At a mine-site near Sangatta in East
Kalimantan, a titanic crater yawns out of the ground, its nadir filled with
Looking across the hinterland from its
southern ridge, a dust-scape stretches off towards the horizon, braided by dirt
tracks and the giant dump trucks that traverse them. The distant drone of their
two-storey engines fills the air. Ten minutes down the road lies another pit,
It is easy to forget you are in Indonesian
Since 1950 more than half of its ancient
jungle has been felled. What remains is a patchwork of second growth and
degraded forest-land, palm plantations and open-cast coal mines. WWF predicts
less than 30% will stand by 2020, with practically all of its most bio-diverse
dipterocarp forests destroyed.
Due to its land use, Indonesia is the
world's third largest emitter of greenhouse gases with 85 percent of its
emissions resulting from deforestation and peat-land oxidation, a process that
The rapid expansion of coal mining to meet
growing domestic and global energy needs is felt no more acutely than in East
Kalimantan, where coal mining is a leading driver of deforestation. A projected
4 million hectares of additional forestland are to be given over to mining by
"Twenty years ago the water was very
clean," says local journalist Masriansyah, gesturing to the River Lawa that runs
in front of his home in Bentian Besar. "Without the forest, topsoil drains into
the river. Now it's always brown and worse in the rainy
Herbicides used in palm oil cultivation
and the large quantities of heavy metals released through mining are suspected
to be the cause of the skin complaints that many villagers who bathe in the
river have experienced.
Bentian Besar is a remote community, but
its story is one typical of a region whose sparse infrastructure is geared
entirely around the extraction of timber and coal. Literally every major inland
road in East Kalimantan was constructed as a logging
Over the past decade the primary economic
driver in this area has been Trubaindo, a 23650 hectare mine-site operated by
Thai energy corporation BANPU. Here a heavy-plant operator can earn up to US$500
per month -- a good wage in Indonesia.
Many welcome the wealth that the mine
generates. Workers predominantly from Java and Sulawesi come to staff the
However competition is fierce and
employment selection nepotistic: many lose out. Moreover the establishment of
Trubaindo has forced many residents from their land with inadequate
compensation. Masriansyah has been passed documents from a source within
Trubaindo that value the land at IDR40,000,000 (£2795) per hectare. Thus far
only IDR10,000,000 (£698) per hectare has been paid and some have received
nothing at all.
Anger and frustration spilled over into
demonstrations in December 2009. Nonetheless the land has been designated for
mining and ultimately the people have no choice but to
Residents suspect Trubaindo to have paid
off West Kutai Regency (the regional government) and the police force to secure
their interests -- a practice of logging and energy contractors commonplace
Demonstrations in East Kalimantan are
often dispersed violently by police and fatalities are not
For his coverage of these developments in
anti-corruption newspaper BUSER, Masriansyah has had his files and journalistic
equipment stolen from his car and in January 2010 survived an attempt on his
"I was driving home on my scooter from a
land-release hearing in police meeting hall with fellow BUSER journalist
Arbainah riding pillion. We heard a car coming up behind us fast.
Drivers beep their horns at bikes to let them know they're here,
especially at night. There was no warning and in my mirror I saw them
heading straight for us. At the last minute I swerved for the bank but they hit
and we were thrown from the road. They didn't
His attackers drove a white Mitsubishi
Strada, an off-road vehicle far beyond the means of most Indonesians and which
in Bentian Besar is used almost exclusively by mine staff. Fortunately he and
Arbainah received only cuts and bruises.
Mariansyah is undeterred but recent SMS
threats against his family concern him deeply. "I don't even know if it's the
police who took my equipment or if the text messages are from
Both West Kutai Regency and BANPU declined
The situation here echoes throughout the
country. Forestry sector operations are characterized by endemic corruption,
incompetence, poor productivity, and a widespread disregard for permit
regulations. In January the Ministry of Forestry admitted that only 67 of 352
plantation companies and nine of 615 mine units were operating with an official
permit in Central Kalimantan alone.
