Image source: World Wildlife Fund

Image source: World Wildlife Fund

The new millennium has brought sweeping changes to Indonesia. Suharto’s overthrow led to a stable democracy, violence and sectarian tensions have ebbed away, and most fundamentally, economic growth has taken hold in a big way. Indonesia is one of the world’s great “emerging economies” (though not quite at the level of the BRICs)*, and the past 15 years have seen its society revamped. Urbanization brings more people into closer contact, fostering innovation and the market economies; technology has brought the vast archipelago together through Facebook and smartphones; money flows in from overseas, and increasingly not just from Malaysia and Australia. As such, the standard of living is growing, millions are being lifted out of poverty, and national optimism is high. It’s definitely one of the world’s primary success stories.

But venture away from the booming cities of Java, Indonesia’s main island, and check out the interior of islands like Sumatra, Borneo, or Papua, and the dark side of development reveals itself. Where once magnificent rainforests stood, visitors now find charred ruins, bogs of plant debris, and miles upon miles of artificial forests.

Indonesia once was one of the world’s great jungle countries. It lies on the Equator — so, at the heart of the tropics — and its big islands were covered with trees and undergrowth. These forests were home to some really cool animals (or “charismatic megafauna,” if you want to get published in academic journals): tigers, orangutans, rhinoceroses, elephants, tapirs, sun bears, birds of paradise, plus huge trees that pierce the heavens and giant flowers that smell like rotting corpses. Many of its inhabitants either lived in the jungle, eking out a living through hunting and gathering or horticulture (slash-and-burn farming), or on the coastline, where they fished and traded with the bajillion other islands.

The exception here was Java, which thanks to its many volcanoes has some of the world’s most fertile soil. Its jungles were cleared away long ago and its people took up farming, mostly of rice, which is why it’s one of the most densely populated parts of the world. South Sumatra, the seat of the medieval Srivijaya Empire, was also mostly deforested long ago.

But it was in the colonial era, when Indonesia’s population began to surge and economic demands on its environment surged with it, that the forests really started coming down. Wood, especially teak, was in high demand, as was rubber. Trees were cut down to make way for railroads and mines (and to build the railroads).

Since the 1980s, deforestation has increased to a frantic pace. The dictator Suharto came up with a poorly thought out scheme in the ’90s to cultivate rice in Borneo, which meant much more deforestation and not much more rice. But most of the logging is done by private companies, foreign and domestic, eager for paper, pulp, lumber, wood, or minerals (coal, copper, gold). The hot new commodity, especially in Sumatra, is palm oil, a greasy substance used in everything from lipstick and shaving cream to margarine and chocolate. Indonesia produced about 200,000 tons of palm oil in the ’60s; now that’s up to 27 million. That makes it the world’s biggest palm oil producer, and along with Malaysia produces 90% of the world’s supply.

Last year Indonesia surpassed Brazil as the world’s leading tree-chopper. This partly reflects Brazil’s success in stemming its deforestation, but it also reflects the scale of the logging in Indonesia. 60,000 km2 of forests have been logged between 2000 and 2012, with 8,400 km2 in 2012 alone — almost twice Brazil’s rate. Sumatra is the most intensively logged island, with half of its forests cut or burned down between 1985 and 2008. What were once lush, deep, green jungles are now charred, mangled wastelands of devastation and wood. It’s an arboreal holocaust. Of course, oil palms are soon planted in the jungle’s place, but they’re no substitute — oil palm plantations are just rows after rows of the same trees, with no undergrowth and not much of a habitat for wildlife.

It's ALMOST a forest, if you don't have one to compare it to. Image source: Indonesia Expat

It’s ALMOST a forest, if you don’t have one to compare it to. Image source: Indonesia Expat

Most of this destruction is the work of big corporations, both international and domestic, eager to cash in on the paper, pulp, rubber or palm oil industries. But blaming a few unscrupulous businessmen only covers part of it. Since Suharto’s downfall, Indonesia has undertaken a massive decentralization of power — not to the provincial level, since that might encourage the breakup of the entire country, but to the regency level (the unit beneath provinces). There are 514 regencies in Indonesia. That means each regency competes with its neighbors for economic development and investment, which creates a competitive, capitalist environment… but also unchecked exploitation of resources. The competition drives down prices, making prime forest lands more and more tempting to target.

