Copyright 2002 The New York Times Company

New York Times
FOREIGN DESK | September 13, 2002, Friday
Indonesia's Forests Go Under the Ax for Flooring
By Raymond Bonner

Pekanbaru, Indonesia - On a verdant two-acre plot, where space has hastily been cleared for a few simple buildings, three heavy-duty band saws whine 24 hours a day, slicing huge logs into boards of varying lengths and widths.

Down the road another sawmill, with eight band saws and more than 200 workers, also cuts up logs 24 hours a day. The owners said they cannot keep up with the demand, a claim that's easily believed - along a four-mile stretch of road, there are an estimated 50 sawmills.

After being cut into long planks, most of this wood is bought by traders in Malaysia and Singapore, and then, after being further cut, sanded, molded and grooved, sold around the world - as flooring in China and Japan, office stationery in Europe and furniture in the United States.

Indonesia's timber industry is booming, good news for a country suffering widespread unemployment and mired in economic stagnation. There is a dark side, however: nearly all of these sawmills operate without a license, and overall, according to government figures, 80 percent of Indonesia's timber trade is illegal, which means that the trees are felled without a license or under a concession that had been secured with a bribe.

The corruption is rampant. Senior government officials insist on payoffs, from companies and big-time traders, in exchange for concessions. Military commanders take a cut or even have their own operations. The local policeman demands a payment to allow the trucks, laden with illegally cut logs, on the way to illegal sawmills, to proceed along the road.

The upshot is that Indonesia's tropical forests, among the largest in the world, are rapidly disappearing. Vast tracts of once pristine forests have been reduced to barren and scarred wasteland. It is estimated that at least four million acres of forests - an area roughly the size of Connecticut - are being stripped of their trees every year, according to government statistics. It is estimated that the lowland natural forests here on the island of Sumatra, home to the endangered orangutan and the rare Sumatran tiger, will be gone within five years; those in Kalimantan, within 10.

"There are lots of reports telling the world about this," said Togu Manurung, professor of forestry at Bogor Agricultural University and director of Forest Watch Indonesia, a nongovernmental organization. "But it is still going on."

"Why?" he asked rhetorically. "Money, power and politics."

The world's consumers must also share some of the responsibility for the devastation, said Hapsoro, director of research at Telapak, an Indonesian environmental organization.

"It is a matter of fairness," Hapsoro said. "It's not fair for us in Indonesia if people in the United States are consuming a lot of wood products, paper and plywood from Indonesia."

The secretary general of Indonesia's Ministry of Forestry, Wahjudi Wardojo, said that stopping illegal logging is the agency's top priority. It will not be easy, though. Although they might look like parts of a thriving cottage industry, many of the sawmills are controlled by people who "have money and power," Mr. Wardojo said, and they can be highly profitable ventures.

At one unlicensed mill that deals in Kempas, a hardwood used in floors, the company buys logs for $90 a cubic meter, cuts them into boards, sands them on both sides, then sells the wood for $280 a cubic meter. As the owner described his operation, he sells his wares to traders in Singapore and Malaysia who market the wood products mostly in China and Taiwan.

In an effort to halt the environmental devastation Indonesia imposed a ban last year on the export of logs. It has had little impact. Once a log has been cut into planks, or simply had the bark shaved off with a chain saw, it is no longer consider a "log," and thus not subject to the ban.

Each day, 15 trucks loaded with logs pull into one of the small sawmills here. Many of the logs come from Tesso Nilo, a forest that environmentalists would like to see converted to an elephant refuges. The mill is unlicensed, as its owner readily admits. To get one, he said, he would have to pay a local official $3,000.

In June, the Malaysian government, embarrassed by news reports that it had become a transit point for Indonesia's illegal timber, banned the import of all logs from Indonesia. Once again, however, the law left a loophole big enough to ship tons of wood through - the ban does not affect cut timber.

"It is the same wood, coming in different shapes," said a man at the port in Kuala Linggi, Malaysia, as a forklift moved massive squared logs that had arrived from Indonesia.

With the wood trade in full swing, Ahmad Rashid, a 45-year old Indonesian who owns a couple of 24-foot wooden boats, is just as busy as he has always been. He said he hauls 60 tons of wood a month from Indonesia across the Strait of Malacca here to Port Klang, Malaysia.

Asked if the wood had been legally cut, Mr. Rashid just laughed. He said that initially he brought wood from his village in Indonesia, but that all the trees there had been cut. So now he buys from other villages.

In Indonesia, he pays $90 a ton for meranti, a medium-grade wood, which he sells to a broker in Malaysia for $160 a ton.

The broker, Ng Eng Hua, and his two sons, also traders, import about 2,000 tons of wood a month from Indonesia, Mr. Hua said, sitting in his small, dingy office, on the Aur River. They buy from more than 30 brokers in Indonesia, he said.

Asked if the wood he bought from Indonesia was legally cut or not, he said: "How would I know? They sell. I just buy."

He said that he in turn sells to a number of timber companies in Malaysia. One of them is Kian Huat Timber Trading Company, which is about six miles away.

On a recent day, forklifts were busy moving timber around the yard at Kian Huat. All of the wood comes from Indonesia, said Lim Been Feen, one of the owners. He does not know if it is legally or illegally cut. That is up to the broker he buys it from, he said.

Wood products are a major export for Malaysia, and the country is heavily dependent on logs from Indonesia. That's because a decade ago, in response to a strong campaign by the country's environmentalists, the Malaysian government enacted strict regulations on the cutting of its trees. Now, many of the country's forest areas are parks and reserves.

Many European buyers are saying that they will not buy wood products from Malaysia unless the seller can guarantee that the wood has been legally cut and in keeping with sound environmental practices, said Aimi Lee Abdullah, an officer with the Malaysian Timber Council, a government body that promotes Malaysia's wood exports.

But that is a near impossibility for the Malaysian buyers, she added.

"How do you tell if it is legal or not legal?" she asked. "If you ask the Indonesians to provide you with documents, they provide you with all the documents, you need." The documents, of course, are either forgeries or bought with bribes.

Copyright 2002 The New York Times Company