Monday, April 23, 2012

The State of Sumatra's Forests, As Per Kompas

Over the past week Indonesia's "paper of record", Kompas, has run several front-page, above-the-fold stories about forests and protected areas on Sumatra, where I'm doing my PhD fieldwork.  These articles are the result of a one-week investigation in various places across Sumatra and highlight many of the problems facing forests and some of the challenges that must be overcome by conservationists there.  Kompas's reporting describes social, economic, and political issues relating to forest conservation on Sumatra (some of this reporting is based on information I gave them on background (1)), and so I'm going to summarize their findings in this post.  Please note that this post is pretty much all summary; I'm not including any of my own findings and am trying to curb my natural tendency to editorialize.  As a researcher, it is nice to see the area I focus on get so much attention, and hopefully the coverage will raise public awareness about the plight of the forests (and the people) of Sumatra.

The Big Picture

The overall issue is that the forests of Sumatra are disappearing at an alarming rate.  Though this has been happening for some time and has gotten a lot of attention in various media and in the academy, the Kompas reporting really ties everything together nicely with some good figures.  They compile data for all the provinces of Sumatra for some staggering annual rates of forest destruction: Aceh 32,156 hectares/year; North Sumatra 44,099ha/year; Riau 191,336ha/year; West Sumatra 37,391ha/year; Jambi 76,522ha/year; Bengkulu 3,337ha/year; Lampung 1,205ha/year; South Sumatra 18,875ha/year; Bangka Belitung 10,070ha/year.  Now for most people, these numbers don't mean that much.  That's why I lifted the graphic below directly from the e-version of Kompas (no I don't have permission), which has dots of varying sizes which will give you an idea of the scale of the problem.  As everyone knows, big dots mean big problems.  To give you an idea of how the rate relates to the actual size of the forest, according to Kompas in Jambi (where I live) there used to be about 2.2 million hectares of forest, but now there's only about 500,000 hectares remaining.  So at a rate of 76,522 hectares of forests destroyed per year, Jambi's forests should be history in about 6.5 years. 

 Another one of the articles ("Taman Nasional Rusak Parah"; National Parks Critically Damaged) focuses more specifically on the national parks of Sumatra (2).  As you can see from the Kompas graphic I shamefully lifted without permission from the electronic edition, most of the island's parks are experiencing a significant degree of forest destruction, with the biggest circle (remember, big dots mean big problems) centering on Kerinci Seblat National Park, the subject of my research.  The graphic refers to "perambahan" (encroachment), but the article also discusses other problems, including the expansion of mining activities in many areas.  The article indicates that there are 40 mining operations in the Gunung Leuser Ecosystem alone (3).  Other pressures include conversion of forest and peat land to palm oil plantations, illegal logging, and illegal gold mining.

Why Are the Forests Being Destroyed?

Kompas describes a number of issues that are all pretty much interrelated, but I'm going to describe the separately.

1.  Intragovernmental conflicts.  As I've described previously in this blog, before 1999 Indonesia had a very strong central government under President Suharto (sometimes referred to as a "dictator" or "strongman"), but when he was deposed the new government decentralized a lot of power and authority to the district (kabupaten) governments.  National parks stayed under the central government's authority, but production forests and other protection forests became the responsibility of the district and provincial governments.  They are supposed to enforce the rules there and arrest people that break the law.  However, according to Kompas, the provincial officials responsible for protecting the forests complain that they don't get enough money from the central government to do the job.  They also say that they get no money to help guard the parks.  At the same time the central government insists that the provincial and regional governments need to do a better job.  In the words of Kompas, the different levels of government "lob responsibility at one another". 

2.  Conflicting priorities between regional and central government.  This problem is related to the first and impacts especially on national parks.  After all the power and authority were decentralized to the district governments, they started making their own decisions and charting their own paths for economic development.  Previously this had all been coordinated by the central government.  Now, though, there are over 400 districts, each with its own idea of how to move into the future.  On Sumatra one of the big issues is roads and infrastructure, as I've mentioned in previous posts.  At Kerinci Seblat National Park, for example, there are at least 33 proposed roads which would pass through the park.  These roads currently are illegal, but many district governments are petitioning to have the roads approved.  The major problem here is that there is no mechanism in place to consider all the roads and the same time within the same decision making and planning framework, and so there is no way to come up with an integrated plan for the whole area (which includes 15 different districts).  At the same time roads are political issues, and anyone wanting to be elected has to promise to support roads through the parks.  As my friend Barlian, who is quoted in one of the articles puts it: "Ada 33 ruas jalan tembus TNKS yang diusulkan kepala daerah di Jambi, Bengkulu, Sumbar, dan Sumsel.  Isu jalan tembus ini biasanya menjadi bulan politik saja menjelang pemilihan kepala daerah atau pemilihan umum". 

Another big problem is that the district and provincial governments want to change the status of protection and production forests so that they can be used for other activities.  Under Indonesian law, even though the responsibility for guarding these areas falls to the provincial and district governments, ultimate authority over them still rests at the national level with the Ministry of Forestry.  Thus the types of activities that are legal in these areas is circumscribed by strict regulations.  The local governments would like to have more freedom to open these areas for other uses, like oil palm plantations.  For example, South Sumatra province wants to change the status of more than 459,000 hectares (about 12% of their total forests) so they can be converted to other uses. 

