Documentation:Open Case Studies/FRST522/Illegal logging in Sumatra Indonesia

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Illegal logging in West Sumatra, Indonesia: The Barisan I Nature Reserve Bani Li - 31246127


Illegal logging has always been a difficult term to define, and the boundaries between legality and illegality are often blurred.[1] [2] It is especially difficult to define illegal logging in developing countries, which are often steeped in corruption.[3] The island nation of Indonesia is, perhaps, one of the most infamous examples of this. Indonesia, being comprised of over 17,500 islands,[4] is well-known for its unusually high rate of corruption and illegal logging.[5] [6] At least 40% of the wood coming from Indonesia's islands would be considered illegal.[7] The island of particular concern in this case study is Sumatra.

Sumatra in Indonesia

Sumatra is Indonesia's largest island, as well as one of the largest islands in the world. It is approximately 470,000 km2 in size, and at least 50 million people call the island home. Sumatra has many biodiverse rainforests, including several critically endangered species.[8] [9] [10] Unfortunately, like the rest of Indonesia, Sumatra is also plagued with corruption, and which has led to deforestation.[11] [12] It has been estimated that, between 1985 - 1997, the forests in Sumatra declined by 6.5 million ha.[13] In 1982, as a response to the increasing rate of deforestation, the Indonesian government pledged to expand and improve the country's network of protected areas, including several spots on the island of Sumatra.[14] Of course, considering the fact that much more forest was lost in the following decade, it is necessary to question both the effectiveness of these protected areas, and why they seem to be failing. The Barisan I Nature Reserve, located in West Sumatra, is a protected area which was established since the early 20th century, and a review of its history may shed some light on this dilemma.

West Sumatra Map

The Barisan I Nature Reserve is a protected area in West Sumatra. It was established in 1920 by the Dutch in consultation with local communities (formal written de jure agreement). [15] It is surrounded by the districts of Solok, Padang Pariman, Tanah Datar, and Padang. The goal of the Reserve is to protect and maintain the overall biodiversity in the area, as well as providing a sustainable source of resources for local communities. The Reserve has clearly marked boundaries, and the local villages would have been well aware of the Reserve for generations. The Reserve is a critically important source of biodiversity and water for irrigation for local communities. The Reserve is comprised of conservation zones and protection zones. Harvesting activities of any kind are strictly prohibited in conservation zones. In protection zones, the collection of non-timber forest products (NTFP's) is permitted, but no timber may be harvested.[15] In both zones, it can be seen that harvesting trees would definitely be considered illegal logging. However, it has been observed that local communities have been illegally extracting timber from the Reserve, despite the restrictions. Why would local communities knowingly break the law and harvest timber in the Barisan I Nature Reserve, despite their written contribution in establishing the Reserve in the first place? This is the question which this case study will attempt to answer.

In this case study, there are four identifiable groups of stakeholders.[15] The first group consists of the local communities. They helped establish the Reserve, and they depend on it for water for irrigation and NTFP's. They are also harvesting timber from the Reserve, even though it is strictly prohibited by law. Logging companies make up the second group of stakeholders. The local communities sell the timber to these companies, and the communities are paid according to their contribution, not by market prices. The third group of stakeholders consists of military and law enforcement personnel. They are responsible for the enforcement of the illegal logging laws. Finally, forestry officials representing the Indonesian government make up the final group. Like the military, they also want to make sure that the protection laws are followed.[15] For the purposes of this case study, illegal logging will be defined as "the unauthorized extraction of timber from protected areas, contrary to written (de jure) law."

Framing the Problem

In the case of the Barisan I Nature Reserve, the heart of the problem is not so much in a challenge for ownership as an overall lack of respect for the Reserve itself. In Indonesia, forests and natural resources are ultimately owned by the Indonesian State. This is a fact that none of the stakeholders dispute, even the local community. They know very well that the Reserve belongs to the State, and that harvesting timber is illegal.[15] The communities also know that they had a significant role in the establishment of the Reserve. However, this does not stop them from taking timber from the Reserve and selling that timber to logging companies. The local communities are in desperate need of cash, and this practice provides them with immediate financial benefits. However, the logging companies only pay them for their contributions, far below the actual market price of the timber.[15] Thus, the illegal logging practices of the local communities is unsustainable in the long run, both economically and environmentally. Both the military and the government are aware of this situation, but national laws have been shown to be ineffective at controlling illegal practices. At the time when this case study was conducted, the national fine for illegal logging was Rp 5 billion (>$500,000 USD),[15] which would be far too high for local small-scale companies to pay. Therefore, whenever locals are arrested for illegal logging, they are usually just given a slap on the wrist and released. The ineffectiveness of national law enforcement, coupled with the local communities' desperate need for cash, only ensures that illegal logging in the Reserve will continue, and most of the stakeholders will suffer. Only the logging companies would benefit in the end, and even that would not last long if the Reserve continues to be degraded.

