Mega Project Spells Doom
for Kalimantan Forests
thousands of hectares of pristine tropical peat
forests in Central Kalimantan are about to be destroyed for a huge
rice development project which experts say cannot work.
The million hectare scheme, fully
sanctioned by President Suharto,
aims to convert virgin and logged forests, as well as absorbing
existing agricultural sites, into a vast area of irrigated
rice-fields, horticulture and plantations. Over the next three
years, it will destroy a huge swathe of forest rich in
biodiversity and deprive indigenous Dayak communities of their
livelihoods. Billed as a means to save Indonesia's rice self-
sufficiency, the project is a political ploy to boost the
President's popularity. As such, it has not been properly planned
and the grave consequences for the environment and the local
populations not duly considered. Despite this serious lack of
preparation, work on the project has already started. In January
this year diggers started work on the main canals which will drain
the peat swamps.
The project is also a huge
exercise in social engineering. Between 200,000 and 250,000
transmigrant families will be brought
in to work on the rice-fields and plantations. This means anything
from 800,000 to one and a quarter million people (depending on
what is taken to be the average family size). The transmigrants
will at least equal and very probably outnumber the local
population, making them a minority in their own land.
A sure-fire failure
The project cannot be successful,
according to scientists with
intimate knowledge of the area. This is because a large part of
the project land consists of highly acidic deep peat, which is
impossible to cultivate. Areas of shallow peat (less than 3 metres
deep), which are mainly along rivers and coastal areas, have been
converted to agriculture with some success, but only with large
amounts of fertiliser. This is no basis for assuming that deep
peat areas can be similarly cultivated, however. Indeed when tried
before in other countries, only two or three crops have been
possible before acidification (acid sulphate), toxification and
micronutrient deficiency make further cultivation impossible.(1)
The soil then becomes a black acidic wasteland.
There is a fundamental lack of knowledge about the
of peat swamp forests in government circles, with few people quite
realising the impossibility of developing deep peat areas for
agriculture. Worse, those who do realise that the project cannot
succeed and are in a good position to communicate the problems,
are unwilling or unable to face the task of telling the President
he is wrong -- and suffer the consequences.
Indonesia possesses the largest
area of peat in the tropics.
Estimates vary from 17 million to 27 million hectares, the higher
placing Indonesia fourth in the world league table of peatland by
area, behind the Former Soviet Union, Canada and the USA.
According to one 1988 study, the largest area of
peat is in
Kalimantan, followed by Irian Jaya (West Papua), then Sumatra.
Another two surveys (RePPProt 1988 and 1990) found that Sumatra
had the largest area, followed by Kalimantan, Irian Jaya,
Sulawesi, then Halmahera and Seram in the Moluccas.
Just over half a million hectares of peatlands have
used for transmigration sites and by local inhabitants.
About 1.9 million hectares of peat swamp forest has
gazetted as conservation areas including Berbak National Park
(Sumatra), Danau Sentarum Wildlife Reserve (Kalimantan) and the
Lorenz National Park (Irian Jaya). Much larger protected areas are
needed to maintain a viable peat forest since much of the best,
undisturbed peat swamp forest is not included in these reserves.
(See E. Maltby, C.P. Immirzi and R.J. Safford, Tropical Lowland
Peatlands of Southeast Asia, IUCN Wetlands Programme 1996.)
No international funding, no EIA
An indication of this project's
feasibility is given by the fact
that no international funding organisation will touch it.(2) One
reason is that no environmental impact assessment is being done
before the project starts. Although large projects are required to
conduct an EIA before going ahead, this project has been given
such priority, and the planned time-scale of three years is so
short, that the law is being flouted. Instead, the environmental
impact assessment will be done as the project proceeds, defeating
the whole purpose of conducting an EIA.
And this is a project that needs an EIA more than
Environment Minister Sarwono has admitted that "our knowledge of
the environmental risks...is still minimal..." (Media Indonesia
One major concern is that the peat types in the
have never been properly mapped, meaning that the project is being
developed on unknown terrain. Project decisions have been made
using maps based on aerial photos under the British ODA- financed
RePPProT mapping scheme. These maps do not correctly indicate the
land types in the peat swamp forests, however, and their use has
major implications for the feasibility of the project.
Scientists taking part in an international symposium
tropical peatlands held in Kalimantan last year warned about the
consequences of inappropriate peat development:
It is recognized that to secure
more tropical peatland may be developed for
agriculture. It is, however, imperative that only
the most appropriate peatland be selected for
development in order to ensure long term success.
Inappropriate conversion of peatlands can lead to
both economic failure and environmental
They stress the need for
sustainable development of peatlands
adopting an ecosystem approach and point to guidelines for the
integrated management of tropical peatlands being formulated by
the World Conservation Union (IUCN).
