Local communities living in the world's dwindling tropical forests bear the brunt of the insatiable demand for cheap timber, argues Frederick Sagisolo. In the Green Room, he recounts his experience of illegal logging, and explains why community forest management is the way forward.
For the Knasaimos people, living in the Indonesian province of Papua, we do not see nature as something to be destroyed.
Forests provide for most of the needs of the Knasaimos
The forests here provide for our needs. For building houses we take rattan, bamboo and other woods, for lighting fires we take damar, and for food we process sago taken from the forest in the traditional method.
The forests give us wood for fishing boats, gaharu trees for trade, and many fruits which we can sell.
The relationship between our people and their nature is important, and it's become our pride and part of our traditional wisdom. That's why we manage the land in a simple way.
The way we manage our land, however, has been disturbed by outsiders coming here to log trees.
It started in 1999 with meranti wood being taken, and once that was finished in 2002 they started to cut merbau trees.
This created problems for our community. Before, there was a sense of working together, a feeling of togetherness.
Then, when some people are attracted to the wood company they refuse to work on the sago any more. They think that because the company promises money, they don't want to do the traditional work in the forest any more.
New values appear, like wanting to have more than your neighbour and putting a price on everything, instead of valuing what we already have.
The merbau logging was carried out by one company, supported by foreign investors.
Companies from outside only think about money and leave us with tears
We never invited this company here and it did not have proper permission to log.
I am the head of the tribal council, but the company never talked to me. Instead it did an illegal deal with one individual from our community, and this created many problems for us.
But the company was backed by a local military officer, so what could we do?
Soon after it first arrived the company was cutting our trees in four areas, destroying the land with heavy equipment. Yet when people here see the military person involved, then cannot sit down together and discuss things. Impossible.
I was really worried by this company. Our land is not that large, and with the logging after a few years we would have had no trees left, only grass.
This would mean disaster for us. It is our mission to treat the land as something entrusted to us for our grandchildren and so we must not destroy it.
If we are left alone we manage the forest well as it is part of our life.
But companies from outside only think about money and leave us with tears. While the company was here there was no improvement for local people - just problems.
We plan to develop a system where we, the Knasaimos, as the guardians of this land, manage it ourselves and gain benefits to help the lives of our people
We know our rights, but got no help from the local government. They just came here with a map we had never seen before - some kind of imaginary map.
Under this some of our sacred places would be destroyed. We asked "why did you do this?" and the company said it was allowed because of the map.
We know that this map was illegal and it is clear that money talked. We asked the government to stop this company, but nothing happened.
Then finally, in 2005, Papua was the target for a big action by the government against illegal logging. The military officer left, and the company operations stopped.
We felt we were once more in control of our lands and set about healing the wounds created by the company.
In early 2007 I was contacted by people from two environment groups, Telapak and the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA).
Frederick shares his community's story with officials in Brussels
These groups had come to Seremuk in 2003 and filmed our way of life and the problems we were having with the logging company.
These people explained to me that they were organising a meeting in Belgium to tell European Union officials about the bad impacts of illegal logging and wanted me to speak. I agreed, believing this could benefit our community.
I came across so many interesting stories on the trip.
I found out how timber stolen from Seremuk and other "remote" areas eventually goes to places like Europe and is worth a lot of money. It seemed strange to me that the people who live in the forests are still poor, while the timber taken from them is worth so much when it is sold in Europe.
On the trip, I saw how in Europe NGOs work together with their governments, while in Indonesia they are seen as the enemy of the government.
This made us realise how the Knasaimos people have to develop strong institutions to press the government to have a more open mind, and allow us to manage our land free of interference.
Now, in Seremuk, I'm working to use the lessons of the trip to help improve the situation for the Knasaimos.
At a recent big gathering of our people it was agreed that no member of our community would sell trees to outsiders.
Instead we plan to develop a system where we, the Knasaimos, as the guardians of this land, manage it ourselves and gain benefits to help the lives of our people through better education and health.
We have suffered from illegal logging and now we want to build a co-operative to carry out small-scale community logging.
This is our vision as to how we can live together with nature and improve the lives of our people.
Frederick Sagisolo is traditional chief of the Knasaimos people living in the western region of Papua, Indonesia
The Green Room is a series of opinion articles on environmental topics running weekly on the BBC News website
Do you agree with Frederick Sagisolo? Is community involvement the key to managing natural resources such as forests? Do western governments and western consumers have a role to play in helping peoples such as the Knasaimos?
