Michael Casey / Associated Press – 2006-08-09 23:34:32
LAM KABEUE, Indonesia (August 5, 2006) — The rebels of Aceh are trading their guns for chain saws and cashing in on a logging binge that is jeopardizing the future of the world’s third largest tropical forest reserves.
It’s a cruel conjunction of good news and bad news: The rebellion is over, but peace has opened previously inaccessible virgin forests to illegal logging. Meanwhile, 130,000 homes destroyed by the tsunami of December 2004 need replacing, and demand for timber is almost insatiable.
“Everyone is getting into the logging business,” says Taydin, 25, who spent five years fighting a guerrilla war against the Indonesian army in Aceh’s jungles on the island of Sumatra.
When peace took hold last year, Taydin found himself unemployed and desperate for cash. So he joined dozens of other former rebels who are cutting down prized 100-year-old Meranti and Semantuk trees.
He says he has no permit to cut wood, and bribes police to let him transport it to the provincial capital, Banda Aceh. “People have no work, so selling the wood is a good way to make money,” said Taydin, who, like many Indonesians, goes by one name.
Indonesia, whose tropical forest reserves are the world’s largest after the Amazon and the Congo basin, has lost around 40 percent of its canopy to loggers in the last 50 years.
At this rate of deforestation – an area the size of New Jersey lost each year – lowland trees of Sumatra and the neighboring island of Borneo will disappear by 2010, according to Friends of the Earth and the World Wildlife Fund or WWF.
Aceh was largely protected during a decades-long separatist insurgency, with logging primarily limited to rebels and rogue elements within the military. But last year’s peace deal opened up previously inaccessible virgin forests.
Local and international aid groups that rushed here after the earthquake and tsunami are in a bind, having to balance the need to build quickly against their duty to use legal timber.
Several have been caught buying from illegal sources while others have had to redesign homes with less wood or delay construction while seeking legitimate supplies.
With commercial logging outlawed in Aceh since 2001, most have turned to other parts of Indonesia for lumber, a strategy criticized by the WWF since up to 70 percent of Indonesia timber is protected. It says agencies should import wood instead, but so far only four have done so.
“They talk about respecting environmental values and ensuring long-term effectiveness of their projects,” said Ralph Ashton of the WWF, which has donated two shipments of imported timber, with a third due this month.
“But a lot of agencies are getting timber from unsustainable sources,” he said.
Some logging occurs in the Leuser and Ulu Masen ecosystems, which have some of the richest rain forests in Southeast Asia and are home to endangered rhinos, elephants, tigers and orangutans.
If the practice continues, “animals will lose their habitat and we expect to see increased conflict between humans and wildlife,” said Ilarius Wibisono, whose group, Fauna & Flora International, monitors the 1.85 million-acre Ulu Masen forest.
“It’s already happening,” he said. “We had one tiger killed by villagers in Montasik because it ate their livestock.”
The coastal village of Lhoong is typical of the transformation taking places in many mountain hamlets, where villagers have joined former rebels in logging illegally, sometimes with the tacit approval of local authorities.
Once considered too dangerous because of the war, it is now alive with the buzz of chain saws. Men load timber they admit is illegal into trucks.
“Before, no one dared go to the mountains,” said Aini, 26, a villager who like many Indonesians goes by one name. As she talked with a reporter, a steady stream of loggers passed by on a dirt road lined with piles of freshly cut wood.
“We warn them about the negative effects of logging,” she said, “but it’s all about the money.”
Leuser International Foundation, in a report this year, said at least 120,000 metric tons of illegal Leuser logs were trucked to the port city of Medan in 2005. Some were then transported across Sumatra to the tsunami-hit coast and sold to aid groups, it said.
Among those accused of using illegal wood to build homes or fishing boats is a Turkish organization, International Brotherhood and Solidarity Association, which said it did so unwittingly, and Medecins Sans Frontieres Belgium.
“We got timber from a supplier whom we thought was kosher,” MSF Belgium’s Erwin van’t Land told The Associated Press.
“In all honesty, in that emergency we didn’t have the resources to determine where the supplier would get the wood from,” he said. “When we were told that some of the wood was potentially from illegal logging, we were already quite far into the boat project.”
International aid agencies say compliance can be difficult, given an Indonesian system where timber documents are sometimes forged and officials bribed.
Complicating matters further, few aid groups have the experts on staff to navigate the system and inspect mills to make sure their suppliers are legal, especially when they are rushing to alleviate a disaster.
“Obtaining timber is not complex, but if you haven’t planned appropriately and don’t have the expertise, the simplest answer is just to go out and buy the timber in front of you,” the WWF’s Ashton said.
Aceh reconstruction requires an estimated 1.4 million cubic feet of lumber, and with more than 100 agencies building homes, some have had to wait weeks for delivery. Even the United Nations has had shipments held up by paperwork disputes with the government.
Lumber prices, too, have jumped significantly, forcing some agencies to scale back reconstruction plans.
CARE International said it stopped buying from Aceh in May and has suspended construction of 1,400 homes because it hasn’t found a legitimate supplier outside the province.
“The international community has to be pragmatic,” CARE’s Rossella Bartoloni said. Legal timber sources are essential, she said, “But we can’t allow the lack of one construction material to stop communities from starting their new lives.”
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