Tsunami relief, rainforest attack; aid groups conflict over deforestation and reconstruction
Tina Butler, mongabay.com
May 22, 2005
In the Indonesian subdistrict of Lamno on the island of Sumatra, rapid reconstruction from the December tsunami’s swath of destruction is taking place by several intrepid private organizations. The Aceh province was hit the hardest out of all the areas affected by the tsunami. At first glance, this efficient and speedy rebuilding of homes, schools, churches and fishing boats seems like nothing but a reassuring progression into recovery. Upon closer inspection however, it is becoming clear that despite the good intention of the relief groups coordinating these efforts, the response to one tragic disaster may only be facilitating another. In this region on the west coast of the island, various aid organizations are using tropical hardwood timber that has been illegally harvested from nearby mountains to build structures for the local people. These individuals certainly need homes and livelihoods, which will be facilitated with the return of their fishing boats, but by using materials that negatively impact the local ecosystem on many levels, the stage for a new disaster is being set.
Tsunami Damage in northwestern Sumatra
On December 26, 2004, a 9.0 earthquake occurred off the western coast of Sumatra in the Indian Ocean generating a tsunami, or seismic sea wave, that affected coastal regions around the Indian Ocean. The northwestern Sumatra coastline in particular suffered extensive damage and loss of life. These astronaut photographs illustrate damage along the southwestern coast of Aceh Province in the vicinity of the city of Lho’ Kruet, Indonesia.
Large areas of bare and disturbed soil (brownish gray) that were previously covered with vegetation are visible along the coastline.
A Turkish-based private-relief organization, the International Brotherhood and Solidarity Association (IBS), has begun one of the first efforts of post-tsunami reconstruction. IBS has beat Indonesian governmental authorities by several months in commencing construction and is in the process of building 800 houses for survivors. According to representatives from the group, local people cannot afford to wait any longer for government aid. They need help and homes now. Hundreds of villagers are currently living in makeshift tents and are eager for their new residences.
Where the aid efforts run into conflict is with the environmentalists, who have recently identified the timber for this construction as being logged illegally in the mountains above Lamno. The tropical rainforests in these mountains are among the most botanically biodiverse and delicate in the world and are home to numerous species, many of which are already endangered, including the Sumatran orangutan and tiger. Environmentalists fear that the mad dash to do the right thing by helping local people to rebuild will ultimately result in significant problems for these people further down the road, in addition to the organisms that reside in the forests. Deforestation will increase the incidence of landslides and flooding and reduce the already threatened habitat for endemic species.
Behind the Congo and the Amazon, Indonesia’s tropical rainforests are the third largest in the world. But between illegal logging, forest fires and conversion to palm oil plantations, Indonesia is losing forest cover at an estimated rate of 3.8 to 6.3 million acres annually. The government banned the granting of licenses for small scale logging in their forests in 2002, however, some regional authorities have been issuing them regardless in a show of asserting local sovereignty. In March, the Indonesian president ordered the revocation of licenses after government officials said some of them were being used for illegal logging. With the demand created by the tsunami, environmental groups fear the licenses will be abused in Aceh by logging interests hoping to profit from the disaster.
Orangutans only live in Sumatra and Borneo. They are some of the most endangered primates on the planet.
Photo by Jen Caldwell.
According to estimates of the World Wildlife Fund and an Indonesian research organization called Greenomics, between 1.15 and 4 million cubic meters of logs will be needed over the next five years for the rebuilding effort in the province of Aceh alone. Here, more than 500,000 people were left homeless by the tsunami. Indonesian government officials assert they will follow guidelines about using a minimum amount of wood, but the process of acquiring legal timber can be very slow, as is being proven in Lamno. Villagers are eager for both wood and the jobs that are associated with logging. Because the demand for timber for reconstruction is so high and with so many people out of work, there is significant temptation to go into the forests and log what is so desperately needed. Aceh still has a huge tract of forest and people see it as an ideal and convenient resource for getting their lives back in order.
