Tue, 18 Sep 2001

Fight to save nature not an easy job

By Rita A. Widiadana

SANUR, Bali (JP): Forest ecosystems of the southeast Asian region are among the world's richest in terms of biodiversity.

However, the region's forest resources, which provide both direct and indirect benefits to the people and play important roles in maintaining a healthy global environment, have gradually depleted over the last two decades. In this respect, Indonesia is one of the worst-affected countries, experiencing tremendous forest loss and forest crime.

The critical condition of Indonesia's tropical forests were admitted by Minister of Forestry Muhammad Prakosa during the East Asia Ministerial Conference on Forest Law Enforcement and Governance in Bali last Thursday. The World Bank indicated that deforestation over the past 10 years had reached 1.7 to 2 million hectares annually.

"The disappearance of Indonesia's forest does not only affect the country's economy but also the global economy and environment," the minister said.

Illegal logging and other forest crimes have many complex causes rooted deeply in social, cultural and political structures both within society and the government.

Hariadi Kartodihardjo of the Bogor Agricultural Institute identified the complexity of forest degradation management in Indonesia as being caused by structural problems, an imbalance in the allocation of forest resource utilization rights, and conflicts of interest among government bureaucrats including law officers.

"Indonesia has no choice but to totally reform its forest management system and impose very strict law enforcement in dealing with forest-related crimes because the IMF (the International Monetary Fund), the World Bank and other donor countries have used the policy as a condition to provide loans," the lecturer said.

Other countries in the region also face similar problems in dealing with their forest resources.

Vietnam, for instance, had 9.5 millions hectare of natural forest, but after war, 3 million hectare were gone because of the increasing demand of construction of development projects.

"After so much destruction took place during the war, we had to rebuild our country again," said Nguyen Ba Thu from Vietnam's Forest Protection Department.

Forests, he said, were over exploited to build houses, railway line, bridges and for export purposes.

"As a developing country, Vietnam also needs capital and foreign exchange resources. Over-exploitation of timber seems the quickest way to accrue the foreign currency badly needed to improve our economy," Nguyen said.

The changing of land use zoning into industrial forest also contributes to further and massive forest losses.

"People now prefer to grow rubber, coffee and cocoa trees that have a higher economic value," Nguyen said.

Poverty is another problem. Local people, particularly those living in forested and mountainous areas, frequently log trees to earn a living.

Its skyrocketing population also contributed to Vietnam's loss of forest. In 1975, the country had 50 million people, but now the number has soared to about 78 million people.

"But, one of the most serious problems is illegal logging, which is very difficult to deal with," Nguyen said.

Cambodia shares a similar story. In l969, forests covered 13.2 million hectares of the country, 73 percent of its total area, but by 1996/1997 only 10.6 million hectares, or 58 percent of the country's total land area was forested.

The country's forests are increasingly at risk due to increasing demand for agricultural land, and timber for fuel.

In the Philippines, it was estimated that about 50 years ago, the country's forests covered 16 million hectares, more than 50 percent of its land.

According to national bureau of investigations' special intelligence operations division chief Oscar L. Embido, as more and more people flocked to the cities, illegal loggers cut down trees as they liked. In the 1980s, the country's forests were reduced to only 800,000 hectares. The vanishing forests caused various natural disasters, such as floods, soil erosion and landslides, resulting in the deaths of thousands of people.

"People then began to realize the harmful impacts of the continued denuding of our forests and found out that the culprits were illegal loggers," Embido said.

Embido said that some concerned residents and law enforcement officers tried to tackle the problem but the effort were futile due to a lack of support from the central government, as well as from the general community.

Some cases were even taken to court, but to no avail. According to Embido, most of the cases were dismissed for lacking sufficient evidence, technicalities, or involved the strong "influence" of powerful illegal loggers toward some corrupt government officials.