Forests in Southeast Asia Fall to China
By JANE PERLEZ New York Times
Published: April 29, 2006
LONG ALONGO, INDONESIA For as long as anyone can remember, Anyie Apoui and his people have lived among the majestic trees and churning rivers in an untouched corner of Borneo, catching fish and wild game, cultivating rice and making do without roads. But all that is about to change.
The Indonesian government has signed a deal with China that will level much of the remaining tropical forests in an area so vital it is sometimes called the lungs of Southeast Asia.
For China, the deal is a double bounty: the wood from the forest will provide flooring and furniture for its ever-expanding middle class, and in its place will grow vast plantations for palm oil, an increasingly popular ingredient in detergents, soaps and lipstick.
The forest-to-palm-oil deal, one of an array of projects that China said it would develop in Indonesia as part of a $7 billion investment spree last year, illustrates the increasingly symbiotic relationship between China's need for a wide variety of raw materials, and its Asian neighbors' readiness to provide them, often at enormous environmental cost.
For Mr. Anyie and his clan, the deal will bring jobs and the opportunity for a modern life. "We love our forest, but I want to build the road for my people I owe it to them," said Mr. Anyie, 63, an astute elder of the Dayak people. "We've had enough of this kind of living."
From Indonesia to Malaysia to Myanmar, many of the once plentiful forests of Southeast Asia are already gone, stripped legally or illegally, including in the low-lying lands here in Kalimantan, on the Indonesian side of Borneo. Only about half of Borneo's original forests remain.
Those forests that do remain, like the magnificent stands here in Mr. Anyie's part of the highlands, are ever pressed, ever prized and ever more valuable, particularly as China's economy continues its surge.
Over all, Indonesia says it expects China to invest $30 billion in the next decade, a big infusion of capital that contrasts with the declining investment by American companies here and in the region.
Much of that Chinese investment is aimed at the extractive industries and infrastructure like refineries, railroads and toll roads to help speed the flow of Indonesia's plentiful coal, oil, gas, timber and palm oil to China's ports.
In one of the latest deals, on April 19, Indonesia announced that China had placed a $1 billion rush order for a million cubic yards of a prized reddish-brown hardwood, called merbau, to be used in construction of its sports facilities for the 2008 Olympic Games.
Merbau wood, mostly prevalent in Papua's virgin forests, has been illegally logged and shipped to China since the late 1990's, stripping large swathes of forest in the Indonesian province on the western side of the island of New Guinea.
The decision to award a $1 billion concession to China will "increase the deforestation of Papua," a place of extraordinary biodiversity, said Elfian Effendy, executive director of Greenomics, an Indonesian environmental watchdog. "It's not sustainable."
The plan for palm oil plantations on Borneo was signed during a visit by the Indonesian president, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, to Beijing last July.
Under pressure from environmental groups, the Indonesian environment and forestry ministries have come out against the plan. The coordinating minister for economic affairs, who goes by the single name Boediono, said in April that he was still weighing the pros and cons of executing the entire plan.
The commander of the Indonesian military, Gen. Djoko Suyanto, whose forces are heavily involved in Indonesia's illegal forestry businesses, strongly backed the plan during a visit to the border region in March.
Certainly, there are profits to be made. Major consumer companies like Procter & Gamble say they are using more palm oil in their products instead of crude oil; palm oil is favored for cooking by the swelling Chinese middle class, and it is being explored as an alternative fuel.
Indonesia's environmentalists, and some economists, say chopping down as much as 4.4 million acres of the last straight-stemmed, slow-growing towering dipterocarp trees on Borneo would gravely threaten this region's rare ecosystem for plants, animals and people.
Maps for the project have aroused fears that it would encroach into the forest in Kayan Mentarang National Park, where the intoxicating mix of high altitude and equatorial humidity breeds an exceptional diversity of species, second only to Papua's, biologists say.
The area is the source of 14 of the 20 major rivers on Borneo, and the destruction of the forests would threaten water supplies to coastal towns, said Stuart Chapman, a director at the World Wildlife Fund in Indonesia.
For years, Mr. Anyie, the Dayak elder, said he had resisted offers from commercial contractors to cut down the forest around his village, next to the park.
He worked hard, too, to keep the old ways of life, which until 40 years ago included forays into headhunting, he said, showing visitors the skull of a Malaysian soldier stowed in his attic, a souvenir from the 1965 border war with Malaysia.
But now it is time for change, he said. "People have told me, 'Wood is gold, you're still too honest,' " said Mr. Anyie, a diminutive man with brush-cut black hair.
His own grown children have deserted the village for big towns, and the villagers left behind are tired of traveling everywhere by foot (three days to neighboring Malaysia where jobs in palm oil plantations are plentiful) or by traditional long boats powered by anemic 10-horsepower engines.
For those seeking to visit, the journey is just as arduous. The area can be reached only by light plane, a pummeling voyage over rapids in a wooden canoe and then a trek through tangles of trees and creepers.
A three-day stay at a research station deep inside the forest told what is at stake for the ecosystem, first documented by Charles Darwin's colleague, Alfred Russel Wallace, in an account in the late 1850's called "The Malay Archipelago."
Wild mango trees, tropical oaks, pale-trunked myrtles, sago palms, rattan trees and pandanas with shiny leaves like long prongs crowded the hills that rise almost vertically above the river.
Exceedingly tall and elegant dipterocarps towered over all, their green canopies filtering shards of occasional sunlight. Underfoot, tiny dew-encrusted green mosses, still damp in the afternoon, clung to rocks, and miniature versions of African violets poked their mauve flowers just above the ground.
Wildlife abounds, said Stephan Wulffraat, 39, a Dutch conservation biologist and the director of the research station run by the World Wildlife Fund. The forest is home to seven species of leaf monkeys, he said, and at high noon, a crashing sound high in the trees announced a group's arrival. A red-coated deer made a fleeting appearance and dashed off.
On the gloomy forest floor, Mr. Wulffraat, who fends off leeches by tucking his pant legs into knee-length football socks, has set more than a dozen camera traps to photograph wild creatures too shy to appear.
Three years ago, an animal the size of a large cat with a bushy tail with a reddish fur sauntered by the camera. Mr. Wulffraat, a seven-year veteran of the forest, said that the animal resembled a civet, but he added that he and other experts believed that it was an entirely new species.
The discovery of a species of mammal like a civet is unusual, but dozens of new species of trees, mosses and herbs, butterflies, frogs, fresh water prawns and snakes have all been found since the station opened in 1991, he said. "This field station has more frogs and snake species around than in all of Europe," Mr. Wulffraat said.
Until now, the forests at these higher elevations have been protected by their sheer inaccessibility. To get back to the coast from the research station, for instance, takes a 15-hour journey along a 350-mile stretch of the Bahau and Kayan Rivers in a wooden longboat powered by three outboard motors.
In contrast, the forests in lowland Kalimantan, where roads have been hacked into the land already, are so ravaged by logging that they will have disappeared by 2010, the World Bank says.
As the roads start penetrating the area of Mr. Anyie's clan, the upland forests will begin to disappear here, too. The solution is to adopt sustainable management plans, Mr. Wulffraat said.
Such plans allow logging only in specially certified areas, he said. But so far, he said, they have proved a losing proposition.
"In about 30 years," Mr. Anyie said, "the forest will be gone."
Muktita Suhartono contributed reporting for this article.