Tue, 04 Feb 2003

Forest firm being blamed for West Java landslides

Yuli Tri Suwarni and Agus Maryono, The Jakarta Post, Bandung/Cilacap

State-owned forestry company PT Perhutani has increasingly come under fire for its failure to stop the rampant deforestation blamed for last week's deadly landslides that killed more than 30 people in West Java.

West Java Governor R. Nuriana has officially reprimanded the Perhutani office responsible for the management of forests in the province, including the forest on Mount Mandalawangi, from which mud and rocks came down to bury dozens of houses in Kedungora subdistrict, Garut regency, on Jan. 28, leaving at least 21 people dead.

Three days later, another 10 villagers died when a landslide swept over their homes in the adjacent regency of Kuningan.

"Since before the implementation of regional autonomy, the central government, through Perhutani, has been the sole manager of forests in West Java, which have been damaged," he said.

Perhutani, which is in charge of almost half of West Java's forests, has yet to respond to the criticism.

However, a spokesman for the company, Dachlan Sudrajat, shifted the blame to locals who looted the forests and converted them into farmland.

"Several times we demanded firm action against the forest settlers, but the legal authorities did nothing," he said.

Aside from the governor's criticism of Perhutani, the forestry firm is also facing a class-action suit from an alliance of non- governmental organizations.

The head of the West Java forestry office, Edi Supriadi, accused the state-owned forestry company of failing to maintain the ecological balance in the province.

"It (Perhutani) should not just want to make a profit by selling logs from the forests, but should also manage the forests properly along with locals. It should not allow the forests to be looted and in the end blame villagers for deforestation," he said.

Edi acknowledged that land conversion and illegal logging were difficult to stop because of population growth and widespread poverty.

Experts have warned that West Java remains prone to flooding and landslides because of its unstable soil and massive deforestation from illegal logging.

According to these experts, the main areas of deforestation in the province are Garut, Tasikmalaya, Bandung, Bogor, Puncak and Cianjur.

West Java is the country's most vulnerable province to landslides, according to the Bandung-based Directorate General for Geology and the Mitigation of Natural Disasters.

According to data from the agency, more than 500 landslides have occurred in Indonesia over the last 10 years, 70 percent of them in West Java, which is home to about three million people.

The local forestry office said that in 20 years the amount of forests in West Java and the adjacent province of Banten had fallen from 1,774,186 hectares to 1,000,743 hectares, due to the continued development of industrial areas and housing settlements.

About 260,937 hectares of forests are conserved areas and another 240,402 hectares are protected, while the remaining 500,000 hectares are located in Perhutani's limited production area, which spreads along the Citanduy, Cimanuk, Citarum, Ciliwung and Cisadane rivers.

Apart from the forests, another 1,325,525 hectares of land in West Java should have been conserved as water catchment areas.

However, much of this land has been converted for use as farms, plantations, resettlement areas and for other functions.

In another disaster, a landslide swept through a hot springs resort in Pacet, Mojokerto, East Java, last month killing at least 32 people. That disaster has been blamed on deforestation in the area.

The state minister for the environment warned recently that the forests in Java would disappear by 2005 unless logging was halted.

Meanwhile, about 10,000 people fled their homes in Cilacap regency, Central Java, as flooding extended to 26 villages in Wanareja subdistrict on Monday.

One person has reportedly died at a shelter since flooding struck the regency on Thursday. Many others are suffering from skin irritations, diarrhea and fever.

Hundreds of people living in makeshift shelters, mosques and school buildings face the possibility of disease from unclean water and food.