The chainsaw frenzy of the ’00s didn’t escape the notice of Indonesia’s central government; its president back then, the unforgettably named Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (SBY for short), pushed hard to protect the environment, and even issued a moratorium on deforestation in 2011. The problem is that people don’t always follow the rules. Bupatis (regency heads) and sometimes governors prefer economic growth and short-term goals. The forest ministry is notoriously corrupt and often grants logging concessions on protected land. The army, still a powerful force in Indonesian politics, often gets in on the action. Laws and maps are often contradictory, leaving officials in Jakarta (the national capital) unaware of the situation on the ground (which is usually more barren than the maps say).

The environmental consequences of all this deforestation are horrifying. First and foremost is the pollution — burning trees releases a lot of smoke, which periodically blankets Sumatra and Borneo in thick haze. It even drifts overseas to Malaysia and Singapore, which caused diplomatic disputes in 2013 (not to mention embarrassment for Indonesia, considering that it exposed how limp its “moratorium” was). Sumatra, Borneo and Papua are also rich in peat bogs, which are also burned away, releasing massive amounts of carbon. (Peat is an even bigger carbon deposit than thick rainforests.) Peat fires in 1997 and 1998 released up to 9 billion tons of carbon dioxide; Indonesia is the world’s 3rd biggest contributor to global warming, and it’s mostly because of its peat burning.

Indonesia’s distinctive animal life is getting pushed to the brink of extinction. There are only about 300 Sumatran tigers left, less than 100 rhinos, and 2,500 elephants. They tend to stick to national parks, where there are still big enough rainforest habitats left for them to survive, but loggers don’t always respect park boundaries. Acacia plantations are sometimes passed off as suitable wildlife habitats by lumber companies, but conservationists aren’t convinced. A big part of Indonesian identity — not to mention a major ecotourism draw — is at stake.

It’s not just wildlife that lives in the jungle. Sumatra, Borneo and Papua all have plenty of people who live in the forests and hunt (… sometimes endangered species), gather, fish, and practice horticulture (which also burns the forest, but on a much smaller and more sustainable scale). Losing the forest also means losing their way of life and identity. They have always been outnumbered by other ethnic groups (Malay, Minangkabau, Madurese, etc.) who practice agriculture and look down on them as crude savages, but for the most part they’ve ignored each other. Now that’s getting hard to do, since the forests are disappearing. Some of the forest people resign themselves to the new order and work on the plantations, introducing the cash economy and consumer goods in the process; others resist the chainsaws and flames, leading to a rash of violent outbreaks in Sumatra in recent years.

The Rimbas of northern Sumatra. Image source: Indonesia etc. Check out the rest of her slideshow!

The Rimbas of northern Sumatra. Image source: Indonesia etc. Check out the rest of her slideshow!

It’s a bleak and dreary picture, but it’s important to remember that many Indonesians support deforestation, seeing the new plantations and mines as highways to a better life, as the assistant deputy minister for forestry pointed out in a speech. roads connect distant regencies to major cities and promote the spread of convenience stores, electricity, modern education, Islam, and advanced medicine. Many forest people envy the high life of Jakarta or Medan (Sumatra’s biggest city); mass media whets appetites everywhere for luxury and leisure. Getting rid of the forests is seen as an acceptable bargain for this ticket to a better life.

On the other hand, it’s not just treehugging foreigners that are getting upset by the loss of forest cover. Indonesian NGOs are increasingly frustrated with the government’s ineptitude and take matters into their own hands. Protests are organized in front of government offices; awareness of the issues is raised in places like Java that don’t usually see it as a priority. Some companies are being challenged in court, and land rights are fiercely contested. Some plantations are even being cut down so the rainforest can grow back. The UN is sponsoring a scheme, “REDD+” (which stands for Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation), to compensate Indonesia for curbing its carbon emissions. SBY pledged to bring Indonesia’s greenhouse gas emissions down by 26% by 2020; his successor, Jokowi, is also actively environmentalist.

Sadly, deforestation and other environmental issues aren’t usually the most pressing political concerns for Indonesians. Legal loopholes and a lack of political will mean that developers and businessmen can still get away with burning peat and forests. In the clash between Stone Age hunters and thugs on motorcycles with chainsaws, it’s pretty obvious who wins. Many parts of Indonesia simply don’t have that many viable sources of income. If Indonesia is to maintain its status as a jungle country, save its unique wildlife and halt the massacre of its trees, it will have to do a lot more to convince everyone that it’s in their best long-term interests.


Brazil, Russia, India and China — the 4 big emerging economies.


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