Deforestation blamed for Nias tragedy

Down to Earth No 51 November 2001

Tens of people were killed and many more were still missing after floods and landslides hit the island of Nias, off North Sumatra's western coast, in late July and August. Years of forest destruction combined with recent high rainfall have been blamed for the tragedy.

The devastating floods and landslides, starting July 30th, swept away hundreds of houses, and destroyed five schools, three churches and two bridges. After five days, the death toll had reached 72 with a further 187 people still unaccounted for. The flooding and landslides also made the island's few roads impassable and cut phone lines, hampering emergency relief efforts.

Local people on Nias blamed the tragedy on illegal clearing of forests in the upper Masio River watershed in order to plant nilam, the shrub which produces patchouli oil. In the late 1990s there was a boom in patchouli oil prices, prompting large-scale forest clearance on the island. Entrepreneurs from the North Sumatran provincial capital, Medan, are suspected of paying local people to carry out the felling.

The Nias district authorities have been accused of doing nothing to stop the destruction.

According to the head of the North Sumatra forestry service, Prie Supriadi, around 95,000 hectares of protection and production forests have been destroyed in the river's catchment area. He said Nias had been classified in 1999 as one of the most critical areas of the country, but no reforestation programme had been funded by central government and the provincial government had only managed to finance the reforestation of 50 hectares over the past 2 years. The total critical area covered 160,016 hectares, he said. Prie promised to take legal action against those responsible.

Officially, there are no large-scale logging concessions (HPH) on Nias, itself, only on the surrounding islands of Pini, Tanabela and Tanamasa.

(Jakarta Post 6/Aug/01; Kompas 4 & 5/Aug/01)


Simeuleu's forests stripped

Illegal logging has stripped Nias' neighbouring island, Simeuleu, in Aceh, of almost all its forest, according to Indonesian environmental NGO WALHI, which fears a repeat of the Nias disaster. Of 210,000 hectares, 115,000 have been given over to timber concessions and other large scale enterprises, leaving only 85,000 ha for the local people to farm. Some companies, whose licences have not yet been approved, are going ahead with logging, ostensibly to convert the forests to oil palm plantations. Local communities have urged the government to reduce the area given over to the companies to 25,000 hectares, and to ensure that the concessionaires direct their activities to supporting the local economy - all to no avail. 
(Suara Pembaruan 9/Aug/01)