Timber trouble in Aceh

To the thousands of homeless living here, the planks of wood piled high on the sandy dockside are a symbol of hope: new houses are on the way. But to the activists working to save Indonesia's vanishing tropical forests, the same planks spell trouble.

As Aceh begins to rebuild its battered coastal communities after the Dec. 26 tsunami that destroyed tens of thousands of homes, questions are being raised about the raw materials for reconstruction. Most pressing for environmentalists: Where will builders find the wood needed for new houses, schools, and fishing boats?

The answer, many fear, is Indonesia's ravaged tropical forests, including those that are legally protected from the logger's chainsaw. The UN warned Monday that reconstruction efforts in tsunami- stricken Asian countries posed a threat to the region's forests, advising governments to guard against illegal felling of trees.

Aceh is of particular concern. Its extensive rain forest is a treasure trove of rare species and diverse habitats. Campaigners in Indonesia are urging international aid groups to take note. One option on the table is sourcing certified foreign lumber for reconstruction and asking donors to send logs to Aceh as tsunami aid.

"International organizations in Aceh are bringing in lots of money. They should use part of this money to buy [imported] wood to help rebuild houses for the refugees ... and they should be aware of the ecological situation," says Elfian Effendi, executive director of Greenomics Indonesia, an environmental think tank in Jakarta.

Shipping timber to Indonesia may sound like carrying coals to Newcastle, but green activists are calling on timber- producing countries such as Australia, Norway, and Sweden to do just that in order to safeguard Indonesian forests. The issue has been aired at meetings between Indonesian officials and Western donors, but some critics remains skeptical that it will work.

Greenomics estimates that reconstruction in Aceh would require at least 4 million cubic meters of raw and processed logs over the next five years. Last year, Indonesia's legally permitted timber output was 17 million cubic meters, though its processing capacity is over four times larger (74 million cubic meters), according to Ministry of Forestry figures.

At least 70 percent of Indonesia's timber output is estimated to be cut illegally, much of it for export. Logging in Aceh, on the northern tip of Sumatra island, was banned in 2001 in response to illegal cutting. However, local officials have hinted that this ban could be relaxed to supply wood for reconstruction. Environmental leaders say this would pose a direct threat to the Leuser Ecosystem, a massive swath of rain forest along the mountainous spine of Aceh that is considered a biodiversity "hot spot."

"We must make sure that the wood being used for new houses is certified as coming from sustainable forests," says Dede Suhendra, a program manager at World Wildlife Fund-Indonesia, a conservation group. He says there are already indications - but no proof - that contractors are using illegally cut wood to build temporary barracks for tsunami survivors in Aceh.

Home to some 4 percent of all known bird species and small populations of endangered Sumatran tigers and rhinos, Leuser is being squeezed by loggers and land-hungry migrants. Indonesia's graft-ridden security forces are widely accused of profiting from illegal logging, and their presence in Aceh, where they are battling armed separatist insurgents, has added to the pressure on local forests.

Indonesian officials say they are taking steps to tackle illegal logging and root out security personnel with a hand in the trade. "President [Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono] is intent on waging war against corruption and ending illegal logging. Military and police won't dare to do such a thing [in Aceh], because the president is watching this closely," says Alwi Shihab, coordinating minister for public welfare.

Last year, campaigners defeated a plan by Yudhoyono's predecessor Megawati Sukarnoputri to build a road linking Aceh's coasts that would have opened up remote inland forests to logging companies. But they fear that plans for 100,000 new homes in Aceh could give loggers renewed reason to plunder its forests and those of other provinces.

Here in Calang, a coastal town flattened by the tsunami, there's no shortage of wood for rebuilding houses and government buildings, but little clarity about its origin. Indonesian laborers say the planks stacked at the harbor came from elsewhere on Sumatra island, though local residents say that wood is also available from nearby forests.

Lumber prices have soared by 20 percent or more over the past month in Banda Aceh as the province gears up for reconstruction. Traders say most of the wood on sale arrives by boat from other ports on Sumatra.

Despite its appeal, importing foreign timber to save Indonesia's forests may prove unpractical, say donor countries. For one, deciduous timber is different from Indonesia's tropical hardwoods and would need treating for the climate. Builders might find it doesn't fit their needs, or match local expectations.

Then there's the math. "Our top priority is to get as much value as possible out of our money. It may not be the best strategy to import timber all the way from Sweden," says a Swedish diplomat in Jakarta.

Aid workers point out that wood substitutes like bricks and concrete are available and are preferable for larger buildings, given the risk of future earthquakes or tsunamis in Aceh.

Even the idea of buying overseas timber to spare Indonesian forests carries a risk for concerned parties. "Importing wood doesn't necessarily guarantee that the wood doesn't come from illegal logging, because it tends to leave Indonesia illegally and reenter with some other banner," warns Antonella Vitale, a shelter adviser to the United Nations Development Program.

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