Sun, 28 May 2000

Crackdown a letdown as illegal loggers fly the coop

Text and photos by PJ Leo

TARAKAN, East Kalimantan (JP): As the helicopter landed in the Kalimantan jungle, the armed soldiers jumped off one by one, ready to fight the enemy.

Their mission was to curb rampant illegal logging and smuggling which has been carried out for many years, with the timber sent to neighboring Malaysia.

After walking for hours into the deep forest to the border of East Kalimantan and Sabah, Malaysia, they found a camp where the illegal loggers once operated. There were a number of tents, tractors, chain saws and other tools used to cut down trees.

Otherwise, it was quiet. The loggers were gone, fleeing in such a hurry that they left their incriminating belongings behind.

Operasi Wibawa, an operation whose name literally means to enhance the standing of the authorities, was launched against illegal loggers on May 12 at President Abdurrahman Wahid's order. It was conducted by the Ministry of Forestry and Plantations, in cooperation with the National Police. The operation was led by secretary-general of the ministry Suripto and Maj. (Inf.) Kamistan HD, commander of the security unit at the Indonesia- Malaysia boarder. It involved 104 soldiers and 16 logistics, medical and communications officers, as well as employees of the Indonesian forestry company Perhutani and PT Telen, the company's partner.

The operation was scheduled to start on May 11 but what were termed "technical matters" led to its postponement for a day.

Unfortunately, information about the operation was leaked, giving the illegal loggers enough time to leave.

Suripto, a former member of the intelligence coordinating board, could not help showing his disappointment at the leak of information.

"It might have been leaked by people who are close to those in power," he said.

"I can't say who. But it could have been from the National Police Headquarters, from the Ministry of Forestry and Plantations or locals in Tarakan."

Like Suripto, some soldiers who were dropped in an area called Sebuku were disappointed when they found loggers who they assumed were working illegally.

In fact, the loggers were working for Perhutani and their permits were in order.

Illegal logging has long occurred in East Kalimantan on the border with Sabah, and in West Kalimantan on its border with Sarawak. The authorities have generally turned a blind eye to the activities.

Perhutani, along with PT Telen and local people, recently confronted illegal loggers and confiscated several vehicles, chainsaws and other tools.

"For weeks, about a dozen of our employees could not work because they had to drive the vehicles out of the forest," said Mansyur Husein of PT Telen, adding that several employees were injured in an altercation with the illegal loggers.

There is evidence that Malaysian parties are involved. Documents, tractors and tools left by the illegal loggers carry the names of several Malaysian companies.

"In the name of the state, we will sue some businessman in Sabah who are allegedly involved in the illegal logging," said Sangudi Muhamad of Perhutani.

They are only part of the problem.

"I'm sure that there is a mafia behind this, because it involves huge funds and many people, including local people, businesspeople and even the Indonesian police ... ," Suripto said.

It is estimated that 80,000 cubic meters to 100,000 cubic meters of logs are smuggled to Malaysia every month.

"Indonesia suffers trillions of rupiah in losses annually," Suripto added.

Operation Wibawa is still going on, but for how long? Maj. Kamistan did not have the answer.

"It depends on the commander, he said. "We only wait for orders and implement them. This operation focuses on the efforts to protect our sovereignty in Indonesia and in the border area."