If you think this title sounds hyperbolic, you probably have not visited Sumatra lately. Before traveling here, I had heard stories about the oceans of oil palm that have been planted where rainforest once stood. But I was not prepared for this.
The first sign that something is terribly wrong came before our plane even landed. From 30,000 feet over the Java Sea between Jakarta and Sumatra, there was no sign of land or ocean below. Just a sickly haze stretching to the horizon.
Global climate change is usually an abstraction — a concept that must be imagined or made academic to understand. But here, it’s in your face, tangible and acute. Incredibly, Indonesia has become the world’s third largest carbon polluting country, behind only the US and China — and 80% of those emissions are the result of deforestation.
Stepping off the plane in Pekanbaru, the capital city of the Province of Riau, the assault on my eyes and nose and lungs was immediate. I actually had to suppress an initial panic that I would suffocate from the smoke. Our friends here later told us we were lucky to land at all, as air traffic would likely be cancelled again for lack of visibility. Shipping traffic from Singapore is sometimes similarly interrupted by the intensity of the smog. Our hosts laughed a little uncomfortably, explaining that before the vast deforestation of the past decades there used to be two seasons here: the wet season and the dry season. Now, they said, there are four: the wet season, the flooding season, the dry season and the smoke season.
The acrid air is the smell of burning peat. It is the smell of palm oil plantations expanding deeper into the heart of what’s left of Sumatra’s once vast lowland jungles. Sumatra’s forests have been so lush, so wildly productive, for so many millennia unbroken, that their photosynthesis has processed immense amounts of carbon out of the air. The trees have quite literally breathed the atmosphere in, sinking its carbon through eons of leaf litter, forming massive reservoirs of underground organic material that has actually built land dozens of miles into the sea.
These steamy, amphibious ecosystems swarm with a cornucopia of life. Elephants and orangutans, tapirs and tigers and every manner of bird and beetle the human imagination can fathom. The truth is, no one has any idea how many species used to live here. Scientists estimate maybe half the species in these forests have yet to be described to science, and with most of these forests now suddenly gone, we will never know what’s already been lost.
These unusual deposits are called peat domes, and Sumatra’s are among the deepest in the world. To make this land fit for industrial palm oil and pulpwood production, however, it must first be cleared and drained, marring the natural landscape with a matrix of massive canals. Exposed to the air, the peat begins to decay, and when it ignites, it smolders in unstoppable fires that open the flood gates of the reservoir, releasing catastrophic quantities of carbon back into the tropical air.
The clearing of these forests has been so fast and merciless, the land and its people are in a distinct state of shock. Both are still reeling from the ongoing assault while struggling to pick up the pieces. Already, what is forever lost is devastating. Many wildlife biologists consider the remaining populations of endemic Sumatran Rhino to be the living dead. Their habitat is too sparse, too fragmented and too disturbed, their numbers too few.
Yesterday I was able to visit a peat forest for the first time, and to witness the advancing edge of its destruction firsthand. To get there, we traveled ten hours through the night from Riau to Jambi Province, then four hours by car over horrendous dirt roads to South Sumatra. From there we rode motorcycles on thin trails through a barren palm oil plantation to the edge of the peatlands. We continued by foot on a rough trail along a canal dug by illegal loggers to remove logs from the forest. We arrived at the forests edge, battered, sweaty and spent.
Thrilled to see tall trees still standing, I could hardly suppress tears at the tragic effort it took just to reach them. Monkeys howled in the distance. An electric blue butterfly swirled around me. Spiderhunters, dollarbirds, and bulbuls flit overhead while giant crested treeswifts carved gracefully through the air. Then, as if on cue, a chainsaw began to roar just out of sight, followed quickly by the terrible sound of trees crashing through trees to the ground.
A few days ago we watched video footage of an 18 month-old Sumatran tiger slowly dying in a trap set by a pig hunter on an Asia Pulp and Paper (APP) acacia plantation a few hours from our hotel in Pekanbaru. He was one of the last of his kind. 150 breeding pairs are estimated to remain in the wild. These majestic animals have been pushed to desperation in their search for the basics of food, habitat and mates amidst a biological desert of palm oil and pulpwood plantations.
I would like to tell a happier story, but not at the expense of the truth. Indonesia is at a critical tipping point. But, as severe as the destruction is, all is not yet lost. Taken as a whole, a recent estimate puts Indonesia’s forest loss at 49%. Orangutans still swing freely through the canopy of forests in Borneo and new species of lizards and birds continue to be described to science in West Papua. There remains some hope for the struggling Sumatran populations of pygmy elephants.
And, as communities across Indonesia are struggling to regain their livelihoods and the future livelihoods of their people from being sacrificed for quick profit by companies turning the rainforest into international commodities, there are signs the government is turning around.
Feeling discouraged and distraught after our disheartening trip to the forest, we returned last night to the hopeful news that the Indonesian government has announced a potentially major new direction in forest policy.
Declaring the establishment of a new 89,000 hectares of community-managed forest lands and the enforcement of a decade-old provision of forest law that requires the government to identify areas within the national forest estate that are in conflict with existing forest community land rights, Presidential advisor Pak Kuntoro said that Indonesia’s president supports protecting the land of indigenous communities and that “this is our chance to untangle our convoluted past and make a lasting difference.”
People in the know seem to think the government may be serious this time. After his speech, Kuntoro said to Reuters, “Paradigm shift is imperative, from exploitation to sustainable and responsible use of natural resources.”
Indeed. More power to him.