Bukit Lawang: natural disaster or ecoterrorism?

Down to Earth No 59  November 2003

A flood in North Sumatra has killed at least 130 people. Indonesia's environment minister points to illegal logging, which, he says can be categorised as terrorism. "The consequences are just as dangerous as a bomb".

Over 130 people are known to have died after a flash flood swept through a North Sumatra village.The final death toll may well rise to over 200 as rescuers search for bodies in the mud and debris which covered a wide area. Six of the victims were foreigners. Around 2,000 people have lost their homes and are depending on support from the emergency services and humanitarian agencies.

Floods, soil erosion and landslips during the rainy season in this mountainous part of Sumatra are becoming increasing common events. The Indonesian environmental forum, WALHI, reports 790 incidents of floods, landslips and erosion incidents in the province of North Sumatra between 2000-2002. Longgena Ginting, WALHI's director, told reporters that "At least 85% of the floods and landslides in Indonesia are caused by illegal logging". However, there has never been a tragedy on this scale.

The village of Bukit Lawang, 96 km northwest of Medan, had become a resort popular with domestic and international tourists. Its scenic forest location on the banks of the River Bohorok offered opportunities for trekking and white water rafting, close to Gunung Leuser National Park and the Bohorok orang-utan rehabilitation centre.

On the night of November 2nd, the River Bohorok, swollen by heavy rains, burst a small dam. Torrents of water carrying thousands of logs and uprooted trees smashed through villagers' homes and guesthouses while people slept. Hundreds of simple houses made of bamboo with corrugated iron roofs and even more substantial concrete buildings, bridges and roads were swept away. Initial reports said that only 10% of the houses were left standing. Survivors are living in temporary shelters.

USAID was quick to promise US$50,000 in emergency assistance via the Indonesian Red Cross. The central government followed with a commitment of Rp200 million (approx US$20,000). Later reports said that Co-ordinating Minister for Social Welfare, Yusuf Kalla, had committed Rp1.5 bn (US$150,000) to the North Sumatra authorities after visiting the area. Taufik Kiemas (President Megawati's business tycoon husband) personally pledged Rp97 million (US$ 9,700) to the disaster fund.

However, government support for the many hundreds of victims has been slow to arrive, giving rise to accusations that money has been siphoned off as it passes through the layers of Indonesian bureaucracy. Relatives of the deceased will only receive Rp2 million in cash per family (US$200). Some of the disaster funding may be spent on resettling the remaining population of Bukit Lawang. The local administration (Langkat district) is talking about relocating some 400 families from their former homes along the river to land held by a state-owned plantation company. It is not known whether the traumatised survivors want to move.


3.8 million ha/year

Forests are being destroyed faster in Indonesia than anywhere else in the world. The NGO Forest Watch Indonesia reports that deforestation rates are now 3.8 million hectares per year. Even Indonesian government officials publicly admit that the annual forest loss is over 2.5 million ha. Forestry minister Prakosa announced recently a national large-scale reforestation and environmental rehabilitation programme covering 300,000ha in 15 water catchments. (See the next issue of DTE's newsletter for articles on the new reforestation programme and Social Forestry initiative.)


Pointing the finger of blame

A local official said the tragedy was man-made and blamed extensive illegal logging on the mountainsides above the village. Langkat district head, Syamsul Arifin, described the situation as "a disaster waiting to happen" since army-backed illegal logging operations had been going on unchecked for the last ten years in the area.

Mike Griffiths of the Leuser Management Unit has investigated the forest immediately around the area and concluded that the disaster was an indirect result of serious deforestation in Langkat district. The head of the EU-funded conservation and development programme warned that further disasters are likely if more of the forest within the National Park is felled. Around 25% of forests within the 2.5 million ha area in Aceh and North Sumatra called the Leuser Ecosystem (the Park plus its buffer zone) have been degraded or destroyed (see DTE 55). This has happened even though Leuser was one of two Protected Areas specifically mentioned in a presidential edict issued over two years ago with the specific aim of wiping out illegal logging (Inpres No.5/2001). The Leuser Development Programme has found it almost impossible to bring successful prosecutions against the backers of local illegal logging operations. Even where the police do collect sufficient evidence, the courts will not convict.


Ladia Galaska

The Bukit Lawang disaster will add weight to calls to stop a potentially disastrous new road system between North Sumatra and Aceh. The Ladia Galaska project cuts through Gunung Leuser National Park and its forested buffer zone (see DTE 55). Critics argue that the roads will promote illegal logging by improving access to remote forests which contain commercially valuable trees. The Indonesian environmental NGO WALHI is taking legal action against the government over the scheme. WALHI's lawyers submitted the papers to the Banda Aceh court in mid-October - nearly month before the Bukit Lawang disaster.


Lessons learned

Will this disaster lead to significant changes to address environmental destruction in Indonesia? Environment minister Nabiel Makarim angrily denounced illegal loggers as "terrorists" shortly after the news about Bukit Lawang broke. He also blamed corrupt officials and business people, including local police and military figures, for their part in illegal logging operations.

But survivors of the disaster are calling for more than official condemnations. They want government action against illegal loggers and - more significantly - their financial backers and the politicians and security forces who protect them.

There are few signs that the local or central government is going to do this. Instead, once the standard 'disaster responses' have been initiated, it looks as if it will be business as usual until the next catastrophe. Some ministers have visited the disaster site to show sympathy to the survivors. The President has sent messages of condolence. A government team will investigate the causes of the tragedy. There is much condemnation, some financial aid and no prosecution of those who profit most from destructive logging operations.

Yet again it is the poor and marginalised who bear the heaviest costs: the disaster survivors who have lost their homes and family members; riverside villagers who will be relocated; the people displaced by the conflict in Aceh who are blamed for operating the chainsaws.

DTE readers wishing to contribute to immediate relief efforts or longer term assistance to the Bukit Lawang community can send donations to the Indonesian NGO Yayasan Ekosistem Lestari and the Swiss-based group PanEco. See www.sumatranorangutan.com or www.paneco.org for more details. WALHI is also asking for funds to support the NGO North Sumatra Crisis Centre which is supporting survivors (www.walhi.or.id)

(Sources: Antara 28/Oct/03; AFP 3/Nov/03, 4/Nov/03, 6/Nov/03; Jakarta Post 3/Nov/03, 6/Nov/03; 7/Nov/03; 10/Nov/03; Guardian 4/Nov/03; WALHI press releases 19/Oct/03, 7/Nov/03)