Glaring emissions: the threat to Indonesia's rainforest

Thanks to the Orwellian double-speak of Indonesian emissions abatement strategy, the proposed solution may in fact be the disaster itself.

At a mine-site near Sangatta in East Kalimantan, a titanic crater yawns out of the ground, its nadir filled with brown slurry. Looking across the hinterland from its southern ridge, a dust-scape stretches off towards the horizon, braided by dirt tracks and the giant dump trucks that traverse them. The distant drone of their two-storey engines fills the air. Ten minutes down the road lies another pit, and another.

It is easy to forget you are in Indonesian Borneo.

More than half of Borneo’s ancient jungle has been felled since 1950. What remains is a patchwork of second growth and degraded forest-land, palm plantations and open-cast coal mines. WWF predicts less than 30% will stand by 2020, with practically all of its most bio-diverse dipterocarp forests destroyed. Due to its land use Indonesia is the world’s third largest emitter of greenhouse gases with 85% of its emissions resulting from deforestation and peat-land oxidation – a process which releases CO2.

The rapid expansion of coal mining to meet growing global and domestic energy needs is felt no more acutely than in East Kalimantan where coal is a leading driver of deforestation. A projected four million hectares of additional forest estate will be given over to mining by 2030.

“20 years ago the water was very clean,” says local journalist Masriansyah, gesturing to the River Lawa that runs in front of his home in Bentian Besar. “Without the forest, top soil drains into the river. Now it’s always brown and worse in the rainy season.” Herbicides used in palm oil cultivation and the large quantities of heavy metals released through mining are suspected to be the cause of the skin complaints that many villagers who bathe in the river have experienced.

Bentian Besar is a remote community, but its story is one typical of a region whose sparse infrastructure is geared entirely around the extraction of timber and coal. Literally every major inland road in East Kalimantan was constructed as a logging route.

Over the past decade the primary economic driver in this area has been Trubaindo, a 23650 hectare mine-site operated by Thai energy corporation BANPU. Here a heavy-plant operator can earn up to US$500 per month – a good wage in Indonesia. Many welcome the wealth the mine generates. Workers predominantly from Java and Sulawesi come to staff the resources boom.

 

Coal pits pockmark East Kalimantan, an Indonesian province who’s infrastructure is geared entirely around the extraction of timber and coal. Due to its land use Indonesia is the world's third largest emitter of CO2.
Coal pits pockmark East Kalimantan, an Indonesian province who’s infrastructure is geared entirely around the extraction of timber and coal. Due to its land use Indonesia is the world's third largest emitter of CO2.

However competition is fierce and employment selection nepotistic: many lose out. Moreover the establishment of Trubaindo has forced many residents from their land with inadequate compensation. Masriansyah has been passed documents from a source within Trubaindo that value the land at IDR40,000,000 (£2795) per hectare. Thus far only IDR10,000,000 (£698) per hectare has been paid and some have received nothing at all.

Anger and frustration spilled over into demonstrations in December 2009. Nonetheless the land has been designated for mining and ultimately the people have no choice but to sell. Residents suspect Trubaindo to have paid off West Kutai Regency (the regional government) and the police force to secure their interests – a practice of logging and energy contractors commonplace throughout Indonesia.

Demonstrations in East Kalimantan are often dispersed violently by police and fatalities are not uncommon. For his coverage of these developments in anti-corruption newspaper BUSER, Masriansyah has had his files and journalistic equipment stolen from his car and in January 2010 survived an attempt on his life.

“I was driving home on my scooter from a land-release hearing in police meeting hall with fellow BUSER journalist Arbainah riding pillion. We heard a car coming up behind us fast. Drivers beep their horns at bikes to let them know they’re there, especially at night. There was no warning and in my mirror I saw them heading straight for us. At the last minute I swerved for the bank but they hit and we were thrown from the road. They didn’t stop.” His attackers drove a white Mitsubishi Strada, an off-road vehicle far beyond the means of most Indonesians and which in Bentian Besar is used almost exclusively by mine staff. Fortunately he and Arbainah received only cuts and bruises.

Masriansyah is undeterred but recent SMS threats against his family concern him deeply. As he points out there’s little he can do: “I don’t even know if it’s the police who took my equipment or if the text messages are from them.” Both West Kutai Regency and BANPU declined to comment.

The situation here echoes throughout the country. Forestry sector operations are characterised by endemic corruption, incompetence, poor productivity, and a widespread disregard for permit regulations. Two weeks ago the Ministry of Forestry admitted that only 67 out of 352 plantation companies and nine out of 615 mine units were operating with an official permit in Central Kalimantan alone.

