Bearing Witness in Indonesia

by Rolf Skar

October 17, 2010

It was still dark in Jakarta when Greenpeace international executive director Kumi Naidoo, members of international media, and a few Greenpeace campaigners loaded into a single-engine plane bound for Sumatra, Indonesia.  I was fortunate enough to be one of them.

Thankfully, the morning air was gentle, so we rose smoothly over the crowded jumble of red tile-roofs, cramped streets, and high-rises of Jakarta.  Continuing northwest over the Sunda Strait, we could see Anuk Krakatoa, the “child” of the infamous Krakatoa volcano, bathed in dim dawn light.  But we were not in the plane to sight-see.  We headed north over three provinces in southern Sumatra to bear witness to the good, the bad, and very, very ugly forest destruction.

Heading north from Java to SumatraIt is an important time to bear witness.  As Kumi observed in a recent blog post, an emerging deal to set up a two-year deforestation moratorium in Indonesian can change history.  Done right, it could be the biggest climate-friendly initiative the world has seen.  Done wrong, it could subsidize rainforest destruction and dirty business as usual.  There’s a lot at stake.

Indonesia recently earned a world record from the Guinness Book for the worst deforestation rate.  That deforestation rate has made Indonesia the third largest climate polluter after the U.S. and China.  And, it is driving species like the Sumatran tiger and orangutan towards extinction.  Things need to change soon to prevent extinctions and the brutal social effects of a climate tipping point.

Our flight over Sumatra began with a view of Way Kambas National Park, a haven for endangered wildlife like Sumatran rhinos, elephants and tigers.  Having been logged in the past, the park is far from untouched.  But, like many natural tropical forests, it can heal itself over time if it is not damaged too severely.  Its full canopy stood out like a green island – it was easily to see why it is critical for the endangered animals that call it home.

Rainbow Warrior in the CloudsAs we continued northwards, a circular rainbow suddenly ringed our shadow on the clouds.  It seemed a sign of encouragement at a time when the Greenpeace flagship, Rainbow Warrior II, sailed to our east, temporarily barred from entering Indonesia due to political pressure from forest-destroying companies.  To paraphrase a Greenpeace slogan, you can’t stop a rainbow…

We soon saw what those companies did not want us – or anyone else – to see: huge swaths of forests and peatlands being sliced, drained, and razed to make way for palm oil and paper plantations.

Having worked on forest conservation for over a dozen years, I have seen my share of deforestation.  But, I have not seen destruction on the same scale.  Huge, sprawling, muddy expanses stretched to the horizon with perpendicular punctuatation by roads and drainage canals.  These wastelands utterly dwarfed the heavy machinery that helped create them where lush forest once stood.

There is something about the relentlessly orderly, geometric pattern of corporate palm oil plantations that emphasizes their vast size and alien nature.  The snowflake-shaped crowns of the young palms, pointed skyward in perfect rows, appeared like velcro waiting to snag the cottony clouds above.

Sinar Mas Palm Oil PlantationsNothing green could look less like the natural forest it had replaced.  Forest canopy, with trees of different colors, sizes, shapes, have winding streams instead of straight canals and irregular gaps and spaces instead of rows.  And, beneath the canopy they host a world-class diversity of plants and wildlife instead of a strict, unnatural monoculture.

The palm, acacia and eucalyptus plantations we saw belonged to notorious forest-destroyer Sinar Mas.  While Sinar Mas expands its plantations, it also makes the bizarre claim that it does not destroy forests.  “We should have been arrested if we had ever been involved in deforestation,” a managing director of Sinar Mas told Reuters news service last year.

Peat forest clearing by Sinar MasA different story was told by the brightly colored, one-armed excavators that gnawed away at forests as we watched from the sky.  The constant click of media camera shutters ensured that the story would not go untold.

What makes the story difficult to understand is that fact that – while natural forests and peatlands are flattened – plenty of lands lay fallow, unplanted and available for cultivation.  In addition, production of both palm and wood for paper could be increased through improvements in yield and efficiency.  Simply put, the palm and paper industries in Indonesia do not need to keep destroying forests to expand.  Yet, deforestation continues unabated.

Companies like Sinar Mas are now at a crossroads.  Their leaders can choose to repeat the mistakes of the past, pretending the world will stop changing.  They can pretend that environmental justice and economic sustainability are mutually exclusive.  They can pretend that the economic progress they so loudly tout for Indonesia will not be affected by the climate change they are fueling.  They can ignore the bold initiatives of Indonesia’s own president to reduce climate pollution and to begin staunching the loss of Indonesian forests.  They can do all of that, but it will be a costly choice to make.

The better choice is for Indonesian industry and goverment to join forces to seize an historic opportunity to fight global warming, slash deforestation and secure long-term sustainability for future generations.  Let us all hope for, and work towards that future.

for the forest,


Rolf Skar

By Rolf Skar

Rolf Skar is the Campaigns Director at Greenpeace USA. Since 2007, Rolf has contributed to international Greenpeace campaigns to stop deforestation in the Canadian boreal forest, the Paradise forests of Southeast Asia, and the Brazilian Amazon.

We Need Your Voice. Join Us!

Want to learn more about tax-deductible giving, donating stock and estate planning?

Visit Greenpeace Fund, a nonprofit, 501(c)(3) charitable entity created to increase public awareness and understanding of environmental issues through research, the media and educational programs.