Kuala Cenaku, Indonesia (AFP) Nov 15, 2007
Head man Mursyid Ali stands amid blackened stumps, the remains of much of the rainforest belonging to this village on Indonesia's Sumatra stripped and drained in spite of local protests.
It's a scene repeated across much of Indonesia, where poverty and voracious demand for commodities -- coupled with corruption and poor law enforcement -- drive the destruction of forests.
Thanks largely to the burning of forests and destruction of carbon-rich peatlands, Indonesia is the third biggest emitter of greenhouse gases in the world, a statistic coming under the spotlight ahead of the nation hosting a major international climate change conference next month.
The December 3-14 UN summit on the resort island of Bali will see delegates from around the world -- including more than 100 ministers -- thrash out a framework for negotiations on a global regime to combat climate change when the current phase of the Kyoto Protocol ends in 2012.
Satellite images from environmental watchdog WWF show that only 25 years ago, the majority of Riau province -- home to Ali's village -- was covered in equatorial forest, one of the most ecologically diverse habitats on Earth and a vital absorber of carbon.
Today, four million hectares (nearly 10 million acres), or more than 60 percent, have gone. Land clearing, both legal and illegal, has made way for tree and oil palm plantations, logging concessions and small farms.
In Kuala Cenaku, the landscape has been denuded to make way for oil palm plantations cashing in on booming demand for palm oil -- ironically seen as a source of climate-friendly biofuel.
Ali's fight is with Indonesian plantation company Duta Palma, two subsidiaries of which were granted permits by the local district head from 2004 to clear the forests around his village and its neighbour Kuala Mulia.
The area was originally granted to state-owned company Inhutani IV in 2002, but public opposition forced the local government and the national forestry ministry to revoke the permit, according to the Riau head of Friends of the Earth Indonesia, Johny Setiawan.
Duta Palma got its concessions by promising to follow a local government regulation stipulating that it hand control of 40 percent of the land to the community and provide them with jobs.
Setiawan said the company has not kept its promises, clearing most of the land for its own use and causing severe fires and choking smoke. Villagers have protested to the local and provincial governments with few results.
"Who can put pressure on this company? The district head and the governor are the ones who can do it, not ordinary citizens like us. All we do is protest, but they accuse us of being anarchists," Ali told AFP.
"We cried and begged (the district head) to stop this company but he paid no attention," he said.
According to Setiawan, district head Raja Thamsir Rachman announced in 2006 that land clearing would be suspended until the dispute was resolved. But when AFP visited the site, heavy machinery continued to clear the land.
Repeated requests by AFP to meet with Duta Palma were declined.
-- 'Once it's open, you can't stop encroachers from coming in' --
Some of the biggest players reshaping Riau's environment and economy are pulp and paper giants Asia Pulp and Paper (APP) and Asia Pacific Resources International Holdings Limited (April). Each company produces an average of around 2 million tons of pulp in Riau alone every year.
National police have taken over an investigation into illegal logging that was launched in February this year, releasing a list of 14 APP and April partner companies as suspects.
April denies it is involved in illegal logging. Its Riau subsidiary, Riaupulp, is observing a "de facto moratorium" on cutting natural forests during the investigation, said its environment manager, Elizier Lorenzo.
April puts a lot of energy into polishing its green image and is acknowledged by many conservationists as being ahead of the pack when it comes to mitigating the environmental impact of its work.
But even the best intentions can fall flat in the often lawless and disorganised world on the edges of Riau's dwindling forests.
A proposed boundary of the expanded Tesso Nilo national park looks nothing like it should. In place of what should be a final refuge for endangered elephants and tigers, the land is stripped back, burnt and raw.
WWF and April have been in discussions since 2001 to expand the park from 38,576 hectares to 100,000 hectares.
In 2004, April built its own access road on the edge of the forest, despite objections from WWF, who argued the road would open the way for illegal land clearing.
"Once it's open, you can't stop encroachers from coming in," said Desmarita Murni, a campaigner with WWF, referring to small-scale farmers who take advantage of the access.
April promised to ensure the road would be guarded, but they concede this has not eventuated. They say they now have an agreement with local police to act as forestry officers in a new checkpoint system they hope will be ready by year-end.
WWF satellite images show that more than 12,000 hectares have been cleared in the area since then, much of it inside the proposed new boundaries of the park.
Encroachers on the road corridor to Tesso Nilo live simply, planting small numbers of oil palms, rubber trees or cassava. Most are reluctant to speak to activists and journalists.
Paris Gultom, a father of four from neighbouring North Sumatra province, moved to the area last year. He said most families in the area -- many from his home province -- live on plots of two to four hectares.
Paris bought his own four-hectare plot for 16 million rupiah (1,750 dollars) from a "community leader". He has the papers to prove it, but like everyone else in the area, he knows it's not all above board.
"If (land ownership certificates are) issued legally then there's money involved, from the head of the district or the head of the village," Murni said.
Legal uncertainty or not, Gultom intends to stay. Here he has land, he says, and with land scarce in his home district, it's an opportunity too hard to pass up.
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