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Friday, 30 August, 2002, 14:43 GMT 15:43 UK
Clock ticking for Indonesian rainforest
Deforested area of Tesso Nilo
Vast tracts of the forest have been destroyed

The Indonesian island of Sumatra is the sixth largest island in the world and once boasted some of the most extensive and richest areas of tropical rainforest anywhere on the planet - but no longer.

It is estimated 60% of the total forest cover has been destroyed over the past 100 years, with the rate of destruction increasing rapidly in the 1970s and 80s under the authoritarian regime of former President Suharto.

Every day up to 350 lorries have been travelling along this road. I believe 100 of them contain illegal logs from Tesso Nilo

WWF official
His government was particularly keen on dividing up vast areas of the country's forests into concessions given to powerful businessmen to log and convert into rubber and palm-oil plantations.

This along with the resettlement of millions of people from over-crowded Java to islands such as Sumatra and Borneo, all of whom needed land to farm, saw deforestation reach unprecedented levels.

Today it is estimated around two million hectares (five million acres) of Indonesian forest are lost every year - an area equivalent to the size of Belgium.

And the majority of the logging is believed to be illegal.

Race against time

In Sumatra environmentalists are now fighting a desperate battle to save the last substantial part of the lowland forest still standing.

Sumatran tiger and cub
Sumatran tigers are under threat

The forest in Riau province is called Tesso Nilo and organisations such as the Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF) believe it is critical it is turned into a special conservation area.

"This lowland forest is the prime habitat of the Sumatran tiger, elephants and other important species," said Nazir Foead of WWF Indonesia.

"If Tesso Nilo forest goes, then the chances of survival for these endangered species will be very, very slim."

Unparalleled diversity

On top of this, recent research commissioned by WWF discovered that Tesso Nilo has the highest level of biodiversity on earth.

Scientists found more than 200 vascular plant species in just 200 square metres of forest - far more even than in the Amazon.

I will not ask my people to stop the logging. I will tell them to carry on, as long as these companies are getting our wood, then why should we stop?

Village chief Mohammed Hatta

But time is fast running out for the world's richest forest which presently occupies an area of just 1,500 square kilometres (579 square miles).

If the current rate of logging continues, it will have disappeared within the next four years.

Driving into the area it is easy to see why. A major road has been built through the forest making it easy to access the timber.

Every few minutes lorries laden with logs groan along the road belching diesel fumes into the atmosphere.

"Every day up to 350 lorries have been travelling along this road," said one WWF official who has been monitoring the logging here.

"I believe 100 of them contain illegal logs from Tesso Nilo."

Easy money

We drove further into the forest and soon could hear the sound of chainsaws in the distance.

The illegal loggers are a mixture of local villagers and gangs of people who have come from further afield, generally from other provinces in Sumatra.

What they have in common is poverty. The case of Kamarudin, a local villager, is typical. We followed him as he slashed his way deep into the forest, with his chainsaw balanced on his shoulder.

Logging truck
A constant stream of trucks take the trees for pulping

It did not take him long to find what he wanted - a large tropical hardwood tree called Meranti. The tree, which took decades to grow, came crashing to the ground within a couple of minutes.

"Chopping down trees like this hardwood Meranti, I can earn $60 a week," he said. "Much more than the rubber plantation where I used to work where the money wasn't enough to feed my family."

Local anger

We went back to Kamarudin's village in the middle of the forest - a desperately poor area.

More and more villagers have been turning to illegal logging over the last five years since the Asian economic crisis hit Indonesia.

According to the village head, Mohammed Hatta, it will not be long before more than half the families here are involved in chopping down wood.

Indonesian logger
The loggers are driven by poverty

Mr Hatta is actively encouraging this because he believes his people have the right to do so, as he says the land is theirs.

Such a direct challenge to the authorities would have been unthinkable under the repressive regime of former President Suharto. But since the advent of democracy in 1998 local communities have been asserting themselves much more.

Mr Hatta is angry that over the years the government has given the rights to the whole of Tesso Nilo forest to several logging and plantation companies.

"I will not ask my people to stop the logging," he said, "I will tell them to carry on, as long as these companies are getting our wood, then why should we stop?"

Massive operation

The scale of the main forestry industries in the area is breath-taking. We visited the Riau Andalan Pulp and Paper company (RAPP) on the outskirts of the forest, one of two such businesses based in the province.

It is a huge, hi-tech industrial complex housing the world's largest pulp mill. It produces almost two million tons of pulp every year, consuming eight million tons of wood in the process.

It is a non-stop operation. The mill operates 24-hours a day, with a never-ending convoy of trucks arriving at the factory to supply the wood.

Back in 1993 the government gave RAAP a concession of around 3,000 sq km which it could log and then re-plant with acacia trees.

Part of this concession lies within the Tesso Nilo forest itself.

No guarantees

A spokesman for the company told the BBC the forest it was given to convert to acacia plantations was already degraded - in other words had already been substantially logged.

But WWF says this is wrong, "RAPP is chopping down primary rain-forest," said Mr Foead.

The company is trying to promote itself as environment-friendly because it says within six years it will have planted enough acacia trees to provide a sustainable source of wood for the pulp mill.

Ironically it can only do this by first destroying swathes of Sumatran rain-forest.

Environmentalists also believe illegal logs from Tesso Nilo are being sold to RAPP. The capacity of the mill is so huge that around one-fifth of the wood supply is provided by outside contractors.

The company says there are stringent checks on the sources of logs provided by these contractors, but admits it cannot guarantee all the wood is legal.

WWF remains optimistic it can save Tesso Nilo from the loggers by persuading the government to turn it into a national park. But it will be an uphill struggle.

Indonesia's Forestry Minister Mohammad Prakosa told the BBC he could not simply revoke the licences given to the companies which had been given the right to log the area.

And even if Tesso Nilo did become a national park, it would still not be safe from the illegal loggers.

The experience in Indonesia's other national parks has been that illegal logging has continued unabated as law enforcement across the country is so weak, not least because the police and other officials are notoriously corrupt.

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See also:

23 Aug 02 | Business
25 Jun 02 | Asia-Pacific
22 May 02 | Asia-Pacific
10 Mar 00 | Science/Nature
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