Tue, 01 Aug 2000

Destruction of Tanjung Puting continues

JAKARTA (JP): The destruction of Tanjung Puting National Park in Central Kalimantan shows no sign of stopping, leaving its few remaining orangutans -- Asia's only great ape -- on a desperate plight, environmentalists have warned.

The recommendation of local and international environmentalists for drastic action to stop illegal logging and save the endangered orangutans has so far fallen on the government's deaf ears.

Two weeks ago, a report by the Washington-based World Research Institute, Trial by Fire: Forest Fires and Forestry Policy in Indonesia's Era of Crisis and Reform, warned the Indonesian government to take drastic measures to prevent a reoccurrence of forest fires in the country.

The latest report on the threatened national park was published last week by the London-based Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) and Telapak Indonesia Foundation, titled Illegal Logging in Tanjung Puting National Park -- An Update on The Final Cut Report.

The park is one of only three protected areas in the country where orangutans are found in sufficient numbers to ensure their long-term viability.

The report's joint investigation found a devastating fact: Logging gangs have invaded the core of the park where orangutan behavior is studied. The illegal loggers have also begun switching to other timber species as most of the profitable ramin (Gonystylus bancanus) tree species had been logged out. It was estimated that at least 60,000 cubic meters of timber, mainly ramin, were looted every month.

"Although much of the responsibility for Indonesia's forest crisis rests with former president Soeharto and his coterie of family members and close business cronies, there has been an upsurge in illegal logging since he was removed from power," it warned.

The impact of illegal logging, combined with the effects of forest fires in 1997, has resulted in a staggering decrease in the number of orangutans.

Recent estimates suggest that the number of orangutans left in Tanjung Puting National Park could be as low as 500, compared to 2,000 in 1994.

Dr. Carel van Schaik, who has studied Leuser orangutans at Gunung Leuser National Park, blamed illegal logging for their present plight.

"Indonesia had high deforestation rates, but, until the mid- 1990s, we were always optimistic that this would not endanger orangutans because there were national parks and even part of logging concessions which were meant to be maintained as unlogged in perpetuity," van Schaik said.

"Since the Soeharto regime got into trouble in the mid-1990s, there has been anarchy in the forests. Laws have been flouted. A lot of logging concessions have been woefully over-logged and there has been rampant logging and clearance for oil palms in areas not meant to be logged at all, even national parks. The fires and the drought of 1998 were a double calamity."

Van Schaik warned that if the current crisis persisted, there would be no viable orangutan population left in the world within a decade.

No action

The report also provides detailed events since the launch of the Final Cut, including on the alleged abduction and assault on Telapak Indonesia's director, A. Ruwindrijarto, and EIA expert Faith Doherty during their field visit to the area earlier this year by timber baron Abdul Rasyid's men.

Both Doherty and Ruwindrijarto were released after three days, thanks to support from Indonesian non-governmental organizations (NGO) and intervention from the highest level by the Indonesian government and the British Embassy.

The alleged abduction even got the attention of both local and foreign media, such as The Daily Telegraph and The Observer.

Rasyid, owner of the Tanjung Lingga Group logging company and also a member of the People's Consultative Assembly from the Golkar Party, has strongly denied the accusation and instead has accused the two environmentalists of trespassing on his property.

"Despite the evidence, there has been no real action by the government against him," EIA's director Dave Currey said.

Apart from naming the culprits of the illegal logging practices, the two organizations also provided dossiers to the police and the Ministry of Forestry and Plantations, and presented the evidence to the then governor of Central Kalimantan.

However, despite promises made by the government to tackle the timber theft in February and sporadic action against timber thieves, the national park's destruction continues.

"If a government ignores its true assets and lets them be plundered by criminals and thieves, then it ignores the very basis of civil society," said Ruwindrijarto.

The report places the fate of Tanjung Puting as a test case for a government that claims to be committed to fighting corruption and has made promises to its international donors that it will tackle illegal logging immediately, especially in national parks.

"There is no question of what is happening, no question of who is behind it, and no question of the lawlessness it creates. The only question is whether the government has the courage to move in."

In its efforts to reveal the ongoing destruction of Tanjung Puting National Park, the two organizations failed to present the case to House of Representatives legislators on July 21. The legislators refused to allow three foreign representatives from EIA to talk in the formal forum.

But afterwards, President Abdurrahman "Gus Dur" Wahid expressed his personal interest at a 90-minute meeting with Dave Currey, Faith Doherty and Ruwindrijarto last Tuesday (July 25). The meeting was also attended by Minister of Forestry and Plantations Nur Mahmudi Ismail.

In the meeting, as mentioned in a media release later on, the President wanted to see an end to timber barons profiting from the illegal logging of Tanjung Puting and was committed to the suspension of ramin timber exports.

Latest reports suggest that 70 percent of the logs supplied to the processing sector are from illegal sources.

"If the government holds sticks to the President's promises, then, at last we will see some action," Currey said. "But we will continue our campaign to stop the illegal logging for as long as it takes." (ste)