Coal is a major driver of deforestation in
East Kalimantan but nationally the land-demands for pulp, paper and palm oil
plantations are far greater.
President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono has
pledged to change the status of Indonesia's forest from that of net emitter to
net sink sector by 2030. But this is expected to occur concomitantly with a
projected tripling of national pulp and paper production by 2025.
Further expansion is projected in agriculture, palm oil and bio-fuels. The area
earmarked for this development includes 40 percent of Indonesia's forest --37
million hectares -- an area the size of Norway and Denmark
Doubt remains as to how wholesale
expansion of the very industries that drive deforestation is likely to safeguard
Indonesia's remaining rainforest.
Pulp and paper plantations - in which
trees are cropped on a 7 year rotation are perceived to be key in facilitating
the dual goals of industrial growth and emissions-reduction. But the notion that
plantation establishment has a critical role to play is based on the false
assumption that plantations permanently sequester significant volumes of carbon
and that they will be established on degraded or low-carbon land. Harvested wood
is used in products with a short life-span - cardboards, toilet rolls and
newspaper. Therefore any carbon absorbed within the timber should be counted as
emitted in the year the timber is harvested.
Plantation expansion will inevitably lead
to substantial loss of natural forest and peat-land carbon. This is the
Orwellian double-speak of Indonesian emissions abatement strategy: the proposed
solution may in fact be the disaster itself.
The fight for Indonesia's rainforest
enters a fresh phase in 2011 with the start of REDD + (reducing Emissions from
Deforestation and Forest Degradation) a UN sponsored initiative under which the
industrialized nations will effectively pay Indonesia not to chop down trees.
Norway has made an initial pledge of US$1 billion, the conditions of which
include a two year moratorium on fresh logging-concessions. Practices that
qualify for payment include forest conservation, sustainable management and
However, many fear a return to past
mismanagement. The Ministry of Forestry itself "lost" a staggering US$5.25
billion from REDD+s predecessor scheme, the "Indonesian Reforestation Fund"
between 1994 and 1998. Funds not embezzled actually incentivized forest
clearance and degradation to acquire plantation subsidies. Further, 40 percent
of subsidized plantations were never planted.
In September 2010 senior Ministry official
Wandojo Siswanto, a key architect of the Norway-deal, was named as a suspect by
the national anti-corruption agency.
Set to commence on January 1st the two
year moratorium has been pushed back over disagreements of scope. The Ministry
of Forestry proposes the inclusion of only primary forest and a continuation of
business-as-usual practices on existing logging-concessions. The REDD+ Task
Force proposes the additional inclusion of secondary forests and the
transference of existing concessions to degraded
Perhaps more intractable than the
difficulties posed by corruption to the environmental cause, are those of
poverty and a lack of public education on climate change: most people do not
know what it is. What political capital for carbon abatement can there be in a
democracy whose constituents have little or no understanding of what carbon
does? Grievances over land exploitation focus predominantly on compensation and
pay and conditions, not on environmental impact. Precious few mourn the loss of
habitat or biodiversity. There is the more immediate concern of day-to-day
survival: it is estimated half the population live on less than US$1 per
Nonetheless Indonesia is particularly
vulnerable to the effects of climate change. The El Niño years of 1997-1998
brought forest fires that left a smoke cloud over most of South-east Asia. As
weather patterns change drought risks will rise and food security drops. In 2010
incidences of flooding plagued Kalimantan even in the dry season. The forests
that once acted as a barrier to flood-waters are now
Saving Indonesia's remaining rainforest
faces many obstacles, but back in Bentian Besar, Masriansyah remains wary of the
consequences of inaction. "I don't want my brothers to die," he says.
"Logging and mining are killing our land. If I don't do something it's like I've
Hopefully his defiance will not be in
Jack Hewson is a freelance journalist who has been based in East Asia
for the past four years. He recently returned to the UK to obtain a
Master's Degree in investigative journalism at City University.