Groups such as IBS have decided to take action rather than wait for government directives and guidelines. In Lamno, Doctors Without Borders has almost completed 140 fishing boats. Further up the coast, Mamamia, an Indonesian organization funded by the German and Austrian Caritas group, has started construction work on 300 houses, although Caritas has stopped buying local timber until its origin and legality can be determined. A representative for Mamamia claims the woods being used for their houses is purchased from loggers harvesting wood that fell during the tsunami. IBS is building houses in a total of eight villages in the Lamno region. Another Turkish NGO, International Blue Crescent (IBC), reported in a recent press release that it is planning to build 460 houses in four villages in Lamno. The organization selected Lamno because of the region’s relative inaccessibility and subsequent neglect by other NGOs.
With all this construction and consumption of problematic materials, environmental advocacy groups are devising options to slow the destruction. The WWF and Greenomics have developed a plan to reduce logging by importing timber from the United States and Australia. Other organizations like Caritas are exploring the use of alternative building materials such as stone and bricks but such materials have high costs relative to wood: a typical brick house costs about $14,000 to build, while IBS is spending only $2700 per house constructed out of wood. The local people want whatever material will be available the fastest so they can focus on restoring their livelihood.
The use of local tropical hardwood for building homes is not even the most economical use of the wood which can fetch close to $300 per cubic meter in international markets. Still, lumber from the forests of the mountains in the Lamno region to Banda Aceh is helping local people in the rebuilding effort. Both the demand for and price of lumber has increased since reconstruction commenced. In the virgin forest, supply is not a problem–not yet, as local loggers are as busy as ever. For many, especially with the temporary collapse of the fishing industry, logging is the only source of income. The average worker makes $7 a day cutting one cubic meter.
At the Doctors Without Borders office in Lamno, field coordinator Philippe Aruna concedes that the organization is now aware that the boats being constructed are made of illegally logged materials, but that group members had no idea when they initially began the project back in March. Last month, when the supply began to dwindle and the timber they were receiving was green, suspicions were raised and confirmed. Aruna asserts there is no point in halting construction now, as the wood has already been harvested and delivered and the boats are nearly completed. While this organization does not specialize in boat-making, but the group does strive to alleviate psychological distress — lack of work is a major source of depression among the fisherman. Aruna believes his organization is supporting local people by returning to them the opportunity for earning a living.
Other groups are making a concerted effort to ensure that their acts of aid and goodwill do not ultimately result in more harm than good for the people of Sumatra. The United States forest product industry, the American Forest & Paper Association, is joining forces and resources with the WWF and Conservation International to seek donated timber for the rebuilding effort in Indonesia. This partnership aims to help survivors rebuild their lives without destroying the already threatened tropical forests of Sumatra. Seeking donations of lumber from the United States to be shipped to Aceh for various reconstruction efforts, the alliance hopes to avoid further damage to an already devastated region. The uncharacteristic partnership is a direct response to Indonesia’s appeal for donations of building supplies, with wood in particular, per the government’s recent commitment to environmentally sustainable rebuilding. The three organizations are collaborating to arrange a maiden shipment of wood building materials from North America to be used for the construction of a shelter in Aceh. Additionally, the alliance members are courting sponsors from both the government and private sectors to cover the cost of shipping these materials to Indonesia. The initial shipment is a test for the partnership to determine and ensure that donated materials will be distributed appropriately to areas that need the most help with reconstruction.
Efforts like this are laudable, but will they be significant enough to stave off destruction of local forests and timely enough to meet the needs of local people? This predicament is characteristic of the complex and difficult choices involved in rebuilding after a natural disaster. Conservation groups view the hasty construction as short-sighted and warn of the serious environmental consequences of unchecked logging. Other organizations and those in the local logging business see a disconnect in the new criticism of the building supply’s origins, noting that wood was exported from these areas prior to the tsunami, but only now, when the wood is being used for something necessary and good, are people finding problems. Regardless, domestic timber harvested legally in Indonesia can only meet a small fraction of the tremendous demand. In the absence of imported wood, pressure will increase to illegally log the remaining tropical forests, threatening their existence and bringing only more problems to Sumatra.