Timber demand soars, fatal floods hit

Down to Earth No 66  August 2005

Flash floods hit southeastern Aceh in late April, killing at least nineteen people and injuring dozens more. The disaster can be linked to the huge demand for reconstruction timber in post-tsunami Aceh.

The floods brought rocks, logs and water crashing down hillsides, completely destroying people's homes late on April 26th, when most villagers were asleep. The villages of Lawe Gerger, Lawe Mengkudu, and Lawe Lak-Lak in Southeast Aceh district, were worst hit. Reports put the death toll at nineteen or twenty, with five more people still missing. One media report said that around 490 houses were destroyed in one village alone, but official figures put the damage at just over 70. Several roads were damaged and made impassable.

The floods were triggered when heavy rainfall caused the River Alas to overflow. According to WALHI Aceh (Friends of the Earth), there has been a lot of deforestation in the river's catchment area. Local people had been worried about the threat of flooding for a long time, but the local government never made any proper response. Indeed it appears to have been against their interest to do anything about the deforestation. According to WALHI, there are indications that 12 sawmills are operating in Southeast Aceh district - some of them owned by the local assembly (DPRD) and regional officials. There are ten companies holding licences to fell timber (IPHHK) each covering on average 100 hectares. Some of these, too, are owned by regional assembly and secretariat officials. In addition, WALHI believes there are 17 illegal logging outfits operating in the area. Observations over the last month counted ten trucks carrying timber out, each transporting 30-80 cubic metres of wood.

A province-wide logging ban was imposed in Aceh in 2001, but illegal logging continued regardless. The ban was lifted again in late 2004 by then Governor Abdullah Puteh, now in jail for corruption. During that year, 47 companies were issued IPHHK licences, according to the Jakarta Post, and over 116,000 m3 of timber was cut, far exceeding the 47,500m3 legal limit during past years. Twenty-two of the 47 licences have expired, but the companies continue to log.

WALHI Aceh data shows that from 2002-2004 there were 779 incidents of river flooding in Aceh, caused by increasing deforestation. The group has recorded five reports of major landslides and flash floods in Aceh since the tsunami, plus a total of 143 since 2000.

"We call on the government to halt and take action against illegal logging in the area", said a WALHI press release. "We also question what has happened to the legal proceedings in several cases of illegal logging in the Leuser Ecosystem. If action is not immediately taken, the condition of the forests will deteriorate even further because of the very high demand for wood for reconstruction needs in Aceh," said Sofyan, WALHI's Aceh Desk Coordinator (WALHI press release 29/Apr/05).

One case of illegal logging involves leading members of Southeast Aceh's district assembly and the fact that this case has not been brought to a conclusion, is believed to have encouraged other illegal loggers.

Acting Aceh governor Azwar Abubakar, was quoted by Tempo Interaktif as saying there was no illegal logging in the area, because it was a protected forest.

WALHI also demanded that the government fulfil its responsibilities to the victims of the disaster, by providing compensation and restoring the environment in Southeast Aceh. The group said that dozens of villagers who had escaped the floods were in need of food, medicine and shelter.

A July report in the Jakarta Post shows how insult was added to injury for some villagers. Local government staff visited days after the floods to select logs in good condition from those littering the river banks. Villagers were warned not to take the logs themselves, and 11 villagers from Lawe Gerger did later end up in jail. "Their relatives testified that they are not illegal loggers, just farmers who wanted to get some logs." (JP 12/Jul/05)


Leuser Ecosystem
Southeast Aceh forms part of the supposedly protected Leuser Ecosystem, a vast area straddling Aceh and North Sumatra provinces which contains one of the world's most biodiverse rainforests. Here, the commercially valuable trees have long been targeted by loggers, who are known to operate in collusion with corrupt officials and members of the military and police, despite an official government campaign to clamp down on illegal logging. According to data in the Jakarta Post, more than 90% of the Southeast Aceh district is classified as protection forest, with only 289 hectares of forest allocated for production.

"It's obvious," Yashud Hutapea, WALHI's coordinator in Southeast Aceh told the Jakarta Post, "that rampant logging inside the Leuser Ecosystem is the culprit of the flash floods".

As early as 2002, as much as 26% of the Gunung Leuser National Park, an 800,000 hectare area within the wider Leuser Ecosystem, had been destroyed by loggers. This is a process that has been accelerated more recently by the government-sanctioned Ladia Galaska road-building scheme. The official purpose of this road network is to connect the east and west coasts of Aceh, but it also opens up remote areas of rainforest to logging. The scheme has been approved despite opposition from sections of the government and an international campaign against it. Ladia Galaska is strongly supported by the military. It has become a government priority in the wake of the quake-tsunami disaster. Bidding for construction firms to continue work on the road network was held in Banda Aceh recently. (See DTE 64 also DTE 62 and Aceh: Logging a Conflict Zone at www.acheh-eye.org for more background on logging in Aceh and the Ladia Galaska scheme).


WALHI: Rehabilitation and Reconstruction Agency ignores environment

Environmental NGO WALHI has criticised the government's Aceh-Nias Rehabilitation and Reconstruction Agency (BRR Aceh-Nias) for overlooking public aspirations and failing to include the environment ministry in its structure. The group said that the agency, set up on April 29th 2005, failed to show an environmental management perspective.

WALHI is also concerned over the use of Presidential Regulation No 36/2005 on compulsory land acquisition in the Aceh context (see also land article).

(Source: WALHI tsunami disaster Update 12, www.walhi.or.id)


Logged in the name of recovery
According to WALHI Aceh, logs from Southeast Aceh are mostly destined for the lucrative export market and not for reconstruction in Aceh. Hardwood species such as semaram, merbau, kruing and meranti are targeted because they fetch US$1,800 per m3 on the international market.

