Riau rapidly losing its vast natural wealth

Blessed with abundant natural resources, Riau is one of the richest provinces in the country.

Thanks to its natural riches, the province has secured millions of dollars from both foreign and domestic investments, each expecting to reap a fortune from its oil reserves and forests.

Indeed, the Riau administration depends on its natural resources to run the province, home to 3.28 million people.

Unfortunately, dependency on natural resources has led to uncontrolled exploitation of Riau's natural riches and what is left today will not be sufficient for future generations to rely on.

The World Bank has earlier predicted that Sumatra will lose its forests by 2005. The warning is not an empty one. This prediction was based on continuous rampant deforestation on the island.

In Riau, illegal logging is blamed as a main cause of deforestation. A recent visit to Tesso Nilo forest uncovered the alarming level of deforestation in the province due to a perfect combination of illegal logging and activities at forest concession areas.

This damaging coupling is a result of short-term interests. It is obvious that the authorities place greater importance and value on short-term economic goals than on forest sustainability.

As a result of this policy, there are more than a dozen of concessionaires in Tesso Nilo. The companies receive either forest concessions (HPH), concessions for industrial plantation (HTI) or concessions to exploit forest area (IPK).

The first two permits are issued by the central government on recommendation from local administrations, while IPK is mainly a privilege of local administrations.

A HPH permit allows a company to chop certain, big size trees only. The logs are mainly supplied to the plywood industry. Meanwhile, HTI owners could clear the forest and take the logs for pulp and paper industries. The company can cultivate the cleared forest with a certain plant to be used for the pulp business for an average period of 15 years.

An IPK permit allows the owner to clear forest areas, formerly used for HTI, and exploit them.

Illegal logging in Tesso Nilo is being done extensively and openly. Every day hundreds of cubic meters of logs are transported out of Tesso Nilo protected forest, which is surrounded by production forests owned by at least a dozen concessionaires. Dozens of trucks transport logs out of the forests every day, particularly after dusk.

Hundreds of illegal sawmills are operating inside the Tesso Nilo forest. They could produce hundreds of cubic meters of illegal timber a day.

The sawmills are usually owned by big corporations or businessmen from outside the area. During a recent visit to the forest, The Jakarta Post noticed a sawmill with a big signpost carrying the name of an organization led by a publicly-known crooked businessman.

Each sawmill deploys a group of some 10 illegal loggers, mostly local people. The loggers chop trees in any forest area, be it protected forests or concession forests.

They later sort the logs and process high quality, solid logs such as Tembesu or Meranti into timber because of the higher price. A cubic meter of Tembesu can be sold at Rp 700,000. The wood is mostly used for furniture or construction materials.

If the logs are not solid, they would sell it to nearby pulp and paper companies.

According to the local director of World Wildlife Fund for Nature (WWF), Nazir Foead, the vanishing forests would threaten the biodiversity in Tesso Nilo forest.

A recent survey conducted by WWF scientists showed that the 1,800 square-kilometer Tesso Nilo forest houses the world's richest lowland forest biodiversity, with up to 218 plant species per 200 square meters.

According to the survey, the biodiversity in Tesso Nilo is a lot more extensive than other humid, tropical lowland forests in 19 other countries including Brazil, Cameroon and Peru.

The forest is also home to a wide range of wild animals such as elephants, tigers, gibbons and tapirs.

Humans, too, will feel the consequences of possible natural disasters such as drought, landslides and flooding due to the vanishing forest, he said.

"When we talk about nature, we talk about equilibrium. Deforestation causes imbalance (in nature), which will lead to natural disaster," Nazir told the Post in an interview.

He specifically warned the gloomy future of millions of people whose life depends on forest resources should rampant deforestation continues.

Nazir referred to a recent incident in Tesso Nilo, where local people --who are illegal loggers-- killed two security guards of a pulp and paper company which had made an agreement with the WWF to stop buying illegal logs.

Some local non-governmental organizations on the environment have repeatedly ask the administration to show its political will to stop illegal logging to prevent the forests from further damage.

Seminars on how to curb illegal logging have been organized several times in Riau. Law enforcers and local administration officials, including Governor Saleh Djasit, have vowed to eradicate illegal logging, which contributed to Rp 1 trillion in financial loss to the province annual revenue.

But the result has not been favorable, if not fruitless.

It is actually not that difficult to stop illegal logging because the administration and law enforcers can use data from the NGOs that have conducted initial investigation on the matter.

During a recent night visit to a logging site, we were trapped several times in traffic congestions in the Lipat Kain area, a small district which connects Tesso Nilo forest and Pekanbaru.

Later on we noticed that the congestions were caused by a queue of trucks carrying logs or timber, which had to stop in front of a post --either belonging to the police, military or forestry agency-- to give "something" to the officers.

That something turned out to be money.

At an office owned by a local military command, each truck stopped to give the money to a boy, who quickly emerged from the office, grabbed the money and went back inside the office.

Local people said money each truck driver hands over to the posts amounts to between Rp 5,000 and Rp 10,000. Each driver must give the money each time they pass the road.

The scene above explains why illegal logging is rampant.

WWF added that illegal logging is not easy to defeat since it involves communities, bureaucrats, security personnel and global market interests.

"The logging activities that are threatening Tesso Nilo are part of a pattern across Indonesia, where large financially troubled corporations, often with foreign ownership, sell their forest concessions for a tiny fraction of their true economic potential and without regard for their biological value," WWF said in its report.  Muninggar Sri Saraswati and Tiarma Siboro, Tesso Nilo, Riau, 11/19/2002