3.  Corruption.  I have also written extensively about corruption in this blog.  Forest resources have always been a big prize for corrupt business people and politicians in Indonesia, going back to the days of the Dutch colonial regime.  Kompas says that many of the problems stem from the fact that lots of folks in the government are collecting money through bribes and unauthorized charges (pungutan liar, PUNGLI) to issue permits for extractive activities in protected areas, or to turn a blind eye to illegal activities.  According to Kompas, many of the encroaching farmers (see below) are facilitated by corrupt officials that actual help organize illegal encroachment.  Moreover, village heads and members of regional and provincial representative assemblies get a piece of the action. 

4.  Lack of community involvement in conservation area planning and management.  Another one of the articles mentions that the plans to change the designation of production and protection forests (see point #2 above) is usually undertaken at the behest of big companies with a lot of money to throw around.  They want the district governments to lobby for a change in status so other activities, like mining, can be undertaken in production and protection forests.  The problem is that the approval process for big business rarely takes into consideration the needs and priorities of the people living in the area in question.  According to Kompas, land conflicts between local communities are increasing (I've discussed this in previous posts as well), and "in every dispute, small communities always become the victim, suffering losses of land, property, and even life".  Moreover, because the people are not involved in planning and management, they have no incentive to use environmentally-friendly farming methods.  There are also many cases in which protected land is bought and sold on an informal and "black" land market, where again it is common for corrupt officials and politicians to get a cut of the action. 

What are the Results?

This is another topic I've discussed in previous posts.  Apart from the obvious, though, there are a number of really negative impacts.  One of these is increased human-animal conflicts.  The protected areas of Sumatra are home to lots of rare and endangered species, including the sun bear and Sumatran tiger.  These species need lots of room to wander and find food, but the increasing forest destruction cuts into their habitat, and so as a result there are more encounters (supposedly) between people and animals.  In one of the Kompas articles HarimauKita ("Our Tigers", an NGO) data is cited stating that between 1998 and 2012 there have been 560 conflicts between tigers and people.  In these conflicts 57 people have died and 46 tigers have been killed (4).

In addition there are all sorts of direct impacts of deforestation and other forms of forest degradation.  Sumatra is pretty mountainous, and much of the land that is protected is that way not only for species protection, but because the slopes are so steep that if you take the trees away it will increase erosion and undermine the stability of the slopes, resulting in increased flooding and landslides.  One of the Kompas articles points to Aceh, citing data between 2007-2010 to come to the conclusion that flooding and landslides are occurring with alarming increasing frequency.  In 2007 there were 46 and 12 floods and landslides, respectively.  In 2008 these increased to 170 and 37; 2009 was 213 and 56, and in 2010 there were 250 floods and 47 landslides.  So Kompas suggests that high levels of deforestation are having immediate and critical impacts on people all over the region. 

Hats off to Kompas for their in depth coverage of these issues.  There is a lot of good information in these articles and they are a good general introduction to what is going on with forests on the island of Sumatra.  If you'd like more information about any of these issues, you can use the search function on the sidebar of this blog, because I've written about most of them in the past and will continue to discuss them in the future.  And if you happen to work for Kompas, please tell the Cincin Api expedition guys to send me my t-shirt. 


(1)  I met the members of Kompas's Cincin Api (Ring of Fire) reporting expedition one day when I was out in the field with my assistant near Gunung Tujuh.  They interviewed me on camera and I told them all about the differences between Hawaiian volcanoes and those found in Indonesia.  I also told them a little bit about my project and findings, but I asked not to have my name linked to anything. 

(2)  According to the Kompas articles, Indonesia has a total of 43 terrestrial national parks, covering 12.3 million hectares.  30% of this coverage is in damaged condition. 

(3)  Gunung Leuser Ecosystem is a larger area that includes the large park, Gunung Leuser National Park, and a significant amount of supporting area around the park, though Kompas doesn't seem to distinguish between the two designations. 

(4)  Though most sources say that animal conflicts are increasing, I have read sources and accounts from decades ago indicating that it would not be abnormal to have 57 tiger fatalities in one year in one province alone.  But remember, decades ago. 

References and For Further Reading

"Hutan Sumatera Semakin Kritis".  Kompas 4/16/12

"'Ngaku' Miskin, Punya Lahan 100 Hektar".  Kompas 4/16/12

"Ahli Fungsi Hutan Lahirkan Konflik".  Kompas 4/17/12

"Taman Nasional Rusak Para".  Kompas 4/19/12

"Lampu Kuning Dari Hutan Bengkulu".  Kompas 4/19/12

"Kerusakan Hutan Terabaikan".  Kompas 4/20/12

"Masyarakat Penyangga Tidak Pernah Dilibatkan".  Kompas 4/21/12

"Hutan Yang Tersisa Pun Terus Tergerus".  Kompas 4/21/12


  1. Thank you for making people aware of this serious environmental issue. Unfortunately this is a common problem seen throughout the world. I'm appalled when I see governments like Sumatra take no consideration of the consequences imposed on the environment because of greed.

  2. Is the Kompas “paper of record” their local newspaper? If so I am pretty amazed that they would publish so publically about government issues and corruption. It’s great to have reporters talking about real issues without bias. How great to be supported by the paper in a mutual goal of preserving these beautiful forests. Also it must feel pretty good to have been able to contribute to growing the awareness of this cause with your field research.

    1. Kompas is like the New York Times of Indonesia. As for corruption, they have a really high degree of press freedom in Indonesia, which is one of the things the budding democracy has going for it.