Nevertheless, the link to the tsunami recovery effort is clear. The huge need for reconstruction timber supplies is being used to justify logging in the Leuser Ecosystem, even if most of the wood does not go to Banda Aceh and other tsunami-affected areas. Villagers from Southeast Aceh reported that trucks carrying logs or sawn timber out of the district during the early months following the tsunami displayed signs such as ‘For the Rehabilitation of Aceh’. Trucks now make three of four trips to carry processed wood out of Aceh Tenggara per week, up from two trips a week before the tsunami.

Apparently, the official response is to let them get on with it. Aceh police chief Gen Bachrumsyah Kasman admitted to the Jakarta Post that the police had suspended their campaign against illegal logging to give way to the emergency and relief operation in Aceh. He said Vice-President Jusuf Kalla had asked him to go easy on the apprehension of undocumented wood transportation because Aceh needed whatever wood it could get. Kuntoro Mangkusubroto, head of the Bureau of Rehabilitation and Reconstruction for Aceh and Nias Island, also indicated a more relaxed approach: "I don't support illegal logging. Illegal is illegal, period…But if they give it for free [illegal logs], I will gladly accept," he said.

Rather than free timber, what is happening instead is a massive hike in the price of reconstruction timber, leaving villagers who are desperate to rebuild their homes unable to afford it. One wood store owner in Banda Aceh said retailers were being forced to sell at very high prices in order to cover fees paid to corrupt police officials. His truck driver, who buys wood from sawmills in Langsa district, East Aceh, must go through nearly 70 checkpoints each trip, paying fees amounting to almost Rp15million (USD 1,500) per trip. "If you do not pay the money you will be kicked or hit in the head", he told the Jakarta Post. The shopkeeper also said he had to pay extra fees to the police, who came to the shop everyday.

Following the tsunami, the forestry minister Malam Sambat Kaban estimated the demand for timber at 8.5 million cubic metres for the construction of around 123,000 new homes. He also said the ministry was considering giving special permits to companies in Aceh to allow them to meet this demand. However, environment minister Rachmat Witoelar was reported to have called for log donations from other countries instead (see DTE 64).

Since then, Indonesian research institution Greenomics Indonesia and international conservation organisation WWF have launched a 'Timber for Aceh' appeal, seeking donations of non-tropical timber. The Jakarta Post reported in July that 50 container-loads were expected to arrive from the US that month, enough to build 1,200 houses. The appeal was supported by Governor Azwar Abubakar who wants to make Aceh a 'Green Province'.

Other groups are taking a more bottom-up approach. The Muslim Aid Foundation, for example, is supporting a building programme for coastal communities from old coconut tree trunks and woven bamboo, plus palm or sago leaves as roofing. The affected families themselves came up with the ideas and whole families are involved in the actual building work.

(Press Release, WALHI National Executive and WALHI Aceh 29/Apr/05; Tempo Interaktif 28&29/Apr/05; AFP 27/Apr/05; Jakarta Post 12/Jul/05)


European Community aid questioned

An international NGO has raised concerns over European Community (EC) aid for post-tsunami reconstruction in Aceh. According to a new briefing by FERN, key elements are missing from the EC's reconstruction programme document. 

    These include:
  • details of specific measures to minimise the environmental impact of reconstruction on forests in Aceh and beyond;
  • explicit distinctions between road reconstruction to reconnect villages, provide health assistance, water and food supplies, and the Ladia Galaska road network project, which is linked with deforestation and fatal floods;
  • the need to integrate indigenous peoples' rights in the reconstruction process.
On this last point, the NGO says the EC's post-tsunami co-operation plans with Indonesia "totally neglect indigenous peoples' rights, thus exacerbating their existing marginalisation."

The briefing points out that the EC is Indonesia's largest post-tsunami donor and must play a strong role in ensuring that reconstruction is carried out in a way that does not exacerbate current social and environmental vulnerability. The EC contribution to Indonesia's multi-donor reconstruction trust fund is 208 million Euros, more than 50% of the 400 million Euro fund.

(Source: EC Forest Platform Briefing Note June/05, FERN, www.fern.org/pages/aid/platform.htm)


Hopes for an end to the conflict
The Acehnese human rights activist, Aguswandi, told the European Parliamentarians in March how Aceh had suffered from a dual disaster: the tsunami and the conflict. However, almost all of the international attention focussed on just one of these - the tsunami - rather than pushing for a resolution to the conflict. Aguswandi argued that the conflict situation, which denied freedom of expression, had prevented the meaningful participation of Acehnese tsunami survivors in reconstruction planning. This, in turn, was undermining the chances of success for a sustainable reconstruction programme. "The present approach will only lead to further resentment and problems in the long run," he said. Aguswandi called on the EU to ensure access to Aceh for international organisations involved in human rights and peace-building work; monitoring of donations to ensure assistance is delivered to those most in need; and to ensure that Indonesia fulfils commitments to public participation in the reconstruction and recovery process.


Peace agreement
The prospects for an end to the conflict look brighter after July's announcement of a peace deal between Indonesia and GAM, the Free Aceh Movement. The signing of a formal peace agreement is expected on August 15th. GAM has dropped its demand for full independence and Indonesia has lifted objections to GAM becoming a political party. The deal is also reported to include withdrawal of 27,000 Indonesian troops - more than half the current number; an amnesty for GAM forces to lay down their weapons; plus an international presence, including EU observers and ASEAN monitors, to oversee the end of the conflict.

(Aceh: challenges of building a better future after tsunami, 16/Mar/05, Testimony of Aguswandi, Tapol and ACSI, to the Committee on Development and Human Rights, European Parliament;Guardian 18/Jul/05)