Historical Context

The history of the Reserve's current ownership goes back to the colonial era, when the Dutch were in control of the islands. While the Dutch had been on the islands since the 17th century, control was relatively limited, and it was not until the early 20th century that the Dutch formally exerted control over Indonesia as it is known today. The Barisan I Nature Reserve was created in 1920 by the Dutch colonizers in collaboration with local communities.[15] During the Second World War, the Japanese invaded and occupied Indonesia, ending Dutch control over the country. Following the surrender of Japan and subsequent negotiations with the Netherlands, Indonesia was formally recognized as an independent country in 1949. During the presidencies of Sukarno, and especially Suharto, Indonesia flourished under a strong, authoritarian government. The forests were under the absolute control of the State. Under Suharto, Indonesia's economy expanded, jobs were created, and poverty was greatly reduced.[16] However, the Suharto regime, also known as the New Order, was very corrupt, and it frequently cracked down on those who disagreed with their policies.[17][18] Unfortunately, this came at a great cost to Indonesia's forests, as the government freely extracted timber and other resources from them.[19] Local communities would be forcibly extracted from their lands, and environmentalists would be persecuted for speaking against the Suharto regime.[20] However, in 1997, much of East Asia was struck with a major financial crisis, with Indonesia being hit particularly hard. The financial crisis, coupled with growing dissent towards Suharto, triggered a wave of public uprisings and protests, eventually forcing the president to step down in 1998.[18]

President Suharto's New Order was often steeped with corruption, and resources were freely exploited during his regime

Suharto's successor, Habibie, following threats of secession and greater demand for local access to natural resources, was quick to introduce the Regional Autonomy Law in 1999. This involved the decentralization of power from the central government and giving power to local governments over areas such as forests, agriculture, and natural resources.[21] Unfortunately, the rapid decentralization of power led to a lot of confusion as to the new roles of the local governments, and many people saw this as an opportunity to increase illegal logging, even in protected areas. Eventually, Law 32/2004 was passed, which restored much of the powers of the central government, while still granting local governments some degree of autonomy.[21] At the time this case study was conducted, the roles of the State and the local authorities were still very unclear. This current state of uncertainty fosters an environment where there is an overall lack of respect for the law, which encourages activities such as illegal logging.

Bacharuddin Jusuf Habibie introduced the Regional Autonomy Law, giving a lot of power to local governments



There are several important environmental implications to this form of illegal logging. As stated earlier, Sumatra is home to many endemic species, and some of them are critically endangered.[9] Protected areas such as the Barisan I Nature Reserve exist to protect biodiversity, and the continuous logging of trees, which is explicitly forbidden, would contribute to the loss of these species. This could have serious consequences for the future. In addition, the Reserve is an important source of water for irrigation for local communities. The communities know this, but they continue to log timber in the Reserve. Eventually, this could disrupt the water flow, which puts local communities at great risk.[15] While, at this time, the communities are not clear-cutting the forests, timber harvesting in the Reserve is still severe enough to cause concern.


This scenario has not been handled well by the government. As stated earlier, the State ultimately controls Indonesia's forests, but local governments are given some management power. However, because of the fairly recent downfall of Suharto's authoritarian New Order, these dynamics are still unclear, and this state of uncertainty only encourages local communities to continue in illicit practices. For now, though, it appears as if illegal logging cases are handled by the central government, with the Indonesian military responsible for enforcing laws and issuing fines. Unfortunately, the national fine for logging is Rp 5 billion (>$500,000 USD), and local communities clearly do not have that kind of money. As a result, people arrested for illegal logging are typically released, without any penalty. Why should local communities stop illegally logging timber from the Reserve if they know that they will not be punished for it? This shows that it is ineffective for the State alone to handle illegal logging. Local governments should be allowed to enforce illegal logging policies, and they should set fines that are appropriate for the local socioeconomic context, but still large enough that it will deter the communities from future illegal logging. This scenario only highlights the ineffectiveness of the State in handling local cases of illegal logging.[15]