(Source: Statement prepared by
delegates to the International
Symposium on the Biodoversity, Environmental Importance and
Sustainability of Tropical Peat and Peatlands, 4-8th September,
Palangkaraya, Central Kalimantan)
Who is involved?
It seems that Indonesian
companies are also reluctant to get
involved in the project. The land drainage is being carried out by
the Salim Group, allegedly under pressure from the President. The
Group, Indonesia biggest conglomerate run by Liem Sioe Liong, has
been given to understand it will not get other lucrative
government contracts if it refuses this one. There was no
tendering process for this contract.
Meanwhile, the consultants will be the Dutch
Agency for Land Drainage and Conservation, Wageningen. The agency,
which should know better, has gone into the project with the
familiar limp excuse: "if we don't do it, someone else less
The costs of such a huge
development will be enormous. Draining
the peatland will call for an estimated 27,000 kilometres of
drainage and irrigation canals. Along with other infrastructure to
be provided by the government, the plan could cost between US$2
billion and $3 billion.
Since international donors seem to have shied away
project, the funds will be drawn from various national sources,
including the Presidential Fund (BanPres) and from the state
One of the major sources of funding is none other
Reforestation Fund. According to Forestry Minister Djamaludin, the
Fund's contribution will amount to Rp 500 billion (around US$218
million). In the past this has been used to fund projects totally
unrelated to reforestation, such as the state-owned aircraft
industry. This year, as last, it is being used to help balance the
state budget. But never before has the fund been used so blatantly
to do the very opposite of what it is meant for. Instead of
rehabilitating forests, it will destroy them.
The potential environmental and
social impacts of this mega-
project are proportionately large in scale. The peat swamps have a
very special and relatively little-studied ecosystem.
Potentially, many new species have yet to be discovered. In the
deepest peat areas of the interior, furthest away from the rivers,
the richness of fauna and flora is greatest. These forests are
home to at least five species of primates, including orang utans -
the highest concentration are now living in peat forests (probably
because their other tropical forest habitats have been destroyed).
More than 140 bird species have been recorded; six are in the Red
Data Book of endangered and rare species.
The so-called "blackwater" rivers found in the peat
have very unusual ecology with several endemic species.
In the rainy season a large part of the forest floor
is under water -- literally a swamp. When the forest floor is
flooded, the swamps become river fish breeding grounds in the same
way as mangroves are breeding grounds for ocean fish.
In the past, Indonesia has recognised the value of
conserving this unique forest environment with a Presidential
decree to protect deep peat areas (over 3 metres deep) from
exploitation. This clearly conflicts with the decree which
sanctions the rice-lands project and is being ignored in the rush
to develop the project.
The indigenous Dayak communities
who live in the area are
dependent on fish for food. They live mainly along the rivers, as
the forests are uninhabitable for much of the year. But they do
make use of the forests in the dry season when they go further
into the interior to collect forest products and hunt animals for
These communities will be severely affected by the
loss of traditional fishing and foraging resources as well as by the
influx of transmigrants of different culture to their own. In one
newspaper article, the former Central Kalimantan Deputy Governor,
HJ Andries, asked project contractors to go carefully when dealing
with local communities, their customs and sacred sites. (Kompas
8/12/95) But without the recognition of their customary ownership
rights, such words have little meaning.
The tropical peatlands are highly
acidic and in the shallow peat
areas alone, will require huge amounts of nutrients to make the
soil fit for growing crops. The use of such large quantities of
fertilisers is bound to take its toll on the environment, on the
river systems which provide fish and drinking water for
communities living in the project area, for downstream populations
as well as the coastal areas near the river deltas. These include
areas of mangrove swamps and may affect several existing and
proposed conservation areas on the coast. The population of the
South Kalimantan provincial capital of Banjarmasin, where one of
the region's main rivers, the Barito, reaches the sea, is likely
to suffer the effects of increased water pollution.
The peat swamp forests also act
as a natural buffer against
flooding in downstream areas. They do this by slowing down the
drainage of rainfall (which is extremely heavy) into the rivers,
like a natural water regulator. Without their regulatory effect,
the rivers will be much more prone to flash flooding, putting
downstream towns, villages, and agricultural land at a much
greater risk of inundation.
Huge amounts of carbon dioxide --
one of the main greenhouse gases
responsible for global warming -- will be released by the project.
Both forests and peatlands have the ability to remove or
"sequester" carbon from atmospheric carbon dioxide. Their value as
so-called carbon sinks has been recognised for some years by
climatologists. According to Friends of the Earth, on a global
scale, peatlands may well form a greater carbon sink than
rainforests, although they cover little more than half the area of
Because peatbogs continue to
sequester carbon over
long periods of time they have become remarkable
terrestrial carbon pools. Peatlands may well contain
between 329 and 528 billion tonnes of carbon. This
is three and half times the size of the carbon pool
of tropical rainforests...
