Mon, 25 Dec 2000

Tracking the timber along Kalimantan's rivers

By Simon Marcus Gower

PELAI HARI, South Kalimantan (JP): Taking some time out from modern Jakarta, some evidence of the old city of Batavia may still be seen.

The north of modern day Jakarta is where the capital city was first established. At one of the northernmost tips of the city is the actual reason for the establishment of the city's the old harbor. A significant part of the old harbor is still active today. Sunda Kelapa is still a docking point for many seagoing vessels.

The vessels here, though, are not giant cargo ships or tankers but modest sized schooners. These wooden boats have been built from decades, even centuries, old designs and their one concession to modernity is the engines that allow them to chug between the Indonesian islands rather than just sail.

From these aged craft large amounts of cargo are brought into the city but the most noticeable commodity being carried ashore is timber. Dozens of workers labor over each of the boats carrying off an apparently endless supply of lengths of timber. Performing balancing acts along thin planks from the boats to the harbor, these men load up truck after truck with the timber. But where does this supply come from? Can it really be as endless as it seems?

An almost nervous reply is received from one of the supervisors counting the loads being lifted onto the waiting trucks. With hesitation and a look of concern he says that it is from Kalimantan. Then, almost apologetically, he adds that it is all from "properly managed forests".

The fact that he felt obligated to add this extra piece of information triggers further questions. Inevitably, with the huge amounts of timber arriving at Sunda Kelapa daily, a primary question has to be is this timber being grown and harvested in a sustainable manner?

In Kalimantan itself huge quantities of timber will be seen. Further evidence of the huge wood-based industry of this vast Indonesian island. But questions will remain as to whether or not sustainability is being achieved or even pursued. Boat trips

Setting out from the southernmost significant town of Kalimantan, Pelai Hari, to take a series of boat trips up the rivers of the province of South Kalimantan, the scale of the timber industry is soon brought into perspective.

On an old, leaky wooden boat, no doubt constructed from Kalimantan timbers, chugging along all of these southern waterways every human habitation facing onto the waterways is a product of the timber industry. From wooden houses that stand upon wooden stilt piles, to traditional schooner building yards right up to the enormous sawmills and plywood factories, each building that stands on a South Kalimantan river either uses directly or processes the timber of Kalimantan.

The rivers themselves are congested with timber and timber products. Huge barges carry hundreds of colossal tree trunks and large portions of the river are choked up with tree trunks floating in the waters waiting to be sawn up and processed in the factories. These tree trunks have been floated down rivers all the way from central and east Kalimantan.

Traffic on the rivers also reflects the timber industry. From small boats that bus thousands of workers to the mills and factories to the gigantic ships that carry away the products of those mills and factories. All kinds of river and seagoing vessel are employed in meeting the demands of the timber trade.

But what of those demands -- are they outstripping the supply? Speak to any "officials", such as the accounting supervisor back at Sunda Kelapa, and you will get the "official line". This proclaims that the timber is cut from "productive forests" only and that premium profits are ploughed back into the industry so that replanting projects will sustain supply to meet demand.

The "official line" though may not be as sound and trustworthy as one would hope. Talking to a former employee of a logging company suggests that the proclaimed limitation to "productive forests" does not always happen in reality. This former logger moved to South Kalimantan after two decades in the trade in East Kalimantan. He told of the manner in which forests would simply be cut without any reference to boundaries marking "forest reserves" or "protected forests". This meant that virgin and ancient forests were inevitably engulfed into the "productive forest" areas. Along with the vast scale of Kalimantan's forests, he said, it has been possible to routinely side-step conservation efforts with no penalty or consequence ensuing.

Thus it seems the huge quantities of timber coming from Kalimantan are not wholly harvested in a sustainable manner. Hectare after hectare of forest has already been removed. Commercial and financial imperatives have held greater weight than conservation theories or hopes of saving Kalimantan's rainforests.

Meranti, a species of timber in the mahogany family, has been imported in huge quantities to the West from Indonesia. Selling slogans for the timber as having been extracted from "sustainable and managed forests" are used. People buy this timber accepting the jargon of "environmentally friendly forest cutting and replanting" and in good faith believe that they have bought a "green" product. However, it appears these slogans and jargon may often be mere sales pitches rather than genuine reflections upon how the timber has been and continues to be attained.

The sight and scale of the timber industry in South Kalimantan is imposing and clearly this industry is one of the, if not the, largest employers of Indonesians in the Kalimantan provinces. Similarly the sight of the schooners unloading their timber cargoes at the dock at Sunda Kelapa in Jakarta is intriguing.

Postcards can still be bought featuring this unique part of the capital.

But the next time you intend to buy any wooden furniture in Jakarta it may be worth pausing to think of the forest that has probably been lost in the production of that table or chair. Or, the next time you contemplate the purchase of a wood carving by the craftsmen of Bali it might be worthwhile stopping to think of the source of that beautiful piece of wood.

The source of so much of Indonesia's timber is Kalimantan's rain forests and that supply will be ever dwindling if greater control and regulation is not achieved. Tracking the timbers of Kalimantan reveals that the demand is great and the supply is meeting that demand. The cost in ecological terms is high though and the suppliers are often avaricious in ensuring that they can maintain supply.