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Disaster of man's making now threatens Sumatra LAMNO - Cut Anita peered from the open flap of her sunbaked tent one recent day. She watched keenly as a carpenter hammered a wood plank less than five feet away. Another sawed a board in two, freeing the sweet fragrance of forest hardwood. Her new home was taking shape before her, and she dared not leave. "Someone else might take it," the doleful, wide-eyed woman said from the Red Cross tent erected on the concrete foundation of her former home, which was destroyed by the Dec. 26 tsunami.

As she picked at cold rice in a shallow plastic dish, she was serenaded by the clanking of hammers on zinc roofs and the whirring of electric saws. On this forsaken stretch of land on the west coast of Sumatra island, a private relief organization is undertaking one of the first post-tsunami reconstruction efforts. The Turkish-based group, the Istanbul International Brotherhood and Solidarity Association (IBS), is building 800 houses for tsunami survivors, acting months ahead of government authorities.

"Why should we wait? If we wait for the government, these people will die of heat exhaustion," said Bahrul, housing program manager for IBS, referring to hundreds of villagers who, like Cut Anita, have flocked back to the debris-littered plain, living in tents until their homes are finished.

The group's effort is laudable, environmentalists say, but for one problem: The timber for the new houses is being logged illegally in the mist-shrouded mountains rising in the distance. Home to monkeys, orangutans, tigers, elephants and thousands of species of insects and plants, the forests of Sumatra form one of the richest and most sensitive ecosystems on earth.

Environmentalists fear that in the well-intentioned rush to help the victims of one massive disaster, groups such as IBS are courting another. Deforestation increases the risk of landslides and flooding and damages the habitat of animals and plants, they say. The dilemma is typical of the difficult choices involved in rebuilding after a natural disaster.

"A new natural catastrophe caused by the reconstruction would be tragic," said Frank Momberg, the director for program development with Fauna & Flora International, a London-based conservation group with offices in Lamno and Banda Aceh, the provincial capital. "This is not helping the people. It is extremely shortsighted." Indonesia's tropical rain forests are the third-largest in the world, after Congo's and the Amazon. They are being depleted by illegal logging, forest fires and conversion to palm-oil plantations at an estimated rate of 3.8 million to 6.3 million acres a year.

In 2002, the Indonesian government banned the issuance of licenses for small-scale logging in Indonesia's forests, but some local authorities, asserting local autonomy, have nonetheless been granting them. In March, President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono ordered the licenses revoked after government officials said some of them had been used for illegal logging. Now environmentalists say they fear the licenses will be abused in Aceh by logging interests hoping to profit by the tsunami.

According to the World Wildlife Fund and Greenomics, an Indonesian research organization, at least 1.15 million, and possibly up to 4 million, cubic meters of logs will be needed over the next five years to rebuild houses, schools, offices and fishing boats in Aceh. More than 500,000 people in the province were left homeless by the earthquake-driven tsunami, which killed more than 220,000 in 11 countries. National government officials said they would follow guidelines about using only timber that had been legally logged or encouraging the building of houses using a minimum of wood. But the procurement process can be slow and cumbersome, and villagers are eager both for the wood and for the jobs that logging brings.

"Aceh has practically the only large remaining area of intact forest in Sumatra," said David Kaimowitz, director general of the Indonesia-based Center for International Forestry Research. "But with so many people out of work, and so much demand for timber for reconstruction, the temptation to enter the forest and cut down trees will be extremely strong."

Faced with the choice of waiting for guidance or acting, groups such as IBS have opted to act. Doctors Without Borders has almost finished building 140 fishing boats in Lamno. An hour's drive up the coast, Mamamia, an Indonesian group funded by the German and Austrian Caritas organizations, has begun work on 300 houses, though Caritas has stopped buying local wood until its legality can be determined.

In Jangut, a village in Lamno, local carpenters hired by IBS have almost finished 96 houses. IBS is building hundreds more in seven other Lamno villages. Cut Anita, whose name is pronounced Choot Anita, sleeps in a tent put up on the three-foot-high foundation that is all that remains of her family's house. Though the tent leaks when it rains, and she could move to a government barracks on a hillside, she says she would rather stay here. The tsunami killed her mother, father and only sister. Left alone, the 24-year-old clings to one bright prospect: "That's my future home," she said, over and over again.

To save the forests, the World Wildlife Fund and Greenomics have developed a plan to import timber from the United States and Australia, and some organizations are moving forward with plans to build houses of bricks, rather than wood. "Whoever comes fastest, that's what we want," said Bukhari M. Nur, 35, the Jangut village head. He said he would prefer homes made of brick, like his former house. But, he said, his old house cost $14,000 to build, while IBS is spending just $2,700 per house. So he and his villagers will settle for wood.

Besides, local hardwood is good quality, said Bukhari, a timber dealer until the tsunami destroyed his business. He used to truck lumber out of Lamno to Banda Aceh. Now, he said, he's pleased the wood is staying in Lamno, contributing to rebuilding. At the local sawmill, near the river that comes down from the mountains, the sound of wood being cut and planed breaks the stillness. Goats romp about the courtyard. A flatbed truck from Doctors Without Borders pulls out, laden with lumber.

Baharuddin, a sawmill manager, said the demand for timber -- and its price -- has risen since people began to rebuild. Some of the best wood goes now for almost $300 a cubic meter. "That's the tsunami price," he said, with a shrug. Supply is not a problem. The wood comes "from up there," Baharuddin said, gesturing toward the mountains, "and in the next subdistrict over," indicating another set of mountains. Local loggers say they are as busy as ever.

"As far as I know, you can cut any tree in this area," said Rachman, 46, who had just spent two weeks in the mountains felling trees and was heading back after a two-day rest. Rachman, a soft-spoken father of four, described logging as bone-breaking work. But it is his only source of income -- he makes $7 a day cutting one cubic meter.

At the Doctors Without Borders office here, field coordinator Philippe Aruna said the group now knows the timber for the boats it is building was illegally logged. But when members of the group began the project in March, they had no idea. The local shops were full. Then by last month, he said, the supply began to dwindle, and the timber they saw looked green, not seasoned. "We started to realize maybe it's not clean," he said.

At this point, he said, it makes no sense to stop. The boats are almost finished. The wood has been delivered. He pointed to a stack of lumber on the ground nearby. Doctors Without Borders is not in the boat-making business, but it does want to ease psychological distress. A major source of depression among the fishermen is a lack of work. "You come here and see the people, the fishermen, sitting the whole day, and they don't have anything to do," Aruna said. "One way to support them is to get them back to the sea."

Renate Korber, desk officer for Caritas Austria in Banda Aceh, said Caritas had suspended wood purchases until the sourcing issue was resolved. In any case, she said, Caritas is exploring the alternative of building houses of brick or stone, she said. Masrizal, head of Mamamia, said that the timber for the houses his group was building was purchased from loggers who harvested wood that fell during the tsunami. He called environmentalists' concerns "illogical."

"People are suffering," said Masrizal, 37, smoking a Marlboro and sitting on a plastic chair at the work site. "Before, plenty of local timber was exported from Indonesia and nobody complained. Now we need the timber for the tsunami victims, and people are protesting."

Posted in Environment @ 15 May 2005 by Jeroen · 'Blog' RSS feed · permalink

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