The disposition of three Chinese-owned ships carrying illegally cut timber has become a test case of Indonesia's ability to pull together national and local law-enforcement agencies in Indonesia's effort to crack down on the logging industry. The ships, loaded with 885,500 cubic feet of raw logs valued at about $3 million, was seized off the coast of Borneo in November. They are being held in Jakarta's Tanjung Priok port.
Illegal timber accounts for 65 percent of Indonesia's log production. At the current rate of deforestation, the lowland tropical forests in Kalimantan - the Indonesian part of Borneo Island that supplied the logs to the Chinese ships - will be gone by 2010.
Forestry officials in Jakarta say they recognize the scale of the problem and want to act, but are frequently blocked by provincial officials who collude with illegal loggers and profit from the trade.
Since the fall of President Suharto in 1998, his centralized, military-backed regime has given way to looser political ties between Jakarta and the provinces, sparking a feeding frenzy in resource-rich areas.
"Instead of one Suharto, you now have 300 Suhartos, and all they know is how to rape and pillage the forests," says Timothy Nolan, director of a European Union-funded bureau that supports sustainable forestry in Indonesia.
One such area is Tanjung Puting, a 988,000-acre conservation park in Kalimantan that is home to one of Indonesia's last surviving orangutan colonies. Widespread logging and forest fires have damaged 40 percent of the park. Telapak, an environmental group, estimates that 10.5 million cubic feet of illegal logs are stolen annually from Tanjung Puting.
Officials suspect the logs aboard the Chinese ships belong to companies linked to timber baron Abdul Rasyid, who was elected to Indonesia's supreme parliament in 1999. Activists and forestry officials allege that Mr. Rasyid and his family oversee the felling of trees in Tanjung Puting that
are either processed locally or exported as raw logs.
The seizure of the ships marks a victory in the effort to crack down, but it has not been without setbacks. Last year, acting on a tipoff from forestry officials, local police seized a shipment of illegal logs from the park.
But it was a short-lived success.
"Unfortunately, after being detained for one or two weeks, they were released [by police]," says Wahyudi Wardojo, secretary-general to the minister of forestry. The logging resumed.
But this time, ministry officials enlisted Indonesia's Navy. The Navy then intercepted the three Chinese ships, which had just loaded cargoes in Pankalanbun, the port for Tanjung Puting.
The Navy impounded the vessels in Jakarta along with their illegal logs, far from the timber bosses.
National police were then brought in to investigate the exporters who supplied the logs. …