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Web-only Exclusives
November 30, 2000

From Our Correspondent: Hirohito and the War
A conversation with biographer Herbert Bix

From Our Correspondent: A Rough Road Ahead
Bad news for the Philippines - and some others

From Our Correspondent: Making Enemies
Indonesia needs friends. So why is it picking fights?

Asiaweek Time Asia Now Asiaweek story

NATURE'S CYCLE OF TORMENT

Assessing the impact of the Indonesian fires

By Yenni Kwok


FIRST IT WAS THE fires. Last year and this they destroyed great swathes of East Kalimantan forest land and blanketed much of Southeast Asia in smoke. Then the long-awaited rains finally fell. But they delivered floods. In early August, the town of Samarinda, which last year was threatened by flames, was under two meters of water, the worst in 30 years.

East Kalimantan governor Suwarna Abdul Fatah explains the cycle of torment his region is enduring. "The floods are a direct consequence of the fires," he says. According to environmentalists, the forest floor was so parched, the rain could not penetrate the surface. It ran off into nearby rivers, swamping a dike upstream from Samarinda. When the barrage gave way, the town was under a meter of water within three hours. Town officials are now worried that the rainy season, scheduled to begin next month, may bring more flooding.

Latest official figures say about 520,000 hectares of East Kalimantan land were destroyed in the fires, which burned almost non-stop from September last year to April this year. But Harmut Abberger, a Samarinda-based adviser to Integrated Forest Fire Management, says satellite photos suggest more than three million hectares went up in flames.

The effect on wildlife is still being assessed. The ever-dwindling population of orangutans seems to have been particularly badly affected. Experts from the World Society for the Protection of Animals (WSPA) discovered hundreds of these beasts stranded and starving in isolated pockets of forest, surrounded by a moonscape. "The situation is now critical," says WSPA director of wildlife Victor Watkins. "The plight of these rare animals has never been as desperate as it is now." The WSPA believes thousands of orangutans died in fires in East Kalimantan and elsewhere in Borneo and Sumatra. The East Kalimantan population is now put at about 2,000.

The Wanariset Orangutan Rescue and Rehabilitation Center in East Kalimantan has taken in about 200 of the giant apes since the fires began. Some were saved from burning forests earlier this year, while others needed treatment for injuries suffered when they entered villages and were attacked by residents. About 30 are to be released into the wild later this month in the hope they can start again. Gibbons are also endangered. With the size of their habitat drastically reduced, they may engage in territorial battles, further reducing their numbers.

It is not just the large beasts of the forest that have suffered. Countless smaller animals, unable to outrun the flames leaping through the tree tops, are thought to have perished. A Japanese study in fire-ravaged Bukit Suharto Reserved Forest showed that the crucial "insect index" had declined from 30 to five. The index measures the total number of insects of a given species in a stipulated area. Gone, too, perhaps, are some of the 60 types of plants that are unique to the rainforests of East Kalimantan and Borneo.

Before 1966, some 75% (or 144 million hectares) of Indonesia was forested. But the New Order policy introduced by president Suharto the next year declared all forests state property. Large-scale logging began. Now only 53 million hectares are left. The situation is made worse by the uncontrolled manner in which the forests have been plundered. The result: Plantations, timber estates, mining zones and reserved forests neighbor each other in a crazed patchwork. "There is no coordination between ministries," says Awang Faruk, head of the province's Environmental Impact Management Agency.

There were signs last week that the government is getting to grips with the anarchy. Development supervision minister Hartarto Sastrosunarto announced he had ordered a review of loans offered by the notoriously corrupt Reforestation Fund, which levies a fee on every cubic meter of timber taken out of the country. The money should pay for replanting, but there have been accusations that some of it was used for everything from financing last year's Southeast Asian Games to providing loans to a pulp and paper company owned by timber baron Mohamad "Bob" Hasan, a close associate of Suharto.

Some areas of forest land are showing signs of regrowth. But often it is just alang-alang grass, which is particularly susceptible to fire. Some experts say it will take the forests 35 years to recover. Others put the figure at 50 years, even 100. Whatever the time needed, many experts agree on one thing. Says Robin Hanbury-Tenison, president of the London-based Survival International conservation group: "The logging simply has to be stopped."


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