(Peatbogs and Climate Change,
Friends of the Earth
Briefing Sheet, September 1992)
The Indonesian government's
conversion project will add to carbon levels in the atmosphere in four ways.
First, the forests will be felled thereby destroying their
function as a carbon sink. Then, when the peat is drained, a whole
lot more carbon will be released. At the same time, the drainage
will mean the loss of those parts of the peatlands which are still
actively absorbing carbon. Finally, the rice paddies will release
enormous quantities of methane, a powerful global warming gas.
Motivations: food and log security
So why is the government
determined to take such huge risks and go
ahead with a project doomed to failure? Why not first set up a
pilot project on deep peatland that has already been cleared (and
there are some areas like this) for, say, a small-scale ten-year
trial? The reasons are both political and economic. The loss of
rice-lands on Java is causing public concern as a decade of
national rice-self-sufficiency draws to a close. Since this has
happened largely as a result of rapid industrialisation on Java --
much of which has directly benefited companies belonging to
members of the Suharto family -- the President must be seen to be
doing something about it. The creation of rice-lands -- a million
hectares in Kalimantan to replace the million hectares lost on
Java -- is therefore an attempt to quell fears about food
self-sufficiency. This tidy calculation does not stand up to the
least scrutiny however. In practice, even in the unlikely event
that the full million hectares were successfully converted to
rice-fields, the yield per hectare would be far lower than it is
on Java. Rice production on Java is equal to the highest anywhere
in the world at 6 tonnes per hectare. The far lower yield on peat
(if possible at all) of 1-2 tonnes/ha would mean that to replace a
million hectares in Java, 3-6 million hectares of peatland would
The project will also serve to cover up the crisis
in the Indonesian forestry industry. A shortage of logs from Indonesia's
production forests has been hitting some of the downstream
processing industries which sell plywood and other timber products
on the lucrative international markets. Late in 1995 there was
talk of importing logs to make up shortfall.
In January the President put an end to those ideas, however,
saying that the supply of logs would be boosted by the Kalimantan
project. The felling of the forests is expected to produce some 6
million m3 of timber over the next few years. (The timber-based
industries have an estimated capacity of 44.5 million cubic metres
each year). By preventing the need to import logs, the project
therefore protects the nation (or rather President) from the
accusation that it needs to import because it has destroyed its
own forests. It is a tragedy that the log crisis should be covered
up by sacrificing yet more natural forests.
Current peat forest logging
Until now, logging in the peat
forests has mainly been done by
hand, along the major rivers and has not penetrated very far into
the interior. Some of the forest near the rivers has been clear-
felled but in the interior the logging has left canopy gaps which
could, in theory at least, regenerate.
One factor which has thus far prevented large-scale
logging is the much lower density of large-diameter, commercially valuable
trees in the forest which lie between the forest types nearest the
river and the interior forests which contain the greatest number
of commercial tree species, including the genera Agathis,
Dipterocarpus, Palaquium and Shorea. At the same time, the swampy
terrain makes access to the interior more difficult.
The forests also provide other commercial products
like latex, rattan, medicinal plants, edible fungi, and gemur bark used
in oil surfactants and anti-malarial products.
According to one source, the peat swamp forests
could have a high potential for environmentally sustainable management under
a suitable timber extraction regime. But changing the land use to
either agriculture or intensive logging, both of which are
non-sustainable in the medium to long term, threatens the peat
resource and its natural functioning. Once converted to another
land use, peat swamps have little if any buffering capacity
against further change since deforestation, drainage and
agriculture conversion bring about irreversible degradation.
The real motivation?
The fact that a huge area of
pristine forest is being targeted for
the project (rather than degraded land already available) is
perhaps the key to the true motivation behind this project: the
fortune to be made from logging the forests. It remains to be seen
which companies will be given the task of clearing the forests and
where the money they make ends up. One thing is certain: it will
not be used to help the transmigrants stranded on infertile lands,
nor the Dayaks whose forest resources will have been wiped out.
Notes (1) Toxification through
aluminium and manganese,
micronutrient deficiency in copper and zinc. (2) Foreign
investment has been mentioned in one press report,
but no further details have been given.
(Additional sources: personal
communications and press: Kompas
8/12/95, 25/3/96 Media Indonesia 1/4/96, GATRA 13/1/96, Jakarta
Post 29/11/95, Far Eastern Economic Review 7/9/95)
by Carolyn Marr August 1996
Reprinted with permission from
Down to Earth (August 96) P.O Box 3618, London N6 5PP, UK
Email; email@example.com PH; 0181 771 2904
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