[Marxism] Development and deforestation in Southeast Asia
lnp3 at panix.com
Sat Apr 29 07:24:21 MDT 2006
NY Times, April 29, 2006
Forests in Southeast Asia Fall to Prosperity's Ax
By JANE PERLEZ
LONG ALONGO, Indonesia For as long as anyone can remember, Anyie Apoui
and his people have lived among the majestic trees and churning rivers in
an untouched corner of Borneo, catching fish and wild game, cultivating
rice and making do without roads. But all that is about to change.
The Indonesian government has signed a deal with China that will level much
of the remaining tropical forests in an area so vital it is sometimes
called the lungs of Southeast Asia.
For China, the deal is a double bounty: the wood from the forest will
provide flooring and furniture for its ever-expanding middle class, and in
its place will grow vast plantations for palm oil, an increasingly popular
ingredient in detergents, soaps and lipstick.
The forest-to-palm-oil deal, one of an array of projects that China said it
would develop in Indonesia as part of a $7 billion investment spree last
year, illustrates the increasingly symbiotic relationship between China's
need for a wide variety of raw materials, and its Asian neighbors'
readiness to provide them, often at enormous environmental cost.
For Mr. Anyie and his clan, the deal will bring jobs and the opportunity
for a modern life. "We love our forest, but I want to build the road for my
people I owe it to them," said Mr. Anyie, 63, an astute elder of the
Dayak people. "We've had enough of this kind of living."
From Indonesia to Malaysia to Myanmar, many of the once plentiful forests
of Southeast Asia are already gone, stripped legally or illegally,
including in the low-lying lands here in Kalimantan, on the Indonesian side
of Borneo. Only about half of Borneo's original forests remain.
Those forests that do remain, like the magnificent stands here in Mr.
Anyie's part of the highlands, are ever pressed, ever prized and ever more
valuable, particularly as China's economy continues its surge.
Over all, Indonesia says it expects China to invest $30 billion in the next
decade, a big infusion of capital that contrasts with the declining
investment by American companies here and in the region.
Much of that Chinese investment is aimed at the extractive industries and
infrastructure like refineries, railroads and toll roads to help speed the
flow of Indonesia's plentiful coal, oil, gas, timber and palm oil to
In one of the latest deals, on April 19, Indonesia announced that China had
placed a $1 billion rush order for a million cubic yards of a prized
reddish-brown hardwood, called merbau, to be used in construction of its
sports facilities for the 2008 Olympic Games.
Merbau wood, mostly prevalent in Papua's virgin forests, has been illegally
logged and shipped to China since the late 1990's, stripping large swathes
of forest in the Indonesian province on the western side of the island of
The decision to award a $1 billion concession to China will "increase the
deforestation of Papua," a place of extraordinary biodiversity, said Elfian
Effendy, executive director of Greenomics, an Indonesian environmental
watchdog. "It's not sustainable."
The plan for palm oil plantations on Borneo was signed during a visit by
the Indonesian president, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, to Beijing last July.
Under pressure from environmental groups, the Indonesian environment and
forestry ministries have come out against the plan. The coordinating
minister for economic affairs, who goes by the single name Boediono, said
in April that he was still weighing the pros and cons of executing the
The commander of the Indonesian military, Gen. Djoko Suyanto, whose forces
are heavily involved in Indonesia's illegal forestry businesses, strongly
backed the plan during a visit to the border region in March.
Certainly, there are profits to be made. Major consumer companies like
Procter & Gamble say they are using more palm oil in their products instead
of crude oil; palm oil is favored for cooking by the swelling Chinese
middle class, and it is being explored as an alternative fuel.
Indonesia's environmentalists, and some economists, say chopping down as
much as 4.4 million acres of the last straight-stemmed, slow-growing
towering dipterocarp trees on Borneo would gravely threaten this region's
rare ecosystem for plants, animals and people.
Maps for the project have aroused fears that it would encroach into the
forest in Kayan Mentarang National Park, where the intoxicating mix of high
altitude and equatorial humidity breeds an exceptional diversity of
species, second only to Papua's, biologists say.
The area is the source of 14 of the 20 major rivers on Borneo, and the
destruction of the forests would threaten water supplies to coastal towns,
said Stuart Chapman, a director at the World Wildlife Fund in Indonesia.
For years, Mr. Anyie, the Dayak elder, said he had resisted offers from
commercial contractors to cut down the forest around his village, next to
He worked hard, too, to keep the old ways of life, which until 40 years ago
included forays into headhunting, he said, showing visitors the skull of a
Malaysian soldier stowed in his attic, a souvenir from the 1965 border war
But now it is time for change, he said. "People have told me, 'Wood is
gold, you're still too honest,' " said Mr. Anyie, a diminutive man with
brush-cut black hair.
His own grown children have deserted the village for big towns, and the
villagers left behind are tired of traveling everywhere by foot (three days
to neighboring Malaysia where jobs in palm oil plantations are plentiful)
or by traditional long boats powered by anemic 10-horsepower engines.
For those seeking to visit, the journey is just as arduous. The area can be
reached only by light plane, a pummeling voyage over rapids in a wooden
canoe and then a trek through tangles of trees and creepers.
A three-day stay at a research station deep inside the forest told what is
at stake for the ecosystem, first documented by Charles Darwin's colleague,
Alfred Russel Wallace, in an account in the late 1850's called "The Malay
Wild mango trees, tropical oaks, pale-trunked myrtles, sago palms, rattan
trees and pandanas with shiny leaves like long prongs crowded the hills
that rise almost vertically above the river.
Exceedingly tall and elegant dipterocarps towered over all, their green
canopies filtering shards of occasional sunlight. Underfoot, tiny
dew-encrusted green mosses, still damp in the afternoon, clung to rocks,
and miniature versions of African violets poked their mauve flowers just
above the ground.
Wildlife abounds, said Stephan Wulffraat, 39, a Dutch conservation
biologist and the director of the research station run by the World
Wildlife Fund. The forest is home to seven species of leaf monkeys, he
said, and at high noon, a crashing sound high in the trees announced a
group's arrival. A red-coated deer made a fleeting appearance and dashed off.
On the gloomy forest floor, Mr. Wulffraat, who fends off leeches by tucking
his pant legs into knee-length football socks, has set more than a dozen
camera traps to photograph wild creatures too shy to appear.
Three years ago, an animal the size of a large cat with a bushy tail with a
reddish fur sauntered by the camera. Mr. Wulffraat, a seven-year veteran of
the forest, said that the animal resembled a civet, but he added that he
and other experts believed that it was an entirely new species.
The discovery of a species of mammal like a civet is unusual, but dozens of
new species of trees, mosses and herbs, butterflies, frogs, fresh water
prawns and snakes have all been found since the station opened in 1991, he
said. "This field station has more frogs and snake species around than in
all of Europe," Mr. Wulffraat said.
Until now, the forests at these higher elevations have been protected by
their sheer inaccessibility. To get back to the coast from the research
station, for instance, takes a 15-hour journey along a 350-mile stretch of
the Bahau and Kayan Rivers in a wooden longboat powered by three outboard
In contrast, the forests in lowland Kalimantan, where roads have been
hacked into the land already, are so ravaged by logging that they will have
disappeared by 2010, the World Bank says.
As the roads start penetrating the area of Mr. Anyie's clan, the upland
forests will begin to disappear here, too. The solution is to adopt
sustainable management plans, Mr. Wulffraat said.
Such plans allow logging only in specially certified areas, he said. But so
far, he said, they have proved a losing proposition.
"In about 30 years," Mr. Anyie said, "the forest will be gone."
Muktita Suhartono contributed reporting for this article.
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