By Riedo Panaligan
BANDA ACEH, Indonesia –“We heard a big sound and ran away as fast as we could,” said Sahbudin, describing how he and his family in Aceh Tenggara managed to escape the ravaging mixture of water, mountain rocks and cut logs that cascaded down Leuser mountains on the night of April 27, 2005.
The district of Aceh Tenggara is the latest site of flash floods in Aceh province. Nineteen people died and more than 100 families from five villages, including Lawe Mengduku where Sahbudin lives, have been greatly affected. Houses and farms have been destroyed and logs are everywhere.
According to Sahbudin, he was not surprised that such a calamity befell their villages. Erosion and flash floods happen in Aceh Tenggara every year.
Six chiefs of the villages that were affected by flash floods in 2003 wrote a letter on May 26, 2004 to then Governor Abdullah Puteh to act in order to stop logging activities inside the protected area, but to no avail.
They say unless logging is stopped, disasters will never stop in Aceh Tenggara.
“It’s obvious,” said Yashud Hutapea, coordinator of the Indonesian Forum for the Environment (WALHI) in Aceh Tenggara, “that rampant logging inside the Leuser Ecosystem is the culprit of the flash floods.”
WALHI already recorded five reports of major landslides and flash floods in Aceh alone after the tsunami and a total of 143 cases for the province since 2000.
Misery seems reluctant to leave Aceh. Decades-long war, tsunamis and, lately, rampant illegal logging as a result of higher demand for raw materials, especially wood, for reconstruction of tsunami-stricken areas, have taken their toll.
Huge timber demand
Non-governmental organizations here are sending warnings to the authorities not to sacrifice too readily the remaining forests of Indonesia under the guise of rehabilitating Aceh.
“We must be careful in addressing the situation, or else we will just invite other disasters to occur,” said Bambang Antariksan from Walhi Aceh.
It is estimated that the minimum wood requirement needed for the reconstruction and rehabilitation of Aceh, which is foreseen to last for five years, is 1.1 million cubic meters of logs, equivalent to 446,000 cubic meters of sawn timber. Such a huge timber requirement will worsen the already sorry state of the forests of Aceh and nearby provinces.
Logging activities in Aceh are currently concentrated in the districts of Aceh Besar, Aceh Tenggara, Aceh Singkil and Aceh Timur, which, coincidentally, are areas where there are conservation sites or places covered by the Leuser Ecosystem, one of the richest bastions of tropical rainforest in Southeast Asia.
Aside from Aceh, wood that was used in the emergency and relief phase for tsunami-stricken areas also came from the provinces of North Sumatra, Raui and Jambi, which also have tragic histories of erosion and flash floods.
Indonesia is home to 10 percent of the world’s tropical forests, but it also has the highest rate of deforestation, with about three million hectares of forest lost every year.
Eden in peril
The Leuser Ecosystem, approximately 2.6 million hectares of tropical rainforest, is home to some of the most unique wildlife in the world like endemic species of tigers, elephants and rhinoceros, orangutans, hornbills, cloud leopards and the world’s largest flower, the rafflesia.
It has nurtured generations of some of Sumatra’s major ethnic groups like the Gayo, Alas, Acehnese, Batak, Pakpak, Karo, Singkil and Malay. Moreover, some four million people depend directly on this area as their water source.
Right in the heart of the ecosystem is the Gunung Leuser National Park, a world heritage site as declared by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). There are also nature parks and wildlife reserves located within the Ecosystem.
The Leuser Ecosystem is declared a protected forest by the Indonesian government, but still is one of the most exploited areas in Southeast Asia.
Due to the proliferation of logging activities in the 1990s, a logging ban was imposed in the whole province in 2001. Still, illegal logging continued.
The logging moratorium was lifted on September 2004 by then governor Abdullah Puteh, who is now in jail for corruption. However, as early as January 2004, logging permits were issued to different companies for the utilization of the forests of Aceh.
A total of 47 companies were granted licenses for use and felling of forest (IPHHKs) by the Aceh forestry office in 2004, with total target wood production for a year amounting to 116,203.82 cubic meters or the equivalent of more than 46,000 trees. This is almost 150 percent higher than the 47,500 cubic meters legally allowed capacity during the past years.
Logging lawful, or not?
Based on reports from different journalists and NGOs, there is virtually no way of knowing which of these logging companies operating in Aceh is legal or illegal. Permits are not displayed in public and logging companies have the habit of constantly transferring their areas of operation.
Logging activities in Aceh are also being conducted in places classified as conflict areas. In many instances, media coverage in these areas is very limited.
According to Husaini Syamaun, Forest Use and Utilization Division head at the Aceh’s forestry office, “Even with permits, logging activities are only permitted in production and limited production forests.”
“No logging is allowed inside protected forests and conservation areas,” he said. “The government is striving to attain the vision of becoming a Green Province,” he further stressed.
Of the 47 companies that have been granted an IPHHK, 22 have expired permits; yet, they continue to operate.
In the district of Aceh Tenggara, where the heart of Gunung Leuser Natural Park can be found, more than 90 percent of its forest cover is classified as protected forest. Only 289 hectares of forest are attributed to production purposes.
Last year, the Aceh forestry office gave 10 private companies the right to log, with each company operating in a minimum of 100 hectares.
