Sorrows of Sumatra

Intensive deforestation in Indonesia – fuelled by corruption – is scarring the landscape and wrecking a vital resource. Andre Vltchek went to see the devastation.

Tin-mine pits are like enormous open wounds dominating the landscape of island Bangka, near Sumatra and only 40 minutes flight from the Indonesian capital, Jakarta. Even from the air it is obvious that the island is a textbook example of man-made environmental calamity. Only a few tiny pockets of natural forest remain, surrounded by rubber and palm-oil plantations.

The island of Bangka, home to around 650,000 people, is known for its white beaches. But most of these are now covered by garbage and exhibit the latest “cultural trend”: affluent young people and families bring their cars and scooters to the seafront and drive back and forth on the sand until late in the evening. Silence – once the last attraction of the island – is gone, replaced by the roar of engines. The beach, decorated by some fantastic rock structures, is now badly polluted.

Just a few miles across the sea from Bangka, a dilapidated hydrofoil (one of which recently sank) enters the magnificent Sungai Musi River, one of the mighty rivers of Sumatra Island. While I admire the surface of the river from the boat, a local student suggests I look between the trees separating the river bank and the interior: “Try to catch the moment – the opening. You will see, there is nothing left of the forest.”

One hour later, this black smoke and pop-music belching craft docks at the port of the city of Palembang. With 1.5 million inhabitants, the city is the second largest in Sumatra and one of the most populous in Indonesia. It is one of the most appalling urban centres on the Asian continent, with hardly anything to offer except a handful of Dutch-era buildings and several picturesque traditional houses on stilts inhabited by the very poor. Although located some 80 kilometres from the coast, Palembang is a vast seaport with huge vessels docked at the banks and in the middle of the Musi River. The river and the streams that feed into her are not just polluted, they appear to be positively toxic.

Inflated carcasses of dogs and other animals are floating on the surface of the river, together with industrial waste, debris, bottles and simple household waste. Palembang is home to oil refineries as well as cement and fertiliser plants. It sits in the middle of two major areas of unbridled deforestation on the island of Sumatra. While Indonesia is often referred to as the “ground zero” of climate change, Palembang should be considered one of its most telling monuments.

Isna Wijayani Lexy is professor of journalism at the Faculty of Social and Political Science in Sumatra’s Baturaja University. Hers is one of the few outspoken voices in this part of the world: “Illegal loggers can usually count on backing from the police, military, local government officials and thugs,” she says. “Media only cover raids against the loggers, that is, if there are raids. Even then it is very rare that journalists cover them on their own as they are usually short of funds and can’t just go up or down the river as they please.

“On this, as well as many other topics, there is news hegemony and no diversity in content. The local journalists dare not take risks. Journalists in Palembang only look for easy news and if they have been ‘serviced’ (bribed), bad or critical news will not be published. Money talks here, even when it comes to the news.”

There are plenty of alarming reports by local academics and international observers about the archipelago’s disappearing rainforests and unbearable pollution levels in all major Indonesian cities. But there are few sound analyses that link all the factors that make Indonesia, environmentally, one of the most battered nations on earth: corruption, governmental incompetence, the powerful position of armed forces and unbridled pursuit of profits utilising the easiest and often least-sustainable means.

Restraint was broken on January 29, 2010, when The Jakarta Globe reprinted an Agence France–Presse report on an academic study into illegal logging in the forest bordering Malaysia on the island of Borneo, which began: “The Indonesian military is deeply involved in the trade in illegally felled timber that is destroying vast tracts of pristine forest and contributing to global warming, researchers said Friday.” But, given the combination of state controls and the silence of the media, the public remains largely uninformed about the environmental and social disasters that are devastating their country.

Despite pollution, the River Musi is still one of the mightiest waterways of south-east Asia. The misery along this waterway is on a par with some of the poorest parts of Africa. Tiny villages and towns along the shores are lost in time, often cut off from the rest of the country. Upang town is built on stilts. It is an expensive one-hour boat ride from Palembang at breakneck speed and survives by supplying riverboats with fuel and food. Upang sits at the heart of the Musi River’s illegal logging trade.

Two young girls, Linda and Yanti, are working in a local eatery. “Each household has people who work across the river on ‘cleared land’,” explains Linda. “People from the entire area are working on ‘cleared land’, many doing the ‘clearing’ itself. There are no permits necessary and no taxes; nobody checks.”

The girls explain that their monthly income is 20,000 to 30,000 Indonesia rupiahs (US$2 to US$3). “My dream is to become rich,” says Yanti. “If I were rich, I would give alms (zakat) and then travel. I would go to Bandung and to Jakarta. I would visit the National Monument.” Neither girl has ever left Upang – not even to visit Palembang, 25 miles up the river.

The girls have no knowledge about deforestation. They know it only as “clearing the land”, something good for planting rice and palm oil. They had no idea what global warming is either. We ask the same question of several people along the Musi River and always receive the same answer – incomprehension and bewilderment on their faces. Rural Indonesia is extremely poor and underdeveloped and moral and ethical questions here are simply perceived as odd. Caring for the environment and the world are luxuries most impoverished Indonesians cannot afford while, for the rich rulers of this nation, they are simply not profitable enough.

As we sail across the river and slowly progress towards Palembang, the full horror of the deforestation suddenly emerges: hundreds of square miles of rainforest destroyed and replaced by tremendous bare plains; some areas still burning. There are bags with chemicals and bottles of spray scattered all over the earth. Even for those who are not experts on the environment, this could hardly appear to be anything other than unbridled, gross and brutal rape of nature.

At one of the epicentres of the disaster, Sawah Upang, we spot an old couple sitting in front of their house. They wave and happily explain their presence there: “We are from Palembang. Five years ago we bought the land here from other people from Upang. Now we have our rice fields here.” Deforestation? Global warming? They both smile, not comprehending.

On the way back to Palembang it begins to rain. Huge rusty cargo ships stand in the middle of the river like tremendous ghosts, while the factory chimneys regurgitate colourful smoke skyward, even in this heavy downpour. Streams bring brown and foamy liquid to the river. All around is misery, dirt and hopelessness – so common in today’s Indonesia but here, somehow, brought to the extreme.

Indonesia achieved the world’s fastest rate of deforestation between 2000 and 2005, with an area the size of 300 football fields removed every hour, according to Greenpeace. The country has already lost over 70% of its intact ancient forests and half of what is left is threatened by commercial logging, forest fires and clearances for palm-oil plantations. And the greed seems to know no bounds.

No matter how pressing, the environmental issues cannot be separated from the general and continuous decay of the Indonesian state – from its endemic corruption, impunity of armed forces, extreme breed of market fundamentalism and tendency to put faith above rational thinking.

Andre Vltchek is a novelist, journalist and filmmaker.

An earlier version of this article was published as: Andre Vltchek and Geoffrey Gunn, "In the Tropical Forests of Sumatra: Notes from Climate Change ‘Ground Zero,’” The Asia-Pacific Journal, 7-2-10, February 15, 2010. It is used here with permission.

Homepage image from Greenpeace