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Plundered for Wood, Java Bleeds in a Mud Bath

by George Quinn


Dr George Quinn discovers another sort of crisis in Indonesia -
where you can't see the trees in the forest, or hear the birds and monkeys.


Dr. George Quinn heads the Southeast Asia Centre in the Faculty of Asian Studies at the Australian National University.
This essay was first published in the Canberra Times on 27 November 2000.


In 1997 I visited two small religious sanctuaries on Mount Selok near Cilacap on the south coast of Java. The sanctuaries lay deep in an ancient forest surrounded by stands of majestic teak and mahogany trees. The forest canopy was alive with birds. Monkeys crashed through the foliage, from time to time making sorties on to forest paths to chatter at human intruders.

President Soeharto's New Order government had designated the forest a recreational reserve. The local police patrolled the reserve with their characteristic, and now notorious, toughness. Villagers came in to collect teak leaves for use as wrapping in local markets and they gathered fallen branches for fuel. But the trees themselves and the flourishing wildlife remained relatively untouched.

A month ago I visited the sanctuaries again. The buildings were still there, but now they stood alone in hundreds of hectares of bare, blasted landscape. The forest had disappeared. Scarcely a twig remained standing. The downpours of the wet season had not yet arrived, yet already the hills were scarred with erosion. Here and there a few pathetic plots of newly planted manioc awaited the coming of the rains. The animals and birds had gone.

I asked local villagers what had happened. They told me that last year, not long after the fall of Soeharto, a few people had ventured into the forest and cut down a tree or two. When no action was taken by the police more villagers moved in. Timber buyers offered them very good prices and, within a few weeks, a chopping frenzy developed. Feeling the merciless bite of Indonesia's economic crisis, no-one wanted to be left out. In less than a year the forest vanished.

"Where are the birds and monkeys?" I asked. "They're still here!" one villager replied leaning proudly against his new motorbike. Then a shadow of bewilderment passed over his face. "But we don't know exactly where."

In their defence, the villagers claimed that the forest was ancestral land and that the Soeharto government had quarantined it without their permission. They were simply reasserting their right to exploit their own resources. Timber prices were very good. They had to sell the wood before outsiders turned up and beat them to it.

And anyway, they added, who had the right to criticise impoverished villagers for chopping down a few hundred hectares of their own trees when Soeharto and his filthy rich cronies had flattened infinitely greater areas of forest in Kalimantan and Sumatra.

Soeharto indeed presided over a corrupt system, but it is fair to say that his government did more than any previous government to address Java's environmental degradation. During his 32- year rule, Soeharto declared national parks at the western tip of the island (Ujung Kulon) and the eastern end (Alas Purwo and Baluran) with a good number of parks and protected reserves in between. Plagued by corruption and faced with almost unendurable pressure from local people to forage in parks, government officers nevertheless made a credible attempt to protect parks and introduce professional conservation practices.

Now this flawed but admirable work is under serious threat. Spontanenous and organised plunder of forests on Java has already done immense damage. Java's forests are estimated to cover about three million hectares or less than 10% of the island's area. Of this only about one million hectares comprised wilderness forest. The remaining two million hectares are commercial forests, of which about a half are commercial teak plantations.

Since Soeharto's fall, gangs have taken advantage of the weakened authority of the police, moving through the island's commerical teak forests with chain saws.

In the region around the northcoast city of Cirebon, for example, figures show that 836 trees were illegally removed in 1997. This figure had risen to around 12,000 in 1999. It is estimated that in the province of Central Java alone about 1.2 million teak trees have been stolen over the last two years.

There is now a real fear that in the heartland of teak cultivation - along the north coast between Semarang and Surabaya - irreparable damage has been done, and many of the dry hills and flatlands of the area are destined to be permanently denuded of forest cover.

Java has an area comparable to that of the state of Victoria and a population of around 110 million. It is one of the most densely populated places on earth. Before the current assault on its forests Java's environment was already seriously degraded.

Its forests had been eaten away and its wildlife was under pressure. The matchlessly beautiful Javan tiger had become extinct and countless other species, including the unique Javan rhinoceros and wild ox, had barely escaped oblivion.

Now oblivion is back on the agenda. Java is bleeding.

The size of the problem has hit home hard in the past couple of weeks. The wet season is giving the island its usual drenching, but, unlike in previous years, floods and landslides are occurring with unprecedented frequency. Near Purworejo on the south coast of Central Java, 22 people died under a tsunami-like wave of mud that descended on them from the denuded slopes of an adjacent hill.

Further along the coast to the west, in the Cilacap area around the bare slopes of Mount Selok, flooding over the past week has smashed houses, killed livestock, smothered fields and left foodstocks sodden. In this small region alone, over a period of about one week, the damages bill is estimated at about A$250,000.

Neither the stalled economy of Java nor its desperate people nor the hard-pressed land can take this haemorrhaging for too much longer.


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