SEPTEMBER 1991 - VOLUME 12 - NUMBER 9
E C O N O M I C S
Progress in Paradise?
By Samantha Sparks
Siberut, Indonesia--The Indonesian island of Siberut appears in the distance as a small, dark green mass in the midst of the Indian Ocean. As one approaches, the green breaks into a kaleidoscope of textures and shades, an awesome variety of tree limbs and leaves. Siberut is a rainforest, one of thousands in the vast, archipelago nation of Indonesia.
Like tropical forests all over the world, Siberut holds a rich store of unusual plant and animal life, some still known only to the islanders whose ancestors settled here approximately 3,000 years ago. In fact, for its size--just 4,500 square kilometers-- Siberut contains an extraordinary number of species found nowhere else in the world. Scientists say that 65 percent of the animals and about 15 percent of the plants on Siberut are endemic.
Siberut and its inhabitants appear doomed, however. Commercial logging is not the only reason, though it is the most visible and destructive one. Government-backed "development" projects also threaten the island's ancient and delicate world. At the same time, the rapid erosion of traditional culture has led Siberut's people themselves to play a significant role in the rainforest's demise.
Siberut is small, but many of the struggles being played out here are being repeated in rainforests throughout the country, and perhaps the world. What is happening here suggests that the challenge of rainforest conservation is more complex than usually acknowledged in the industrial world. Certainly, Siberut offers proof that logging cannot be conducted sustainably in rainforests, even when the timber is supposed to be "selectively" felled.
But the social and economic changes taking place on this island also raise questions about many environmentalists' approach to rainforest conservation. Those who call for a halt to logging of tropical forests have largely failed to suggest workable alternatives that take into account tropical countries' national development needs. Moreover, in their efforts to save the world's rainforests, environmentalists may be as guilty of ignoring local peoples' rights and aspirations as commercial loggers and government officials.
On Siberut, for example, some environmentalists advocate bans on hunting in most of the forest and on the clearing of trees to make gardens. The Siberut people, not surprisingly, are opposed. When asked about this conflict, Marcel Silvius, Indonesian coordinator for the environmental group Asia Wetlands Bureau, admits, "Our concern [as environmentalists] is not with the present generation."
The difference of a decade
Only ten years ago, Siberut looked set to become a rare conservation success story. The largest of the four islands that make up the Mentawai archipelago, it had attracted attention from anthropologists and environmentalists since the 1960s. The plants and animals on Siberut evolved in unique ways because the island was essentially isolated from the outside world for a period of about 500,000 years in the mid-Pleistocene era. Siberut's people, known as Mentawai, are one of the oldest representatives of Stone Age culture in Asia. The island is so special that, in 1981, it was named a national biosphere reserve, as part of an international conservation program supervised by the United Nations. The move raised hopes that Siberut's ecological treasures would be preserved.
In 1980, after two years of intensive research, the World Wildlife Fund (WWF, now the World Wide Fund for Nature) released a report calling for the protection of the island's rainforest. Endorsed by Indonesian Environment Minister Emil Salim, the report, "Saving Siberut," contained an astonishingly detailed list of prescriptions, ranging from the amount of land that should be set aside as a nature reserve to the clothes and tennis shoes with which local guards should be supplied. The WWF plan, wrote Salim, showed "exactly how nature conservation can take its appropriate place in integrated land-use planning."
Today, the hopes of a decade ago are largely gone. On paper, at least, Siberut remains a national biosphere reserve. It has also been the subject of two more lengthy WWF reports. Yet, asked what happened to that first bold plan, WWF scientist Kathy MacKinnon answers, "Nobody put any money or manpower or commitment behind it." The report did result in the creation of a nature reserve, covering about one-quarter of the island. But environmentalists contend this is not big enough, and claim that loggers and local people alike have taken to pillaging the supposedly protected land. On Siberut, a tourist guide named Yuli predicts, "In 50 years, there will be no more forest here." (To protect their privacy, only the first names of Siberut's residents are used in this article.)
Underlying the pessimism is one simple fact: the fundamental incentive for destruction of Siberut's forest--the opportunity, however short-lived, to make money--has proved far more compelling than any argument for preservation.
Forces of destruction
Commercial logging is the most destructive force on the island. Four timber companies, all controlled by Indonesians, work on Siberut. Together, they own the rights to log three-quarters of the forest--all land outside the nature reserve. The companies, say many islanders, ignore the laws for selective harvesting and for replanting of trees. On an island as remote as Siberut, policies drawn up by officials in Jakarta carry little weight "Logging is not sustainable," says Yuli, who worked for three years as a surveyor for one of the firms. "There is no balance between cutting and replanting."
