Indonesia’s forests are an extraordinary natural phenomenon, of immense value and beauty. Over ten per cent of the planet’s diversity of plants and animals are found only in Indonesia, including orangutan, elephants, tigers, rhinoceros, a thousand species of birds, and thousands of plant species. The archipelago is also home to hundreds of indigenous groups who have lived from and managed Indonesia’s forests for thousands of years. The forests provide food, medicines, building materials and clothing fibers, not only for indigenous communities, but also for world markets. Indonesia also possesses more endangered species than any other country in the world largely because of deforestation.
The deforestation problem in Indonesia is spreading. Illegal and destructive logging is a major cause. In addition, conversion of forest areas for the development of oil palm and the pulp and paper industry has been substantial. Since the beginning of this decade, as much as 2.8 million ha of Indonesia’s forests have been lost each year to illegal and destructive logging. This has led to US $4 billion or 40 trillion rupiah in losses to the State per year.
Over the past few years, extensive areas of forest have been converted for oil-palm plantations. Indonesia's oil-palm plantations grew from 600,000 hectares in 1985 to more than 4 million hectares by early 2006 when the government announced a plan to develop 3 million additional hectares of oil-palm plantations by 2011. Oil palm (Elaeis guineensis) is an attractive plantation crop because it is the cheapest vegetable oil and produces more oil per hectare than any other oilseed. In the current environment of high energy prices, palm oil is seen as a good way to meet increasing demand for biofuel as an alternative energy source.
While clear-cutting virgin rainforest is illegal in Indonesia and oil-palm plantations can be planted on degraded forest lands, forest clearing is permissible as long as the process is declared to be the first step in establishing a plantation. Thus oil-palm plantations often replace natural forests. Of particular concern to forest watchers is a 2-million-hectare project planned for central Kalimantan on the island of Borneo. The plan—funded by China and supported by the Indonesian government—has been widely criticized by environmental groups who say that the conversion of natural forest for monocultures of palm trees threatens biodiversity and ecological services. The World Wildlife Fund, which has been particularly vocal in condemning the scheme and has a number of scientists on the ground assessing the potentially affected region, has issued several reports on the region's biological diversity (361 new species were discovered between 1994 and 2004 in Borneo).
The fastest and cheapest way to clear new land for plantations is by burning. Every year hundreds of thousands of acres hectares go up in smoke as developers and agriculturalists feverishly light fires before monsoon rains begin to fall. In dry years—especially during strong el Niño years—these fires can burn out of control for months on end, creating deadly pollution that affects neighboring countries and causes political tempers to flare.
In 1982-1983 more than 9.1 million acres (3.7 million ha) burned on the island of Borneo before monsoon rains arrived, while more than 2 million hectares of forest and scrub land burned during the 1997-1998 el Niño event, causing $9.3 billion in losses. The fires also produced wide-ranging and severe economic, political, social, health, and ecological damage to Indonesia and the neighboring Southeast Asian nations of Singapore, Brunei, Malaysia, and Thailand, already in the midst of an economic crisis. Satellite analysis of the 1997-1998 fires revealed that 80 percent of the fires could be linked to plantations or logging concession holders.
The haze from the 2005-2006 fires resulted in heated exchanges between Indonesian and Malaysian government officials. Malaysia and Singapore have offered assistance in fighting Indonesian blazes, while simultaneously placing blame on the country for its lack of progress in controlling the wild fires. Indonesia in turn blamed Malaysian firms for rampant illegal logging in the country, which left its forests more susceptible to conflagrations.
Fires in Indonesia were worsened by the government's misguided transmigration program which moved poor families from the crowded central islands to the less populated outer islands. In the program's two-plus decades, more than six million migrants—730,000 families—were relocated to Kalimantan, Irian Jaya, Sulawesi, and Sumatra. Ignorant of cultivation methods in these areas, many transmigrants fared poorly. In 1995, former President Suharto initiated the "One Million Hectare Project," an ambitious project to move 300,000 families from Java to central Kalimantan and increase rice production by 2.7 million tons per year. For two years, workers cleared the forests and dug almost 3,000 miles of canals with the intended purpose of keeping the soil drained in the rainy season and crops irrigated in the dry season. But because the peat lands were higher than the rivers, the plan backfired as the canals carried all the moisture out of the peat lands. The failures of the project were compounded by an eight-month drought from an especially intense El Niño year. In 1997, the dried-out peat lands ignited. Fires in other parts of Indonesia have been linked to colonist settlements established during the transmigration program.
Mining operations have a devastating effect on the forest and tribal peoples of Indonesia. The largest and best known of such projects is the Freeport mine in Irian Jaya, run by Freeport-McMoRan. Freeport-McMoRan, based in New Orleans, has operated the Mount Ertsberg gold, silver, and copper mine in Irian Jaya, Indonesia, for more than 20 years and has converted the mountain into a 600-meter hole. As documented by the New York Times and dozens of environmental groups, the mining company has dumped appalling amounts of waste into local streams, rendering downstream waterways and wetlands "unsuitable for aquatic life." Relying on large payments to military officials, the mining operation is protected by a virtual private army that has been implicated in the deaths of an estimated 160 people between 1975 and 1997 in the mine area. Freeport estimates that it generates 700,000 tons of waste a day and that the waste rock stored in the highlands—900 feet deep in places—now covers about three square miles. Government surveys have found that tailings from the mines have produced levels of copper and sediment so high that almost all fish have disappeared from nearly 90 square miles of wetlands downstream from the operation.
||AnCracking down on the Freeport's environmental abuses and questionable human-rights practices has proved a challenge since the mine is one of the largest sources of revenue for the Indonesian government.
Indonesian government scientist wrote that "the mine's production was so huge, and regulatory tools so weak, that it was like 'painting on clouds' to persuade Freeport to comply with the ministry's requests to reduce environmental damage," according to a Dec. 27, 2005, article in the New York Times.