“The legacy of deforestation has been conflict, increased poverty, migration to the cities and the erosion of habitat for animals. As the forests come down, social conflicts are exploding everywhere,” said Abetnego Tarigan, director of Walhi, Indonesia’s largest environmental group.
Scientists fear that the end of the forest could come quickly. Conflict-wracked Aceh, which bore the brunt of the tsunami in 2004, will lose more than half its trees if a new government plan to change the land use is pushed through. A single Canadian mining company is seeking to exploit 1.77 million hectares for mining, logging and palm plantations.
Large areas of central Sumatra and Kalimantan are being felled as coal, copper and gold mining companies move in. Millions of hectares of forest in western Papua are expected to be converted to palm plantations.
“Papuans, some of the poorest citizens in Indonesia, are being utterly exploited in legally questionable oil palm land deals that provide huge financial opportunities for international investors at the expense of the people and forests of West Papua,” said Jago Wadley, a forest campaigner with the Environment Investigation Agency.
Despite a commitment last week from the government to extend a moratorium on deforestation for two years, Indonesia is still cutting down its forests faster than any other country. Loopholes in the law mean the moratorium only covers new licences and primary forests, and excludes key peatland areas and existing concessions, which are tiger and elephant habitats.
The conflicts often arise when companies are granted dubious logging or plantation permissions that overlap with community-managed traditional forests and protected areas, such as national parks.
Nine villages have been in conflict with the giant paper company April, which has permission to convert, with others, 450,000 hectares of deep peat forests on the Kampar Peninsula in central Sumatra. Because the area contains as much as 1.5 billion tonnes of carbon, it has global importance in the fight against climate change.
“We would die for this [forest] if necessary. This is a matter of life and death. The forest is our life ... The permits were handed out illegally, but now we have no option but to work for the companies or hire ourselves out for pitiful wages,” one village leader from Teluk Meranti said, who feared to give his name.
They accuse corrupt local officials of illegally grabbing their land. April, which strongly denies involvement in corruption, last week announced plans to work with London-based Flora and Fauna International to restore 20,000 hectares of degraded forest land.
Eighty kilometers away, near the town of Rengit, villagers watched in horror last year when their community forest was burned down — they suspect by people in the pay of a large palm oil company.
“Life is terrible now. We are ruined. We used to get resin, wood, timber and fuel from the forest. Now we have no option, but to work for the palm oil company. The company beat us. The fire was deliberate. This forest was everything for us. We used it as our supermarket, building store, chemist shop and fuel supplier for generations of people. Now we must put plastic on our roofs,” said one man from the village of Bayesjaya, who also asked not to be named.