Although companies are only supposed to cut trees with a diameter of 50 centimeters or more, "the big trees crush the little ones as they fall," Yuli explains. The tractors and trucks used to haul the logs wreak further damage as they travel to and from the coast.
The situation supports what growing numbers of scientists contend: that "sustainable logging" is a contradiction in terms. No matter how reasonable it looks on paper, in reality, even "selective" commercial logging in virgin forests causes widespread destruction and disruption to the trees, plants and animals within.
With timber products bringing in some 10 percent of Indonesia's foreign exchange each year, however, the government has no plans to reduce commercial logging. But it does want to take fewer trees from virgin forests, which now supply virtually all of Indonesia's commercial timber. By the year 2010, officials says, half of the timber should come from plantations. Of Indonesia's estimated 143 million hectares of forest land, some 18.2 million hectares are slated for protection as nature reserves. Logging will be prohibited on a further 30 million hectares, the government says, but this land will be open for other uses, such as tourism.
The policies, says Tony Whitten, a British scientist, "are improving all the time. But they aren't accelerating fast enough to deal with the underlying problems." Indonesian officials say they are doing the best they can. Herman Haeruman, head of the National Planning Bureau (BAPPENAS), contends, "We try to be very pragmatic. But as with any developing country, our problem is implementation. We need more money." Moreover, he maintains, "It is poverty that is destroying the forests. If we manage the trickle-down effect, from [logging] companies to the people, that might reduce forest destruction."
There is no evidence on Siberut to support Haeruman's view, however. Thanks in part to contact with loggers, but also as a result of government policies, the lives of the Mentawai have certainly changed. But they do not appear to have improved. Instead, their economic security is diminishing as better- educated and more worldly outsiders profit from Siberut's natural wealth.
In 1954, as part of a modernization campaign, the government of a newly independent Indonesia banned indigenous religion on Siberut, forcing people to choose between Christianity and Islam. The Mentawai were ordered to leave their traditional homes and to move into new villages, consisting of government- designed huts and situated for the convenience of the officials in charge of the modernization effort. Primary schools were built in nearly every big village, and Siberut was included in the long list of remote islands to which doctors from Java were supposed to be sent. There was no attempt, however, to help the Mentawai benefit from the economic changes that soon occurred on Siberut. Says Bintoro Wisnu, a member of the Indonesian environmental group SKEPHI, the Non-Governmental Network for Forest Conservation in Indonesia, "The Indonesian government doesn't pay attention to the forest people. Its priority is investors, local and international."
Today, the lopsided results of this policy are apparent everywhere. The Mentawai have been virtually shut out of the timber industry, and work only as low-paid suppliers to the trading companies that exploit Siberut's non-timber resources, principally rattan. Yet they want money to buy modern things. A consumer culture is developing rapidly, obliterating a lifestyle and traditions dating back some 3,000 years. Less tangible than a timber harvest, this shift in human values and ambitions nevertheless represents a great threat to the rainforest.
Paying for modernization
Three times a week, a small ferry brings crates of beer, cartons of cookies and cigarettes and dozens of sacks of white rice to Siberut from Padang, the capital of West Sumatra.
The ferry leaves Siberut stocked full with long bundles of rattan cane and bags of cloves. These days, it carries a more unusual export as well: a special resin, called gaharu, found in only some of the island's ancient trees. Traders from Padang pay the Mentawai to search for gaharu, which is prized as incense in parts of Asia and the Middle East. Since a tree must be cut down in order to discover if it contains gaharu, the trade has resulted in the wanton destruction of thousands of trees. Similarly, the Mentawai have cut down so much rattan to sell that there is hardly any left.
Radios are common throughout the island and, where electricity is available, television is as well. Arriving at Siberut's northern dock, a visitor is likely to hear "Rock Around the Clock" and other 1950s U.S. classics blaring from a transistor radio on the beach. At Tiop, a little village three hours inland by canoe, visitors can stop for a beer and some chewing tobacco at the general store--then sit and watch "Wheel of Fortune" on a 26-inch television set.
Fewer and fewer Mentawai now go without Western clothes; only some of the older people stick to the traditional loincloth. The young also scorn the full-body tattoo, once a Mentawai trademark. Growing numbers of young men, and a few young women, leave the island to study or work elsewhere; some 600 now live in Padang. With its shops, cinemas and restaurants, the town seems a cosmopolitan center compared to Siberut.
