Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Timber Trouble in Aceh

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Timber Trouble in Aceh

Article excerpt

To the thousands of homeless living here, the planks of wood piled high on the sandy dockside are a symbol of hope: new houses are on the way. But to the activists working to save Indonesia's vanishing tropical forests, the same planks spell trouble.

As Aceh begins to rebuild its battered coastal communities after the Dec. 26 tsunami that destroyed tens of thousands of homes, questions are being raised about the raw materials for reconstruction. Most pressing for environmentalists: Where will builders find the wood needed for new houses, schools, and fishing boats?

The answer, many fear, is Indonesia's ravaged tropical forests, including those that are legally protected from the logger's chainsaw. The UN warned Monday that reconstruction efforts in tsunami- stricken Asian countries posed a threat to the region's forests, advising governments to guard against illegal felling of trees.

Aceh is of particular concern. Its extensive rain forest is a treasure trove of rare species and diverse habitats. Campaigners in Indonesia are urging international aid groups to take note. One option on the table is sourcing certified foreign lumber for reconstruction and asking donors to send logs to Aceh as tsunami aid.

"International organizations in Aceh are bringing in lots of money. They should use part of this money to buy [imported] wood to help rebuild houses for the refugees ... and they should be aware of the ecological situation," says Elfian Effendi, executive director of Greenomics Indonesia, an environmental think tank in Jakarta.

Shipping timber to Indonesia may sound like carrying coals to Newcastle, but green activists are calling on timber- producing countries such as Australia, Norway, and Sweden to do just that in order to safeguard Indonesian forests. The issue has been aired at meetings between Indonesian officials and Western donors, but some critics remains skeptical that it will work.

Greenomics estimates that reconstruction in Aceh would require at least 4 million cubic meters of raw and processed logs over the next five years. Last year, Indonesia's legally permitted timber output was 17 million cubic meters, though its processing capacity is over four times larger (74 million cubic meters), according to Ministry of Forestry figures.

At least 70 percent of Indonesia's timber output is estimated to be cut illegally, much of it for export. Logging in Aceh, on the northern tip of Sumatra island, was banned in 2001 in response to illegal cutting. However, local officials have hinted that this ban could be relaxed to supply wood for reconstruction. Environmental leaders say this would pose a direct threat to the Leuser Ecosystem, a massive swath of rain forest along the mountainous spine of Aceh that is considered a biodiversity "hot spot."

"We must make sure that the wood being used for new houses is certified as coming from sustainable forests," says Dede Suhendra, a program manager at World Wildlife Fund-Indonesia, a conservation group. …

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