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A First-Hand Account of Illegal Logging in the Indonesian Rainforests

On a recent trip into the rainforests of the Indonesian part of Borneo Island, our team got first-hand accounts of the effects, causes---and the possible solutions---to rampant illegal logging.

Indonesia has nearly 70 million people living in or near forest land, many of them living on less than US$1 per day. Illegal logging operations cause widespread destruction of forests and, although it does earn short-term gains for a few, it destroys the livelihoods of people who depend upon the forests.

Just after we left, Indonesian officials cracked down on smallholder illegal logging in the region. But having smallholders thrown into jail is not necessarily a success. Many of these imprisoned are people living under a US$1 per day. They often live in miserable circumstances and are trying to make a living. They are not the buyers or the people who are driving the illegal deforestation. Undoubtedly, as soon as the police leave, new illegal loggers will replace the old ones and the long-term gain will still be missing.

Law enforcement is needed, but it must be done with smart planning and development---not by simply throwing people out or arresting them.


  1. Indonesia is one of the largest tropical timber producers, with an estimated 80 percent of timber exports being illegal. This poses serious environmental and economic concerns.
  2. The Indonesian government fails to capture over US$100 million per year in tax revenue on illegal logging and exports.
  3. The cheap and plentiful supply of timber from illegal sources depresses timber prices worldwide by 2 percent to 4 percent and thus also impacts the U.S. timber industry.
  4. Deforestation in Indonesia accounts for 4 percent of greenhouse gas emissions worldwide. And thus deforestation in Indonesia is a major contributor to climate change.

The field trip was interesting and the team I traveled with looked beyond short-term fixes and more towards better understanding the forestry issues Indonesia is struggling with in remote places and looking for ways to combine U.S. and Indonesian expertise to work towards solutions.

The delegation was led by Jim Hubbard, deputy chief for state and private forestry of the U.S. agency, and Dr. Togu Manurung, special advisor to the Indonesian Ministry of Forestry.

<p>U.S. delegation visits Indonesia forests</p>

U.S. delegation visits Indonesia forests

Our trip was part of a follow-up of the agreement signed in November 2006 by President George W. Bush and Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono to promote sustainable forest management, improve law enforcement, and build markets for legally harvested timber products.

The team visited several forestry operations---including a logging company, a national park, and a community---all deep in the interior of Borneo. At these places, discussions were held with local government officials, farmers, and concessions holders on legality standards, boundary and land-tenure issues, and Indonesia's new small-holder plantation policy.

It was clear that illegal logging was a major problem in this areas we visited. Small-scale illegal loggers and illegal saw mills were common scenes along the roads and rivers we passed. Besides the rampant illegal logging, the team had many observations from the field trip, including:

  • There is a lack of available forest information. There are no national or local overviews on the status of forests and the location of illegal logging hotspots.
  • Increased law enforcement does not seem to be a viable option. Bands of local smallholders are infringing on national parks and logging illegally out of the need for survival. Although these law-enforcement crackdowns do stop illegal logging, the social and human side should not be disregarded. A solution is needed to work with these communities to find alternative livelihoods.

During the trip, several possible solutions to achieve enhanced planning, law enforcement, and cooperation between stakeholders were discussed, including:

  • Community mapping. This would help local forest communities strengthen their cause through building reliable data.
  • Drivers and impacts. Better understanding of the drivers of deforestation and on the impacts and number of people depending on these forests for their livlihoods would help the governments better understand why illegal logging occurs and how to curb it.

As a follow-up to the field trip, the U.S. and Indonesian forest services are developing a program for West Kalimantan that involves mapping for better planning, law enforcement, and communication between various levels of government.

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