 

The frontline; rainforest reduced to dust. Mining and logging operations threaten extinction for the orang-utan, clouded leopard, sun bear and pygmy elephant.
The frontline; rainforest reduced to dust. Mining and logging operations threaten extinction for the orang-utan, clouded leopard, sun bear and pygmy elephant.

Coal is a major driver of deforestation in East Kalimantan but nationally the land-demands for pulp, paper and palm oil plantations are far greater.

President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono has pledged to ‘change the status of [Indonesia’s] forest from that of a net emitter sector to a net sink sector by 2030.’ However this is expected to occur concomitantly with a projected trebling of national pulp and paper production by 2025. Further expansion is projected in agriculture, palm oil and bio-fuels. The area earmarked for this development includes 40% of Indonesia’s forest – 37 million hectares – an area the size of Norway and Denmark combined. Doubt remains as to how wholesale expansion of the very industries that drive deforestation is likely to safeguard Indonesia’s remaining rainforest.

Pulp and paper plantations – in which trees are cropped on a 7 year rotation – are perceived to be key in facilitating Indonesia’s dual goals of industrial growth and emissions-reduction. But the notion that plantation establishment has a critical role to play is based on the false assumption that plantations permanently sequester significant volumes of carbon and that they will be established on degraded or low-carbon land. Harvested wood is used in products with a short life-span – cardboards, toilet rolls and newspaper. Therefore any carbon absorbed within the timber should be counted as emitted in the year the timber is harvested.

Plantation expansion will inevitably lead to substantial loss of natural forest and peat-land carbon. This is the Orwellian double-speak of Indonesian emissions abatement strategy: the proposed solution may in fact be the disaster itself.

The fight for Indonesia’s rainforest enters a fresh phase in 2011 with the start of REDD+ (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation) a UN sponsored initiative under which the industrialised nations will effectively pay Indonesia not to chop down trees. Norway has made an initial pledge of US$1 billion, the conditions of which include a two-year moratorium on fresh logging-concessions. Practices that qualify for payment include forest conservation, sustainable management and replanting.

However many fear a return to past mismanagement. The Ministry of Forestry itself “lost” a staggering US$5.25 billion from REDD+’s predecessor scheme ‘the Indonesian Reforestation Fund’ between 1994 and 1998. Funds not embezzled actually incentivised forest clearance and degradation to acquire plantation subsidies. Further, 40% of subsidised plantations were never planted.

 

Logs destined for plywood production line the banks of the Mahakam river in Samarinda, provincial capital of East Kalimantan. Nearly 50% of the UK’s tropical plywood is imported from Indonesian rainforests.
Logs destined for plywood production line the banks of the Mahakam river in Samarinda, provincial capital of East Kalimantan. Nearly 50% of the UK’s tropical plywood is imported from Indonesian rainforests.

In September 2010 senior ministry official Wandojo Siswanto, a key architect of the Norway-deal, was named as a suspect by the national anti-corruption agency.

Set to commence on January 1, the two year moratorium has been pushed back by disagreements over scope. The Ministry of Forestry proposes the inclusion of only primary forest and a continuation of business-as-usual practices on existing logging-concessions. The REDD+ Task Force proposes the additional inclusion of secondary forests and the transference of existing concessions to degraded land.

Perhaps more intractable than the difficulties posed by corruption to the environmental cause, are those of poverty and a lack of public education on climate change: most people do not know what it is.

What political capital for carbon abatement can there be in a democracy whose constituents have little or no understanding of what carbon does? Grievances over land exploitation focus predominantly on compensation and pay and conditions, not on environmental impact. Precious few mourn the loss of habitat or biodiversity. There is the more immediate concern of day-to-day survival: it is estimated half the population live on less than US$1 per day.

Nonetheless Indonesia is particularly vulnerable to the effects of climate change. The El Niño years of 1997-1998 brought forest fires that left a smoke cloud over most of South-east Asia. As weather patterns change drought risks will rise and food security drops. In 2010 incidences of flooding plagued Kalimantan even in the dry season. The forests that once acted as a barrier to flood-waters are now gone.

Saving Indonesia’s rainforest faces many obstacles, but back in Bentian Besar, Masriansyah remains wary of the consequences of inaction: “I don’t want my brothers to die,” he says “logging and mining are killing our land. If I don’t fight then it’s like I’ve poisoned myself.”

Hopefully his defiance will not be in vain.

 

Photographs by Jack Hewson

About the author

Jack Hewson is a freelance journalist who has been based in east Asia for the past four years. He has recently returned to the UK to study an MA in Investigative Journalism at City University.