Los Angeles Times
January 2, 2004
Unkindest Cuts Scar Indonesia
As illegal logging eats away at the archipelago's land, the animals whose habitat is sacrificed bite back at the hand that wields the chainsaw.
By Richard C. Paddock, Times Staff Writer
PELINDUNG, Indonesia — At the end of a busy day cutting trees with chainsaws, the four timber thieves camped in the Sumatran jungle. Three of the loggers rested on a raised wooden platform, while Siadul, the fourth, prepared food below.
He was sitting on the ground eating his dinner when a hungry Sumatran tiger, driven from its habitat by the relentless logging of the rainforest, leaped out of the darkness onto Siadul's back, ripped out a chunk of flesh and began dragging him away. Nature had taken its revenge.
"It was like a cat catching a rat," said Siadul's friend Ponimin, a fellow illegal logger who, like many Indonesians, uses only one name. The Sumatran tiger — one of only about 500 left in the wild — would have succeeded in taking Siadul but for a felled log that blocked its path. The tree cutters fired up their chainsaws and scared the animal away, but it was too late for Siadul. He died within hours.
To locals, who believe the tiger is the enforcer of proper human behavior in the jungle, the killing was punishment for some unspecified violation of the forest people's code, which includes prohibitions against adultery and sharing food from the same cooking pot. But to environmentalists, the attack was the inevitable result of a timber harvest that is wildly out of control.
Across Indonesia, loggers have struck on a massive scale, destroying vast tracts of rainforest, selling the timber overseas and turning much of the jungle into farms and palm oil plantations.
Government officials acknowledge that Indonesia, a sprawling archipelago of more than 17,000 islands, is losing an expanse of forest nearly the size of Switzerland annually, and with it the habitat of endangered tigers, rhinoceroses, orangutans and elephants. Scientists believe that hundreds of plant and animal species are going extinct each year, even before they can be discovered and identified. Plants that might hold the cure for deadly diseases, they fear, are being lost forever.
At least 75% of the logging is illegal, said Environment Minister Nabiel Makarim, but the weak central government, plagued by graft, is powerless to stop it. "If this goes on for seven or eight years," he said, "we won't have any more forest."
Even the country's 376 national parks and conservation areas have fallen victim to the illegal harvest. Nearly every park has been assaulted by chainsaws, officials say, some so severely that they are no longer viable as nature preserves.
The rate of logging has escalated dramatically since President Suharto was forced to step down in 1998. The authoritarian leader made a practice of rewarding his cronies with profitable logging concessions but kept some forests off-limits. The new central government under Megawati Sukarnoputri has granted greater autonomy to regional officials, and some have opened forests to logging, reaping the profits themselves.
"Since we got democracy in 1998, the deforestation has become much faster," the environment minister said. "So people are asking the question, is democracy bad for the environment?"
The pace of destruction is highest on Sumatra, an island larger than California that straddles the equator. Experts warn that Sumatra's lowland forests — the richest in biodiversity — could disappear outside national parks by 2005.
Tigers are not the only creatures fighting back. In southern Sumatra, villagers have been cutting trees and planting coffee for years in the Bukit Rindingan protected forest. The adjacent South Bukit Barisan National Park is home to as many as 700 elephants, but about 50,000 people have moved into the preserve, clearing the jungle and building villages.
"It is forbidden to conduct any activities in the protected forest, but in fact it has become a settlement," said Tamen Sitorus, director of the national park. "The villagers think: 'Why don't we kill the elephants? They are useless.' "
In the squatters village of Sinar Harapan, residents chopped down trees on a route traveled by a herd of 13 elephants. On the evening of Nov. 28, the elephants appeared at the edge of the jungle and began eating the farmers' coffee bushes. Waving torches and banging on wooden drums, the villagers drove them back.
The next day, most villagers fled, but one stayed behind: Mistad, a 50-year-old farmer who had helped cut down the trees. At midday, the elephants entered the village and crushed him. "One man dead, trampled by the elephants because he farmed in the protected forest," Sitorus said. "If the elephants' habitat is shrinking, the elephants will come out of the forest. That is the law of the jungle."
Last year, the number of elephant attacks on humans skyrocketed. According to forestry authorities, 16 attacks were reported from 1998 through 2002. In the first five months of 2003, there were 48, at least three of them fatal to the humans.
Apart from animal attacks, officials say illegal logging contributed to floods and landslides that killed more than 140 people in 2003. Makarim predicted that the number will jump this year as the illicit harvest continues.
"It's so blatant," he said. "Any time floods or landslides happen, we go uphill and find that people have been cutting."
The Indonesian Forestry Department has reported that 5 million to 9 million acres of rainforest were lost each year from 1997 to 2000. Since then, the destruction has clearly soared, but the department's monitoring is so lax that it has no estimate of how much forest is being destroyed.
The Indonesian Forum for the Environment estimates that trees are being cut at more than 10 times the sustainable-harvest rate.
Indonesia has some of the world's largest tropical rainforests and ranks with Brazil as home to a great diversity of animal and plant species. But the nation is also renowned for corruption, and timber is one of its most corrupt industries.
Indonesia is wealthy in timber, oil and minerals but suffered for three decades under Suharto, who enriched his family and friends but did little to develop the country or its people. Since the Asian economic collapse of 1997, Indonesia has struggled to recover.