This is the primary reason why local communities even dare to illegally log timber in the Reserve in the first place. The communities are in desperate need of cash, and they view this practice as their best means of obtaining it. The trees are sold to timber companies, who then pay the communities for their contribution. However, they are only paid for their contributions, and not according to market price, so it is a paltry income, at best. It is a quick source of income, though, and it gives the communities enough to live at the subsistence level. It has been observed, however, that communities tended to engage in illegal logging as a last resort. People would be less likely to engage in illegal logging if there was a steady alternate source of income. If communities are harvesting timber from the Reserve, it is a strong indicator that other sources of income are unsatisfactory to them.[15] It is necessary, therefore, to introduce these communities to good, alternate sources of income so that there would be no further need to sell trees from the Reserve.


In the end, the stakeholder group most directly affected by illegal logging in the Reserve are the local communities who are harvesting timber in the first place. They desperately need cash to sustain them, and this really is their best source of income. Again, they are paid only a paltry sum, but it is enough to sustain them on a day-by-day basis. However, their practices result in a serious environmental risk which could greatly affect their livelihoods. The Reserve is an important source of water irrigation to the communities, and it could very well be disrupted by continuous logging. Without water, it would be very difficult for the local communities to sustain themselves. This scenario would also encourage other communities to harvest timber in the Reserve, which would add to the problem. Ultimately, while selling timber does provide the communities with some cash, it will actually make them worse off, especially if water for irrigation is compromised. [15]


From this case study, there do not appear to be any cultural implications. This is because the Reserve was originally set up under the cooperation of both the Dutch settlers and local communities. This was done to ensure that the Reserve would only be comprised of unoccupied land, and that no cultural values would be violated. The fact that local communities allowed the Reserve to be set up around their lands, and that they are freely extracting resources, including timber, from it, suggests that the Reserve does not violate any cultural lands.[15]

Initiatives to Combat Illegal Logging

Steps must be taken at both the local scale and the national scale in order to stop illegal logging in the Barisan I Nature Reserve. On one hand, there are local factors such as poverty which influence the need to illegally extract timber from the Reserve. On the other hand, the confusion between the roles of the national government and local governments creates an environment where illicit activities such as illegal logging are able to flourish. If illegal logging is to be stopped at the local scale, initiatives must be set up so that local communities have a good source of income apart from timber. It is especially important that these alternate sources of income offset the opportunity costs of labour. Any alternate source of income that does not make up for the income gained through timber harvesting is often ignored, as it takes away valuable resources like time and labour which could be used for logging. This is why local communities rarely harvest NTFP's in the Reserve for commercial use. It simply does not make up for the labour costs of timber harvesting.[15] An increase in agricultural and livestock production could greatly reduce the communities' dependence on timber. Agroforestry, coupled with NTFP harvesting from the Reserve, has the greatest potential to reduce illegal logging. Through this practice, multiple products can be produced, which can then be sold in the markets. In addition, these two practices will require the help of the entire community, greatly offsetting the opportunity costs of labour for timber harvesting. This would provide the communities with a very good source of income without needing to harvest timber. As a result, pressure on the Reserve is alleviated, allowing it to maintain high biodiversity, forest cover, and wildlife habitat.

While agroforestry can help to alleviate illegal logging on a local scale, the State must also take initiatives to reduce illegal logging and effectively enforce these policies. Again, the dynamics of power between the local governments and the central State have widely fluctuated since the fall of Suharto's New Order.[21] Currently, the State is responsible for the enforcement of illegal logging laws, which has proven to be quite ineffective for local communities. The national fine is far too high for the communities to pay, so they are not punished at all. This would only encourage them to continue illegally harvesting wood from protected areas. Instead, it is strongly suggested that local governments and communities should be empowered to enforce illegal logging policies.[15] People would be much more likely to stop illegal logging practices if local communities are given the power to devise their own regulations and appoint guards. In addition, local governments should be responsible for setting penalties if these regulations are breached. Fines could be adjusted according to each household's level of income, but still high enough so that it deters offenders from subsequent violations. If more power can be devolved from the central government to local communities, it would make it much easier for illegal logging policies to be enforced.


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