Uphill battle to save the orangutan
The Straits Times: Bruce Gale: 26 June 2009
President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono told the World Climate Change Conference in Bali in December 2007: "The key understanding is to save the orang utan. For that, we must save the forest and by that, we are doing our part to reduce greenhouse gas emissions."
It was an important speech, ending years of official hypocrisy on the subject. Decades of rampant deforestation - the result of rising demand for timber, pulp and palm oil plantations - had seriously damaged Indonesia's international reputation.
And while policymakers dithered and corrupt officials enriched themselves by turning a blind eye to regulatory infractions, important wildlife populations were being pushed to the edge of extinction.
The first step towards recovery, they say, is admitting you have a problem. But what you do after that first step matters even more.
To his credit, President Yudhoyono backed up his words with action, announcing a major conservation plan. Since then, illegal logging has been reduced, and work has begun on protecting endangered species.
Last month, Indonesia became the first country in the world to release regulations governing a UN-backed scheme that could potentially raise billions of dollars in carbon credits in exchange for conserving and rehabilitating forests.
A closer look, however, shows that the government's record remains patchy.
According to Darmawan of Flora and Fauna Indonesia, official efforts vary by province - and even district.
In North Sumatra, for example, police and government officials have worked closely with non-governmental organisations to stamp out the illegal trade in orang utan parts. But officials have been markedly less cooperative in Kalimantan.
As for carbon trading, early drafts of revenue-sharing rules suggest that up to 30 per cent of the money might go the government, a point widely criticised by potential investors as threatening the economic viability of the forest protection scheme by making it more profitable to turn virgin forest into palm oil plantations.
Not all of the progress in recent years can be attributed to government efforts either.
Environment Minister Rachmat Witoelar maintains that the deforestation rate has dropped from about 2.8 million ha per year in 2000 to its current level of about 1.08 million ha.
Conservationists The Straits Times spoke to did not deny that progress had been made, but they suggested that it was not just the result of stepped-up measures against illegal loggers.
"Most of the more accessible forests have already been cleared," noted Darmawan.
The decline in illegal logging in places such as the Betung Kerihun National Park in West Kalimantan can also be at least partly attributed to the growing determination of the United States and European countries to avoid buying illegally harvested timber.
Unfortunately, other aspects of the conservation programme, such as identifying areas suitable for designation as protected wildlife habitats, have been less successful. Indeed, forest-clearing for palm oil plantations - most of it perfectly legal - continues to be blamed for the killing of apes, tigers and other protected animals, particularly those living outside official conservation areas.
Hope for the future lies in the fact that the more open political system that followed the collapse of the New Order regime in 1998 has made it a lot easier for civil society groups to publicise their views.
According to Togu Simorangkir, director of the Indonesian Orangutan Foundation (Yayorin), Indonesians are much more aware of environmental issues now than they were 10 years ago: "People talk about it much more, and every day you can find environmental issues reported in the newspapers."
Even so, it is still an uphill battle. A few politicians from Megawati Sukarnoputri's Indonesian Democratic Party - Struggle and the Muslim-based Prosperous Justice Party have occasionally sought to champion environmental causes.
As organisations, however, Indonesian political parties remain largely uninterested. Few parties took the trouble to highlight such issues when campaigning for the April parliamentary elections, for example. Even President Yudhoyono's 2007 initiative had more to do with agitation from local and international environmentalists.
Last month, Greenpeace sought to ratchet up the pressure, submitting a petition signed by 60,000 ôforest defendersö urging the President to declare a moratorium on logging.
Activists cited the situation in East Kalimantan, where the local administration built a 60km road through the Kutai National Park in 2002. Seven villages were later constructed, complete with an airport, gas stations, market place, bus terminals and even a prostitution complex. Official records show that the population of orang utans in the park has declined from 600 in 2004 to around 60.
Asked about the impact of President Yudhoyono's 2007 announcement, most conservationists The Straits Times spoke to still thought it was a positive development.
"It is much better now that we have an action plan," noted Simorangkir.
One target, for example, commits the government to ensuring that there will be no need for non-governmental organisations to run rehabilitation centres for displaced orang utans in Kalimantan by 2015.
But such optimism is tempered with the knowledge that the going will remain tough for some time.
"Progress is slow," admitted Simorangkir.