After the tsunami, logging activities were on the rise. According to Yashud, loggers justified their actions as being part of the rehabilitation for Aceh.
Even the villagers in Aceh Tenggara attest that trucks that brought logs or processed wood during the early months after the tsunami from outside the district have signs like ‘For the Rehabilitation of Aceh’.
From two trips a week before the tsunami, trucks now make three to four trips carrying processed wood away from the Aceh Tenggara district. In one trip, at least five trucks transport 12 cubic meters to 15 cubic cubic meters of sawn timber.
“Most of the wood coming out of here is first-class,” Yashud said.
He said tropical hardwood trees like semaram, merbau, kruing and meranti are favorites of loggers because they peg a very high price on the international market, around 18 million rupiahs (1,800 U.S. dollars) per cubic meter.
“That’s why most of the wood here is not really going to Aceh,” said Yashud, “but is being exported illegally outside the country.”
The logging situation in Aceh Tenggara mirrors the current situation of the forests in the province generally.
Logging is a very lucrative business in Aceh and benefits influential individuals and even security personnel.
From the capital town of Kutacane to the border of North Sumatra, more than three military checkpoints and barracks have been set up along the main highway of Aceh Tenggara; two or more large trucks transporting wood in the middle of the night are therefore hard to miss.
According to the affected villagers of the recent flash flood, local government staff went to their area days after the flash flood and facilitated the selection of logs in good condition littered on the river banks. They were warned not to get the logs or else they would be prosecuted.
This happened to 11 villagers from Lawe Gerger who tried to get a few logs and ended up in jail. Their relatives insist they are not illegal loggers, just farmers who wanted to get some logs. Some of them are still in jail.
Aceh Tenggara regent Armen Dusky denied allegations that he was involved in the illicit business, saying, “I support the Green Province vision.”
He vowed to protect the Leuser Natural Park and would never tolerate destructive activities inside the protected forest, unlike what some groups had been portraying about him.
“I also want our forest to be protected,” said Armen.
Ironically, there seems to have been more tolerance for illegal logging and apprehension for such activities has relaxed after the tsunami.
Aceh Police chief Gen. Bachrumsyah Kasman admitted that they had temporarily stopped their campaign against illegal logging to give way to the emergency and relief phase for Aceh.
He said that the Vice President Jusuf Kalla had asked him to take it easy with the apprehension of undocumented transport of wood because Aceh province needed whatever wood it could get.
The Aceh forestry office still has no working monitoring scheme to ensure that only companies with a permit will operate inside areas designated for logging activities.
Even Kuntoro Mangkasubroto, head of the Bureau of Rehabilitation and Reconstruction for Aceh and Nias Island, is also resigned to the issue because of the huge timber requirement needed for the province.
“I don’t support illegal logging. Illegal is illegal, period,” said Kunturo. “But if they give it for free (illegal logs), I will gladly accept,” he said.
Construction of roads going to isolated areas is being pushed hard, specifically the controversial Ladia Galaska Project. The project is a series of roads that will connect the western and northern coasts of Aceh and pass directly through the heart of the Leuser ecosystem.
The project received major opposition from different sectors because it will give easier access for logging and lead to the further degradation of the Leuser Ecosystem.
Just recently, bidding for construction firms was held in Banda Aceh to build roads that are part of the Ladia Galaska Project. This shows that the project is still ongoing.
Different groups are seeking solutions to stop the degradation of Aceh’s natural resources while also answering the needs of the victims of the tsunami.
Research institution Greenomics Indonesia and conservation group the World Wildwide Fund for Nature (WWF) launched the Timber for Aceh Program, which aims to convince donor countries to donate non-tropical timber to Aceh.
It gained local and international support, and no less than Aceh’s acting governor Azwar Abubakar himself is pursuing donor institutions to donate timber to support the Green Province vision for Aceh.
Initially, 50 container loads of timber from the United States, enough to build 1,200 houses, were expected to arrive in Aceh.
Some sustainable ideas being implemented by different groups here in Aceh came directly from the victims themselves.
One group, the Muslim Aid Foundation (MAF) is currently building Acehnese houses for different coastal communities affected by the tsunami. According to MAF’s Aceh Director Fadlullah Wilmot, the houses they are building are a bit modified to render them more economically viable and environment-friendly.
Materials are made from sustainable materials. House posts are made of old coconut trunks, walls of woven bamboo and roofs of palm or sagu leaves. These houses use wooden joints instead of nails to ensure better protection against earthquakes.
“Everybody is taking part in building the houses. Men do the carpentry while the women and children weave the roofs. They are working as a family,” he said.
“We just asked them and they told us what they want to do,” said Fadlullah on how they came up with the idea of building such houses.
For years, Aceh has received more than its share of natural and manmade disasters.
Whatever the reason, the impact of disasters can only be minimized, if a community-supported resource management program is integrated as part of the rehabilitation and reconstruction program of Aceh.
Otherwise, the greater tragedy of unsustainable reconstruction and rehabilitation will continue to weigh most heavily on villagers like Sahbudin who, like all the people of Aceh, just wants to live happily and in peace
(The story was published in the Jakarta Post in July 2005. The same was posted on Balikas Online, a weekly online paper in Batangas, Philippines).