I think what the world is beginning to see is the convergence of ideas at the grassroots level about the need to protect those things which support the common good. There is little that is more powerful than thoughts that come to mind when walking in the forest. The need to do so or to go somewhere else where nature can be experienced is universal and is nothing even a corporate world would want to take away if it could but stop and think about it for a moment. It shouldn't be up to a few people to decide and I hope the people going to Bali to talk about the environment take a moment to walk in a forest and think about what it means before they go.
Dale Lanan, Longmont, Colorado USA
Thank you for this report. I'm deeply moved by the cause and feel grateful that the local people are taking back their land.
However, I don't feel that this report is complete without an in-depth expose on the illegal companies involved as well as all the other 'legal entities' that put the made the situation dire in the first place.
Faye Chan, Singapore
Apparently,the habitants must be the ones who understand the particular environment well. As they own the land, so do they own the right to manage the land. If they are keenly aware of the importance of the protection for their surrounding, then they will surely take the positive actions to maintain the nature. However, with more sufficient aid will boost the community to return to the original surface and to develop one more complete system to achieve to goal. Moreover, for the definition of aid is to provide proper help but not the inteference. Saving one part of the earth to be approximately naturally integrated is also one potentially subtle devotion to our whole world. We should attach importance to each possibility to make our world better.
Chung-Pei, Lo, Taiwan
What's really sad is the amount of junk mail we get in the USA (and many other countries I imagine). Trees are cut down just to end up in a landfill somewhere. Outlawing unsolicited mail would certainly reduce the amount of paper used in this country, and save a lot of gas used transporting it too.
Rick, New York City, USA
While going through the article i was moved to know that the Knasaimos are doing a great serice to protect the forest from being destroyed by loggers.My hometown is Chitral where deforestation is on the rise and the authories over here never care a fig about that and even remain oblivious of that fact that it a bad impact on the environment.In recent times the glaciers over here are receding fast and land erosion has followed subsequently
khalid Pervez, Chitral,NWFP Pakistan
absolutely- the people have to value what they have and act to keep it intact- I am extremely worried about the water situation as it becomes more and more of a commodity.
emma, Kamloops, Canada
Sadly, here in Oregon, forest are under assault from all sides. The Haliburton President struck a deal two elections ago with the timber beasts resulting in the so-called Western Oregon Plan Revision which would cut much of the remaining old-growth forests here. On the local side, county governments (e.g., Josephine) have long been on the dole with much of their funding arising from a cut of the logging receipts on federal lands. When, for complicated reasons, these funds were not forthcoming this year from a war-beleaguered Congress, many of these counties closed their public libraries (and other services). Unbelievably, voters in this county refused to tax themselves enough to reopen the libraries. So some element of modest enlightenment would seem a prerequisite to the success of "local control".
Paul Torrence, Williams, Oregon
If everyone thought like the Knasaimos, a very different world this would be.
It is you who should be teaching us how to manage our resources and remind us constantly that "It is our mission to treat the land as something entrusted to us for our grandchildren and so we must not destroy it."
Daniel Souto, Mexico City, Mexico.
Come to Central Africa and see how little control over forests local communities have. No action by local people, even speaking to international bodies such as the EU or NGOs, will have any effect. The politicians make millions for their own pockets from timber and many of the companies working here pay no heed to any local or international environmental regulations. As long as the foreign companies, particularly the newly arrived ones from Asia, keep providing the incentive for governments to allocate forest concessions then communities and wildlife will lose out. Money passes from foreign companies to politicians and that is what drives the process.
HR, Central Africa
Thanks for sharing your story. Unfortunately, Sagisolo's sad experience in a typical story in Indonesia. Thousand hectares of forest have gone because of illegal logging all these years. Moreover, unlawful logging by certified and "legal" pulp and paper factories also exist, making things even worse. We heard similar stories in Kalimantan and Riau, Sumatera. Its time the governments in Europe and esspecialy China-- refuse to accept logs and other wood-based products from Indonesia, if there is no guarantee the production is environmental-friendly. I believe international pressure to Indonesian government can force them to do something and help stop deforestation in this beautiful country.
