No laws, cops can stop loggers in Kerinci Seblat

Giant, tall trees welcome you along the road heading to the quiet Kerinci Seblat National Park (KSNP). Once in a while, you will notice monkeys playing on the roadside.

Traveling to the park, which has been opened since 1982, is an impressive adventure. That is the first image most people have for the beautiful scenery of the seemingly-untouched forests.

Questions, however, will quickly emerge due to the presence of trucks carrying logs or timber along the narrow asphalt road which connects the area and neighboring Jambi province, as well as scattered timber along the rivers in the area.

Visitors would probably understand the presence of those trucks were they in a forest concession area, instead of a national park.

National parks are protected areas managed mainly for ecosystem protection and recreation, where nobody could enter without permit.

If a national park is supposedly a protected area, how come that the KSNP looks like a concession forest for logging and timber businesses?

The answer is easy: illegal logging.

KSNP spokesman Rudijanta Tjahyo confirmed that widespread illegal logging occurs in the national park, which is now an ASEAN Heritage Site.

"Illegal logging here is unbeatable," he told The Jakarta Post recently.

According to data, the annual deforestation rate at the KSNP stands at 1.26 percent per year. With a total area of 1.48 million hectares, or one third the area of Belgium, KNSP losses some 18,600 hectares each year. To date, some 30 percent of the total forest area in the park has disappeared.

The TNKS is known for its rich biodiversity. The park is a home to various rare species, including the world's tallest flower, Amorphophallus titanum, and the world's largest flower, Rafflesia arnoldi. It has more than 4000 species of plant, or 1/60 of the total plant species in the world, more than 350 species of apes and 144 species of mammals, or 1/30 of the total species of apes and mammals in the world respectively.

Rudijanta revealed that the TNKS has attempted to curb illegal logging by deploying forest rangers.

Unfortunately, there are only unequipped 105 rangers to guard 1.48 million hectares of the national park located in mountainous areas.

No need to ask the result.

Claiming to be inhabitants of the KSNP, illegal loggers have no fear to attack the rangers everytime they conduct operations against illegal logging.

Arson attacks on the rangers' vehicles or assault against the rangers commonly occur here, forcing the park management to ask assistance from local police and military to deal with the illegal loggers.

Still, there has been no significant progress although there were 22 people convicted to between four and 18 months for illegal logging last year.

The sentences were far below the maximum sentence provided in Law No. 5/1990 on conservation of natural resources and its ecosystem. The law stipulates that anyone involved in illegal activities in national parks or protected areas could face a maximum sentence of 10 years in jail and a Rp 200 million fine.

All of the convicts were local people who were caught red-handed sawing trees inside the KSNP.

Undoubtly, there has yet any investigation about where or to whom the logs and timber were transported and sold despite the fact that everyday dozens of trucks carry hundreds of cubic meters of logs and timber around the KSNP. Not to mention the large amount of timber transported through rivers.

The timber is produced by several illegal sawmills erected inside or around the KSNP area. Some of the sawmills are equipped with expensive, modern machines such as chain saws that local people can barely afford.

The logs and timber are reportedly sold to timber companies around the area and other areas as far away as Riau, which houses many pulp and paper companies.

According to a recent report from the Kerinci Seblat Integrated Conservation and Development Project (KS-ICDP) -- funded by the government, the World Bank and the Global Environment Facility (GEF) -- the widespread illegal logging involves cukongs and oknums.

Cukongs are financial backers, and in this case refers to people who order and buy logs or timber from illegal loggers. They usually own sawmills and timber companies. Oknum is a term applied to any delinquent government official/employee or military/police officer. In this case it refers to government officers or law enforcers who back illegal logging activities.

The report further says that "the situation was exacerbated by the proliferation of illegal and legal sawmills coupled with a breakdown in law enforcement and support for the park from local authorities (local government, police, prosecutors)".

It has become public secret that illegal logging remains rampant due to the cooperation between the cukongs and the oknums.

Many times, when the KSNP forest rangers seize trucks or illegal timber, oknums -- be they law enforcers, legislatures, administration officers or even the forest rangers themselves -- would ask the park management to release the evidences.

A high-ranking official of the forestry agency had even manipulated data in the issuance of a forest exploitation permit for a company. But the case remains unsolved.

Rudijanta claimed that deforestation in the KSNP became worse following the downfall of the New Order regime, which exploited forests and mining as its major money machine.

At the time, only the cronies and family of former president Soeharto could exploit the forests. Being sidelined for over three decades in forest exploitations, both local people and local administrations are now eager to salvage what is left in the forest.

When the autonomy era began, the threats to forest preservation escalated as both the central government and local administrations are allowed to issue forest exploitation permits, thanks to the country's inconsistent regulations on forests.

In order to boost local revenues, local administrations often issue the permits despite the fact that production forests in their authorities were exhausted. As a result, the neighboring KSNP become the target of exploitation.

Located in four provinces -- Jambi, Bengkulu, South Sumatra and West Sumatra-- and within nine regencies, the KSNP faces more rapid deforestations.

Rampant deforestation in the KSNP, which functions as water catchment area in some part of Sumatra, indeed, will not only endanger biodiversity but also the island itself due to possible flooding, droughts and landslides.

People may expect it to happen in the near future, as the World Bank has predicted that forests in Sumatra will disappear by 2005 due to uncontrolled deforestation.

It is not totally impossible that the next generation will encounter deserts in the former area of the KSNP if the alarming speed of deforestation continues.

Another question emerges.

What will happen to other protected forests and parks in the country if the KSNP, which is under international spotlight and supported by millions of dollars of financial assistance, cannot stop illegal logging? 

(Tiarma Siboro and Muninggar Sri Saraswati, Kerinci, Jambi,  11/19/2002)