The Race To Save A Rainforest

Can an experiment in Indonesia prove the merits of sustainable logging to Big Timber?

The Indonesian Village of Long Pai lies a grueling three-hour drive on rutted dirt roads from the provincial capital of Tanjung Redeb. It is a river town in Borneo that is little changed from a century ago when it served as the backdrop for Joseph Conrad's Lord Jim. Agus Heryanto, a local representative of the Nature Conservancy, a Virginia-based environmental group, has made the bone-rattling trip to convince villagers that they should embrace a plan to log the lush forests nearby. By the dim light of a single bulb in a stilt hut, Agus tells village elders about a trust fund supported by logging revenues that will pay for roads, medical clinics, and electric generators. And, promises Agus, the logging will be done in an environmentally responsible way.

The villagers listen to the pitch, but remain suspicious. Three years earlier, they drove out the company that wants to do the logging -- Sumalindo Lestari Jaya -- after disputes over payments and improper cutting of valuable trees. Agus says that this time the trust will protect against wrongdoing. Finally, at a second meeting four days later, the Long Pai elders agree to the plan. By yearend they hope to have a formal contract.

There seems to be a disconnect here. Indonesia is known for the rampant destruction of its rainforest. Now one of the country's most powerful logging companies allies itself with a Western environmental group to make nice with impoverished villagers? What happened in that stilt hut is an exampe of globalization at work -- an intricate dance involving Western consumers, multinational companies, environmental activists, native forest dwellers, and local conglomerates. The aim is to combine the profit motive with the need to end the shocking degradation of the forest. A long shot perhaps, but some action is desperately needed, and it is starting in Borneo.


The Sumalindo deal was indirectly driven by the vigorous campaigning of environmental groups. They have put pressure on Western retailers such as Home Depot (HD ), Ikea, and Kinko's to stop buying wood, pulp, and paper from companies that do not follow sustainable practices. The retailers in turn are leery of infuriating shoppers appalled by the rape of the forests. "We can give logging companies an incentive to manage the forest," says Nigel Sizer, director of the Asia-Pacific Forests program at the Nature Conservancy. The effort is already showing results: Sumalindo, afraid of losing access to the all-important U.S. and European markets, is working with the Nature Conservancy to clean up the way it cuts timber.

The initiative still has a long way to go. Sumalindo is one of only a handful of enterprises taking even modest steps toward low-impact logging. Still, if the Indonesian effort is successful, it could serve as a template for saving forests in Southeast Asia, the Amazon basin, and Siberia.


Borneo's forests don't have much time. Many of the island's great stands of trees have been felled, and Indonesian loggers continue to decimate an area half the size of Switzerland each year. Environmentalists warn that Borneo's wild orangutans, sun bears, and clouded leopards could be wiped out in 10 to 20 years, as well as countless other species. Plus, thousands of loggers could end up jobless in a land so scarred that it may be nearly impossible to revive it for other commercial uses.

Environmentalists hope to drive many more efforts like Sumalindo's. In a project set to begin before yearend, the Nature Conservancy has teamed up with Home Depot Inc. and a British aid agency to track lumber from the stump to the store. Logs and boards will be tagged with bar codes that allow buyers to determine whether their wood was harvested in a sustainable manner. "People were asking what we were doing not to add to the deforestation of the world," says Ron Jarvis, head of lumber merchandising at Home Depot. "We didn't have the answer."

Where Home Depot and the Nature Conservancy are offering carrots, more radical environmentalists are wielding sticks. Rainforest Action Network and Greenpeace International want consumers to stop buying Indonesian timber products. They think the scale of illegal Indonesian logging is so vast and the legal concessions so destructive that reforms like those proposed by the Nature Conservancy are doomed. Michael Brune, executive director of San Francisco-based Rainforest Action, says his group has pushed for a boycott of Indonesian timber products for two years. "This is not a time to establish small toeholds of good production."

The protests are having an effect. Home Depot has cut its purchases of lumber from Indonesia by more than three-quarters since 2000. In early 2002, the American Forest & Paper Assn. trade group said its members would stop buying illegal wood products, singling out Indonesia as a special concern. And Ikea requires that all of its tropical hardwoods be cut in areas okayed by the Forest Stewardship Council, a German group that issues certificates to companies following sustainable practices. Ikea cut off Indonesian teak purchases in October, 2001, when battles between local villagers and a government-owned supplier in Java over ownership of the trees short-circuited the certification process. "We regret that it happened," says Ikea forestry coordinator Par Stenmark. "But it shows that the Forest Stewardship Council certification system is working."

A boycott is just the outcome Sumalindo wants to avoid -- because the corporate damage could go far beyond Sumalindo itself. The company is owned by one of Indonesia's largest wood empires, the Hasko Group.

Consequently, Sumalindo is making an effort to change. In a timber concession 200 kilometers south of Long Pai, it has worked with German and U.S. experts to minimize damage to the forest and is aiming for certification from the Forest Stewardship Council. That's a sacrifice, given that the three-week evaluation costs some $50,000. Other costs may ultimately prove much higher: Sumalindo had to agree not to cut some 212,000 acres -- nearly a third of one of its concessions.

Sumalindo is also paying for a variety of measures to lessen its environmental impact. These include a $500,000 aerial tram that lifts logs out of steep valleys rather than pulling them through the forest, which can cause erosion. Nature Conservancy experts also teach loggers how to fell a tree so that it ends up closer to a road, minimizing damage to the forest floor by reducing dragging. And they counsel against slashing through the forest's thick underbrush with a bulldozer.


The difference between Sumalindo's methods and those of other companies -- especially those that are government-owned -- is stark. Just beyond the borders of Sumalindo's land in one of Borneo's most important watersheds lies a concession owned by the government logging company, PT Inhutani. Much of the acreage has already been cut. Gulleys full of eroded tropical soil abut the road. Wildfires raged across huge swaths of the land five years ago, after intensive logging. The company declined to comment.

Even worse are the poachers. These illegal loggers cut with impunity, often working in plain sight along main roads. They can take down a 100-year-old tree in under 10 minutes. On the banks of the Segah River, which runs through the area, some 300 logs waiting for shipment lacked any identifying marks -- a telltale sign of illicit cutting. Most of this wood is smuggled across the border to Malaysia, where it can be imported with a small bribe, according to Indonesian officials and environmental groups. A senior Malaysian official, saying his country takes smuggling "very seriously," notes that Malaysia has banned imports of some wood from Indonesia. Much, though, still gets through, and eventually finds its way to mills in China. "Illegal logging is our responsibility," says Wahjudi Wardojo, the highest ranking civil servant at Indonesia's Forestry Ministry. "But without support from other countries, it's useless."

So illegal logging continues -- and even most of the legal logging in Indonesia is not done sustainably. If contracts such as the proposed pact between Sumalindo and Long Pai become the norm, villagers will have a bottom-line incentive to see that all logs that are cut are accounted for, and the tracking system should ensure that the timber can be traced. But if other companies -- and countries -- don't sign on, the effort is doomed. And it remains to be seen if Western consumers will pay a premium for wood harvested sustainably. "We are struggling," says Wahjudi. "Our time is very limited." If they don't succeed, another corner of the earth's forests will be gone forever.

By Mark L. Clifford in Long Pai, Indonesia, with Hiroko Tashiro in Tokyo and Anand Natarajan in Atlanta

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