By the official count, nearly 40 million people are unemployed among a total population of more than 225 million. Some citizens long for a return to the stability of dictatorship, and others advocate a government based on conservative Islam. But many observers believe that for now, graft is what makes the country run.
Much of the illegal logging is carried out by large concerns in cahoots with officials in government and the military. Loggers such as Siadul are usually employed by syndicates that provide the chainsaws and tell them where to log.
Officials accept cash to issue permits or to look the other way as log-laden trucks rumble down the highways. Despite a ban on the export of raw logs from Indonesia, dozens of ships with timber cargo sail daily to Malaysia, Singapore and other Southeast Asian countries with no questions asked. By some estimates, Indonesia is losing $1 billion a year in tax revenue from the trade.
"Illegal logging is not just a few people with a few chainsaws," said Mike Griffiths, who helps manage the Leuser conservation area in northern Sumatra. "It is backed by people with money and power. The cause is greed. It's not need."
Environmentalists say the governments of Malaysia and Singapore allow millions of tons of illegal Indonesian logs to be cut into timber and sold as legal products to third countries, including the United States.
Indonesian officials say they have asked the United States and Europe to ban the import of wood products not certified as legal. But timber certification, a costly and cumbersome process that requires tracking each log from harvest to manufacture, has been slow to catch on.
The environmental forum urges Americans to boycott all products made of tropical wood, such as teak and ramin, because of the likelihood that they were made from trees harvested illegally in Indonesia.
Some of Sumatra's heaviest logging is in the central province of Riau, where huge swaths of forest have been cleared for palm oil plantations. For centuries, people and tigers lived in the area with few conflicts. But as logging accelerated in 1999, tigers began coming into villages looking for food.
Since 2001, tigers have killed at least six people near the coastal town of Dumai and possibly as many as 30, authorities say. Many of the victims were illegal loggers whose deaths were not officially reported.
"It seems that tigers attack humans to eat them," said Jusman, head of the Dumai forest police. "Most of the tigers we catch are thin. I think it's because they cannot find their usual food. They go into villages and eat whatever they find: goats, cows, humans."
The attacks prompted Dumai officials and two international environmental groups — the Tiger Foundation and the Sumatran Tiger Trust — to establish the country's first sanctuary for the animal, the 150,000-acre Senepis Tiger Conservation Area. Since the sanctuary opened in August, two tigers have been trapped and brought to the reserve.
The area will be able to sustain about 25 tigers — too small to be an independent breeding population — but backers say it is an important step in preventing the Sumatran tiger from following the Javanese and Balinese tigers into extinction. Eventually, they hope to breed some of the animals with tigers from other parts of Sumatra to maintain a diverse gene pool, said Neil Franklin, director of Indonesian programs for the Canada-based Tiger Foundation and the Britain-based Sumatran Tiger Trust.
In Pelindung, 60 miles east of the reserve, there is little concern about saving trees or endangered species. The muddy, one-lane village is home to 4,000 people who make their living almost entirely by cutting down the forest.
"What we do is illegal," said Ponimin, 32, whose bloodshot eyes and grim demeanor suggested he hadn't gotten over the death of his friend, Siadul.
"The forests belong to the people. All of the people here are tree cutters. That's how we survive — on logs."
Siadul, 23, had logged in the area for three years, Ponimin said. The tree cutters usually work in groups of four, living in the forest for weeks at a time. By day, they chop down trees and send them floating downriver. At night, they sleep in a tarp-covered platform 3 to 6 feet off the ground to avoid attacks by tigers or snakes.
Ponimin insists there is no shortage of rainforest — or tigers. "Three of my friends were eaten," he said. "That's a sign there are still a lot of tigers."
On the evening of Nov. 18, Ponimin was camping in the jungle near Siadul's group about eight miles from the village. He was in his tent when he heard chainsaws running — a sign of danger after dark. He followed the noise and found that Siadul had been attacked. The tiger returned at least twice during the night to reclaim the body, but the loggers held the animal at bay with their chainsaws.
Ponimin, who has been in the logging business for a decade, is still puzzled by the tragedy. As far as he knows, no one had violated the taboos of the jungle, which include bathing naked and dangling one's legs over the edge of the platform.
"I think Siadul was polite enough," he said. "And I had not seen anybody violating the code. He was a friendly person and never acted excessively."
Herman, 27, another illegal logger from Pelindung, survived a similar attack two years ago about 12 miles from the village. He was resting in his platform tent six feet above ground when a tiger, standing on its hind legs, grabbed his foot with its claws. The tiger never made a sound. It tried to drag Herman away but he grabbed a tent pole and held on. When another logger hit the animal with a lamp, it let go.
With his foot bleeding badly, Herman and his friends ran for their lives. Looking back with a flashlight, he said he could see the tiger inside the tent licking up the blood.
It took 30 stitches to sew up Herman's foot. He said he is nervous when he goes to the forest now, but the attack won't keep him from logging — it's the only job he's ever had. He rejects the notion that the tiger attacked him because its habitat had been destroyed.
"I think there's a lot of forest left," he said. "Maybe I did something bad, like sleeping with someone who was not my wife. Cutting the trees is OK. There's no problem with that."
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