(Jun 4, 2007)

Indonesia's rainforest could be gone by 2022

By Mita Valina Liem
From Reuters

JAKARTA (Reuters) - It's one of the few countries that still has vast swathes of tropical rainforests left.

But conservationists say maybe not for long.

Indonesia's rainforests -- especially those on Borneo island -- are being stripped so rapidly because of illegal logging and palm oil plantations for bio-fuels, they could be wiped out altogether within the next 15 years, some environmentalists say.

"Sixty percent of the protected and conservation areas are already badly damaged due to illegal logging and palm oil plantations," Rully Sumada, a forestry expert with Indonesian environmental group Walhi, told Reuters.

"The deforestation speed is 2.8 million hectares a year. At this rate, by 2012 the forests in Sumatra, Borneo and Sulawesi will be gone, only the forests in Papua will be left. And if cutting of trees carries on, no forest will be left by 2022."

Indonesia has a total forest area of more than 225 million acres, or about 10 percent of the world's remaining tropical forest, according to Rainforestweb.org, a portal on rainforests (www.rainforestweb.org).

But the tropical Southeast Asian country -- whose forests are a treasure trove of plant and animal species including the endangered orangutans -- has already lost an estimated 72 percent of its original frontier forest.

The biggest threat to the forests of Borneo, and also Aceh on the northernmost tip of Sumatra island, is from illegal logging.

A recent report by the Environmental Investigation Agency and Indonesia-based Telapak said that Malaysia and China were major recipients of stolen Indonesian timber and that shipping companies from Singapore carried such wood overseas.


Greenpeace's China office said China's timber industry was complicit in the illegal felling of Indonesia and Papua New Guinea's merbau trees, with logs then smuggled to China and processed and exported as floorboards and high-end furnishings to the United States, Canada, Australia and Europe.

Merbau is a resilient red hardwood, one of the most valuable in Southeast Asia.

China's Foreign Ministry brushed away accusations that the country's demand for timber was hastening the destruction of Southeast Asian forests, saying it had a strict system of supervision and management of timber and timber product imports."

"The effects of deforestation are crystal clear. Bio-diversity will be destroyed," Masnellyarti Hilman, a deputy minister in Indonesia's environment ministry, told Reuters.

"Not to mention floods, landslides. We see them as a result of massive deforestation by people who do not care about its impact. Although they actually know that one of the conditions to fulfill before cutting trees down is to re-plant, some do, some don't."


Environmentalists say Indonesia has also lost vast amounts of forest land to feed growing global demand for bio-fuels as an alternative source of energy.

The world's second largest palm oil producer already has around 5 million hectares of land planted with oil palm and the government aims to develop between 2-3 million hectares more of oil plantations nationwide by 2010.

Environmentalists say the slash-and-burn technique used to speed up the clearing of land for plantations sends huge amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and is also destroying several endangered species such as the orangutan and the Sumatran tiger.

According to a recent U.N report compiled using new satellite images and Indonesian government data, orangutan habitat is being lost 30 percent quicker than was previously feared.

It was estimated in 2002 about 60,000 of the shaggy ginger primates were left in the jungles of Borneo and Sumatra. Some ecologists say the number has now been halved and others say the species could be extinct in 20 years.

Indonesia says government policy is to preserve virgin forest and expand palm plantations on degraded and abandoned land that has already been cleared.

Indonesia's government has deployed the military on at least three occasions in recent years to confiscate timber and chase loggers out of its parks -- and has begun training quick response ranger teams to police protected areas.

But experts say the new units remain crippled by a lack of funds, vehicles, weapons and equipment, and face a huge threat from ruthless loggers.

"We allow people to open palm oil plantations as long as they replant. Palm oil plantations open a wide range of jobs but they must not do that in conservation areas," Hilman said.

The palm oil industry defends itself and its methods.

"If there are some endangered species in the area or an area is of high conservation value, then it will not be opened for plantations," Derom Bangun, executive chairman of the Indonesian Palm Oil Producers Association, told Reuters.

"The government has classified areas and has rules and we obey them. It is not what people from outside think that we just come, clear land and burn."

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