Wahyu, Jakarta, Indonesia
The Netherlands should have never handed the land over to Indonesia. They don't care about the natives at all and wish only to exploit the Papuans' natural resources, just like the US has done to the Indians for hundreds of years. Community involvement is essential and it's right of western governments to help, but I fear that Indonesia will inevitably have the final say and some of the last vestiges of the world's largest primeval forests will go down.
Daniel, Washington DC, USA
The people in West Irian have looked after their rich and varied land for generations. They should not be subject to big companies coming in and destroying it and their traditional way of living. Please stop the devastation of land and lives. Sincerely, Marty Morrison
Martha E Morrison, Forster, Australia
Thank you for your courage. I have observed the greed of a few nearly destroy the environment of this world we live in. You should be very proud of what you have acomplished. Once the whole North American continent was a canopy of trees except for the great plains. Now I see the land as defiled and we are still not awake as to what we are doing. Our creator made a garden for us and we have forgotten that we are sopposed to be its gardeners. Thank you for knowing that.
Rose Flores, Clearwater,Florida, USA.
My commiserations to Mr Sagisolo. Although this particular story does have a happy ending for now, the Indonesian Government has consistently failed to show much responsibility in dealing with the issues of corruption and a rampant military unaccountable and impugn to Government control. With timber becoming scarcer and more valuable by the minute, Mr Sagisolo and his community are staring at the face of oblivion unless there is an evolution of culture in Indonesia which offers a clear and transparent process of social control. Given Indonesia's history and the lack of any real change within the psyche of those in power, the situation for those who are not in power is very fragile. However, we live in hope. I extend my heartfelt best wishes to the ordinary people of West Papua.
E Whiteaker, Howard Springs NT Australia
Communities definitely play a key role in protecting thier forest, and yes, western countries need to help protect the land of people who are powerless against large foriegn companies that could care less about the people and ecosystems of smaller countries. Where my parents live though, developers are working with local bureaucrats against the will of the community. A large, non-local developement firm wanted to take a huge tract, 75 acres, and put another strip mall on it, residents voted against it, but local township, consisting of 8 people, approved it. So, to sum things up, if first world communities cannot protect themselves against the almighty developer/bureaucrat who is looking only at their own wallets and not the larger impact on ecology/world. Then we all need to take action against capitalist/developers world wide before the only forest we have are our national parks.
Gary McKiddy, Cincinnati, Oh USA
I am both a tribal Elder of the Ojibwe Nation and a former industrial forester. I have a rather unique combination of perspectives and experiences. While words like "tradition" "tribal rights" and "heritage" will be used at the tribal meetings, the elders will be powerless against the word "money", "oil", "timber" or "casino". If they resist, there will be other leaders to choose from. Poor people the world over share a common vulnerability to wealth, prestige, and power. The only possible way to save any forest is to have no market for its products. Miigwech, kakoskanezhi, elder.
Dennis Harnden, Wisconsin USA
We see the same things happening in our publicly owned forests; distruction with little benefit to the local community. Community forests aren't just for developing countries, they should be encouraged all around the world. Communities are the only institutions that are able to think far enough into the future to properly manage a renewable resource.
Dale, Mooseland, Nova Scotia, Canada
I read your article twice and was as impressed the second time as the first. Thanks for telling your story. You have already added value to the forests you protect and helped clear the air in more ways than one.
Dale Lanan, Longmont, Colorado USA
Well, as a Forestry employee, I can say that even on a small level, any deforestation is destructive to the environment. The time it takes for any reforstation movement is a long process that can never be on the same timeline as the cutting. Locals have much more power that people realize. Logging can be very beneficial, on a realistic scope, however wanton cutting results in damage to the land people live off.
J, Tallahassee, Florida, USA
We see this pattern time and again. As long as there are trees, someone will want to cut them down for short-term profit. It has happened in Oregon, where virtually all the old-growth forests are gone now. Native people should not be dispossessed because of the chicanery and exploitation of a few get-rich-quick companies. We need to embark upon a two-pronged effort to preserve and replant the world's shrinking forests.
Peter, Hubbard, OR USA
Better world!!! Let's bring it on. Anything is possible, when you believe.
Oleksiy P, Edmonton
Well i feel like we dont need to comment on it because everyone is aware of the knowledge that life gave to local people, who have passed a lot of ups and downs with their surrounding forest for generation. We are aware of the capability of these people to manage these resources but what is missing is action. May be its time for real action especially from those who can bring change.
AJ, Tokyo, Japan