For centuries, the Mentawai hunted only with bows and arrows, but today the young men use air rifles. They ignore, or never learned, traditional rituals surrounding the taking of life that kept hunting to a minimum. Now, thanks to modern weapons and modern ways, the rare monkeys and birds of Siberut are dying out.
"I would say about half the people on the island want to modernize their lives," says Yudas Sabaggalet, a Siberut native who left the island at the age of six to go to school in Padang. Sabaggalet himself, with his James Taylor t-shirt, sneakers and dreams of higher education in the United States, is a good example of the enormous cultural changes that are taking place. On his rare visits home, the young man seems centuries removed from his mother, who speaks little Indonesian and spends her days in the forest harvesting sago.
There is widespread agreement that living conditions have worsened in a number of ways since the timber companies arrived. "Since the loggers came, the river has been dirty. We can't drink water straight from the river anymore," says a man named Asmin, voicing one common complaint. Yet the Mentawai appear divided in their attitudes toward logging. Some, like 20-year- old Amril, are angry that they cannot get jobs with the timber companies, because they want to make money. "I would like to buy a car," says Amril. "It would be so easy to visit my cousin in the next village." Currently, Amril makes the trip on foot, or hitches a ride on a timber company truck. He talks of having electricity, so that his house, like those in the logging camp nearby, could be lit at night. "I don't like the idea of cutting down the forest," the young man says, "but the company is doing it slowly and plans to replant."
The timber companies hire very few Mentawai, claiming that they are unable to keep up with the work routine. "They show up when they need money, then disappear into the forests for weeks," complains Miruwan Hamta, assistant to the director at P.T. Cirebon Agung. Of the company's 250 workers, only 20 are Mentawai. However, at the government's suggestion, the company has "helped" the Mentawai, Hamta claims. "Every month we donate 200 liters of benzene to the village leaders, and every year since 1973 we have donated for a small party to celebrate independence day." The company has also built schools and dormitories for students, she says.
While logging continues unabated on Siberut, the government is stepping up its efforts to attract non-timber industries to the island. One scheme to replace about half the forest with a palm oil plantation was recently aborted, perhaps as a result of pressure from Indonesian and foreign environmentalists. But the chair of West Sumatra's development planning board leaves no doubt that the government has plenty of other projects planned. "We must accelerate development on Siberut," the chair, Rustian Kamaluddin, insists. "We want more funds to go to these islands, and we have presented a request to this effect to the government in Jakarta."
He gestures to a map on the wall. It shows Siberut as an almost unbroken expanse of green. But Kamuluddin, looking to the future, sees the island as a productive part of his domain. He and other local officials say they are looking for investors who will produce rubber, palm oil, rice and cassava on Siberut for commercial use. Conservation of the rainforest, so important to environmentalists, is simply not among Kamaluddin's concerns. Siberut's ecological wealth, insofar as it cannot be eaten or sold, appears irrelevant to him.
In Indonesia, where about 70 percent of the country is forest land, Kamaluddin's perspective is widely shared. "Land [for development projects] must come from the forest," explains C. Chandrasekharan, a consultant from the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization to the Indonesian government. The country's 1.7 percent average rate of population growth--higher in the rural areas--also makes it inevitable that tropical forests will be lost as communities grow.
Moreover, some of the issues that inspire rainforest defenders in the industrialized world have little relevance to day-to-day reality on Siberut or indeed, in Indonesia as a whole. The idea that tropical forests should be preserved because they act as the cleansing "lungs" of a polluted world, for example, is often countered here with the suggestion that industrial countries should concentrate on reducing pollution, for which they are overwhelmingly responsible. Likewise, the fact that tropical forests may contain plants that have new medicinal or industrial use does not carry much weight in a country where children die every day from diseases which could easily be prevented with existing medicines, and where industry is still at a rudimentary stage.
For Siberut and other Indonesian rainforests, time is running out. "Indonesia could have the best system of protected areas in Southeast Asia," says Silvius, of the Asia Wetlands Bureau. "It has a sensible plan--they've looked at the whole country and put priorities on the areas for protection." But the plans that look good on paper aren't being put into practice. Six out of the 20 "priority areas," in fact, have already been destroyed. Sums up the WWF's MacKinnon: "The problem is not with the policies. It's that the policies are not being implemented. There's a lack of funding, there's a lack of trained personnel, and I think there's a serious lack of commitment." But until they see economic alternatives to development strategies based on intensive resource exploitation, neither the government nor the people of the island is likely to exhibit that commitment. Articulating such alternatives will have to be an integral part of environmentalists' agenda if they hope to succeed in preserving the world's rainforests.