Aceh goes wild about logging


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Shortly before the Indonesian province of Aceh on the island of Sumatra suffered its latest bout of violent conflict, John McCarthy from Australia’s Murdoch University was on the scene studying illegal logging. Perhaps as much as half of all of Indonesia’s timber comes from illegal sources. ’Wild Logging: The Rise and Fall of Logging Networks and Biodiversity Conservation Projects on Sumatra’s Rainforest Frontier’, which McCarthy wrote for CIFOR, gives the reader a clear sense of how illegal logging emerged in the area and gradually overwhelmed the communities’ traditional rules about protecting the environment.

As in many countries, loggers in Indonesia must get separate permits to cut trees, transport timber, and operate sawmills. To get these permits they must have good connections and pay public officials under the table. Typically, the loggers get permits for some activities, but then do things that go well beyond what the permits allow. Besides receiving bribes, district officials often prefer to generate revenues by taxing illegal logging activities, rather than restricting them. Wealthy businessmen hire logging contractors, build links to the forestry department, military, police, and district governments, and make deals with village heads. That results in a dense web of patronage that outsiders find it difficult to break.

Traditionally, customary village authorities controlled outsiders’ use of the forests. Nevertheless, the 1979 Village Government Law failed to recognize some traditional authorities and made others accountable to the district government, rather than their own constituencies. Many now feel powerless to keep out outside loggers that are well connected. In some cases, they simply let the loggers do whatever they please. In others, they allow the loggers to operate in return for small payments or for employing local people. While many village authorities represent their communities as best they can, others have effectively been bought, and are looking out for their own interests.

In the mid-1990s, the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) chose the area studied by McCarthy to develop a community-based conservation program, because it is close to the Gunung Leuser National Park. WWF tried to reinvigorate the traditional systems of forest management its’ presence gave traditional leaders that opposed logging a forum to express their views. WWF also tried to promote the production of resins, rattan, and other non-timber forest products, rather than timber. Some national and provincial level government officials supported its’ efforts. However, WWF failed to realize how strong the local logging networks were and could not offer local villagers an alternative that provide more employment or better incomes than logging. When the economic crisis and political reforms came in 1997-98, logging declined for a while, but more recently it seems to have increased again.

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Further reading

To request a free electronic copy of the paper or send comments to the author, you can write John McCarthy at: