes a real difference

By Nigel Sizer

SANUR, Bali (JP): A landmark accord between key governments in Bali last week could signal a turning point in the struggle to combat illegal logging in Indonesia and beyond.

For the first time, ministers from tropical Asian countries plagued by unlawful plundering of their rain forests, together with top officials from countries on the receiving end of the stolen timber, pledged to work together on an action plan to deal with the problem.

The Forest Law Enforcement and Governance Ministerial Conference, hosted by the government of Indonesia, welcomed around 150 participants to the Bali Hyatt in Sanur. Those accepting invitations to attend included the governments of Cambodia, China, Congo, Ghana, Great Britain, Laos, Japan, Thailand, the Philippines, the United States and Vietnam.

The host was Indonesia's Ministry of Forestry, with assistance from the US State Department, the UK Department for International Development and the World Bank. The organizers were praised for reaching out to environmental groups and to the private sector, encouraging them to contribute to the discussion. This is significant because it is widely understood that governments alone cannot resolve forest issues.

Mark Baird, who heads the World Bank's operations in Indonesia, made it starkly clear that it was necessary to deal with illegal logging. Far from being of concern only to nature lovers, forest crime in Indonesia has a huge economic impact.

"A low end estimate of the foregone government revenues due to illegal logging is $600 million per year," Blair stated.

He added, pointedly, "That amount of money is four times the total spending of central and local governments on forest management and protection. It's also double the amount that is spent on the food subsidy program for Indonesia's poorest people."

The Director General of the Bogor-based Center for International Forestry Research, Dr David Kaimowitz, struck a similar tone. He emphasized that illegal logging is not a victimless crime.

"Diversion of funds into Swiss bank accounts rather than lawful timber harvesting and payment of taxes reduces the cash available to the government for poverty alleviation," he noted.

In a country where so many are struggling to find work and rebuild the shattered economy, such analysis cannot be ignored.

Illegal logging in Indonesia is hard to quantify. Reputable groups estimate at least half of all the timber being cut is illegal, and the amount may be closer to seventy percent or even eighty percent.

Logging is even going on in some the country's most precious national parks, such as Tanjung Puting in Borneo, Leuser in Sumatra, and Lore Lindu in Central Sulawesi. It is among the major threats to the integrity of the last remaining healthy tracts of rain forest.

Much of this stolen timber is consumed within Indonesia, especially by less-forested and heavily populated Java. However, a good deal, especially the more valuable, higher quality wood, is shipped overseas. Japan and China are probably the main destinations, but importers in Europe and the United States are also important players.

By the time it arrives at the foreign ports the timber has been "legalized" through the addition of accompanying paperwork that may be forged or provided by corrupt customs officials at the points of export.

Importers have claimed for years that they cannot be held responsible for the harmful trade. Those in Bali agreed that importers must share the responsibility for timber theft.


Forest crime and corruption have been taboo topics in previous discussions among governments on forest issues. This is not surprising given the sensitivity of officials to discussion of bribery amongst their own and weak law enforcement.

But the Bali meeting hit a remarkably different note. The ministers announced, in an official joint declaration, that they were "deeply concerned ... by violations of forest law and forest crime". They highlighted "the urgent need for effective cooperation to address these problems".

Indonesia's new Minister of Forestry Dr. Muhammad Prakosa stated, "Indonesia will not tolerate illegal logging in national parks and we need to take strong measures to control it."

He promised to impose stiff penalties on those convicted of forest crimes in what could herald a sharp crackdown on the bosses of the timber smuggling syndicates.

The ministers agreed to take immediate action to address forest law violations, associated trade and corruption. Actions that were endorsed in the declaration include the creation of a regional task force on forest law enforcement and governance, supported by an advisory group drawn from civil society and industry.

At the urging of many of the environmental groups present, there was agreement to promote cooperation among law enforcement agencies and customs officers in different countries.

One suggestion to be explored is "prior notification" of importer country agents by exporter country authorities when a large shipment of timber is on the way. Should shipments turn up in, say, Japan or the United States, without such notification, then they could be viewed as suspicious and the cargo further investigated. Without close cooperation between agencies in the different countries to share information quickly and accurately, it will be hard to inhibit illegal shipments overseas.

Togu Manarung from Forest Watch Indonesia, and Eang Savet, head of Cambodia's Forest Crime Monitoring Unit, showed how cheap and effective high technology satellite imagery can be when used to detect the expansion of illegal logging.

The view from space helps identify and then monitor road construction -- a clue to logging where it may not be authorized. A critical contribution from their work was to show that there are simple steps that governments can take quickly to reduce forest crime. Even these more technical aspects were reflected in the ministerial declaration. Officials pledged to "undertake accurate and timely mapping ... and make this information available to the public". In Cambodia, anyone can view progress through a government run website.

More attention

The meeting could not, of course, accomplish everything. While applauding the outcome of the conference, Indonesian environmental and social activists pointed out that some key factors needed more attention.

Representatives of the Indonesian Forum for the Environment (Walhi), Tepepak and others, representing millions of Indonesians, called for urgent attention to traditional land rights. This is a major concern that demands attention.

Many communities across this country depend directly on forests for their livelihoods, especially during hard times. Under the Soeharto government, those rights were widely ignored. Access to forests was instead awarded to large logging enterprises, oil palm plantation companies and developers. With reform now underway, it is critical, if forests are to be well- managed and poverty reduced, that local people be given far more say in how those resources are administered.

A second point of concern was the absence of some governments. Malaysia, Papua New Guinea and Singapore all declined the opportunity to join the meeting. Malaysia's very late response (received the Friday before the meeting was to begin) even asked for the meeting to be postponed.

Malaysian companies are well known to be major culprits in the import, processing and shipment of timber logged illegally in Indonesia. Their cooperation in addressing the problem is sorely needed.

The ministers agreed to meet again in 2003 to review progress in tackling these complex issues. In the meantime, much work must be done. Indonesia and her most important trading partners have struck a deal that is historic, ambitious and courageous.

Now, though, the real effort begins. As the governments admitted in Bali, they cannot do this alone. They need help. Responsible Indonesian business leaders, environmentalists, foreign donors and other partners should all quickly rally to assist taking forward the commitment that has been made. Such a joint effort would stand a good chance of making a real difference for the forests and people of this country.

-- The writer is Director of the Asia Pacific Forests Program for The Nature Conservancy and is based in Jakarta.