By Robert S. Eshelman
It took five hours by boat from Kepayang in the Indonesian province of South Sumatra to arrive at this remote river community, where most of the residents are illegal loggers.
Sembilang National Park is another hour by river to the north. South Sumatran environmental NGOs and government park rangers express fear at the rising rate of illegal logging in the areas bordering the park. They worry that unchecked the logging will soon encroach upon the park, putting its rich flora and fauna at risk.
It’s villagers from this community and others nearby that are threatening the protected preserve and feeding Indonesia’s massive market in illegally harvested wood.
An estimated $2 billion of government revenue was lost annually in Indonesia between 2003 and 2006 because of illegal logging, corruption, and mismanagement in the forestry sector, according to a 2009 report by Human Rights Watch. That amount dwarfs the annual budget of the Ministry of Health and could potentially provide health care services to millions of poor Indonesians.
[Caption: “I make six times the amount of money logging as I would working my small plot of land or even working legally in a pulp and paper or palm oil plantation.” An illegal logger explains the economic conditions in South Sumatra. Photo by Robert S. Eshelman.]
Big logging interests and corrupt officials benefit from the practice. But they rely on men like those living in this village to wield the chainsaws and bring the logs to market.
"I have a small plot of land, where I’m growing rubber trees," says the 25-year old man, who I’ll call Sigid. "I cannot make enough money from it. So I take logs from the forest," he says, nodding his head toward the dense groves of trees surrounding us.
[P]roperty sometime begins with theft, and the arbitrary return on capital can easily perpetuate the initial crime.