As politicians gather in Bali, a pioneering project is taking on the illegal loggers
- The Guardian,
- Saturday December 8 2007
Some 20 miles along a quagmire of a dirt road from a former logging camp deep in the Indonesian forest, the patrol of muddy vehicles halts at an all too familiar sound. The buzz of a single chainsaw drifts through the trees, and is quickly drowned out by the growl of an engine, as two forest guards leave the convoy and steer their motorbike along a nearby path to begin their pursuit.
An hour later, the riders return with broad smiles and throw a confiscated chainsaw into the back of a jeep. It is a minor victory, but a victory nonetheless, against the vast army of illegal loggers that has reduced their country's dense carpet of rainforest to tatters in just a few decades.
The patrol is part of a pioneering project by an unlikely alliance of international charities and local people in Sumatra to reverse the environmental damage caused by decades of uncontrolled logging in the region, and to restore an area of degraded rainforest the size of Greater London to its former glory. This week, they invited the Guardian to join them.
It is a local battle with global implications. At a UN climate summit on the Indonesian holiday island of Bali, the world's politicians are searching for a way to slow the destruction of tropical forests as part of the fight against global warming. If their grand plans are to be realised, then countless more minor victories must be won on the ground, and millions more chainsaws silenced.
The stakes could not be higher. Barely 600,000 of the 20m hectares (50m acres) of rainforest that originally covered Sumatra remain, and the numbers of trees felled still increases each year. Across Indonesia, an area of jungle the size of 300 football pitches is cleared every hour.
It may sound a familiar story, but the world has a new reason to worry about the destruction of rainforests. The practice produces massive amounts of greenhouse gases. So much that, if they are factored into global emissions, Indonesia becomes the world's third largest producer of carbon dioxide. Up to a quarter of all man-made greenhouse emissions are now thought to come from deforestation, more than from the world's transport systems combined.
The Bali politicians are trying to agree a way to reward tropical nations that safeguard their surviving forests with billions of pounds' worth of carbon credits, which could be included in a new deal on climate to replace the Kyoto Protocol in 2012.
The situation on the ground in Sumatra demonstrates how difficult that ambition could be. Sean Marron, executive head of the Harapan rainforest project, a joint effort by conservation groups Burung Indonesia, the RSPB and Birdlife International, says: "All projects that aim to protect the carbon locked up in forests will face a conflict between long-term environmental goals and short-term local interests. Illegal extraction of timber can be very lucrative and is often controlled by powerful individuals, so getting them to stop is very difficult."
In taking on the timber thieves, the Harapan project, named after the Indonesian word for hope, has already made some powerful enemies. Guards and patrols have been threatened with machetes. Last week, shots were fired as soldiers working with the loggers reclaimed a truck loaded with illegal wood seized by the police. Dozens of illegal loggers are known to still operate within the Harapan boundary. Piles of cut timber wait at the roadside, ready to be collected under cover of darkness.
Muhammad Zubairin, the project's head of administration and operations, says: "It is not only a question of funding. It depends whether there is good governance and alternative economic opportunities for local people. This will only happen when the politicians, police and local communities share the same commitment to avoid further deforestation." Previous government promises to save the forests have had little effect, he adds.
On a nine-hour bumpy drive around the reserve, the problems are not hard to find. The last primary forest was cleared from this region in the 1980s, and the low jumble of trees that grew back in patches is being whittled away. Blackened areas show where trees and undergrowth have been burned to allow better access and the planting of oil palm. Across vast tracts of cleared land, a few solitary tall trees stand as a memorial. Often the loggers will destroy dozens of young saplings to grab a few mature trees.
Gibbons still yell in the bright morning sunshine but their habitat - home to 260 bird species and dozens of mammal types, including some of the only remaining Asian elephants - is being stolen around them. The destruction is not bad news for all the reserve's residents. Tracks at the side of the road suggest the forest's rare Sumatran tigers, some of only 200-300 left in the world, are flourishing, probably because the broken landscape encourages the wild pigs they hunt. But there are more losers than winners, and hornbills, the emblematic bird of the Asian rainforest, are under threat because they only build their nests in the tallest trees.
Indonesia has joined countries such as Costa Rica in pushing for the carbon credit scheme to protect forests to be approved.
Rachmat Witoelar, Indonesia's environment minister, told the Bali meeting: "It is vital not just that we take this action now, but also that this issue forms a central part of the future climate regime." A University of Michigan study suggested that Indonesia alone could earn £250m a year from the sale of carbon credits to western countries and companies to offset their pollution.
Marron says the idea will be hard to get off the ground unless the developing nations tackle another issue: land rights.
In the fading light, the patrol enters a village, deep within the forest reserve. Built illegally inside the last 18 months, the settlement has 100 buildings where the trees once stood, and is intended to house 480 families.
Each has paid more than £100 for two hectares of land to a coordinator, believed to be a local official, and each has been swindled, as the land was not his to sell. The Harapan team says the villagers are economic migrants and wants the police to move them away and to demolish their homes.
A handful of people from the village sit smoking on the steps of its well-built wooden mosque, an incongruous sight among the remaining trees. Drawn by the attention, more emerge from the shadows to confront the patrol. "We have come here for a better livelihood and to change our destiny," one man says. "We are poor, the legal status of this land means nothing to us."